Paris COP21: Seattle-style shutdowns or another climate cul de sac?
400,000-strong climate march, New York, September 21, 2014.
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By Patrick Bond, Tunis
March 29, 2015 -- originally published by TeleSUR, submitted to Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal by the author -- Looming ahead in eight months’ time is another "Conference of Polluters" (technically, the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, COP). The last 20 did zilch to save us from climate catastrophe. Judging by early rough drafts of the Paris COP21 agreement recently leaked, another UN fiasco seems inevitable
The “Coalition Climat21” strategy meeting for Paris was held in Tunis on March 23-24, just before the World Social Forum. I had a momentary sense this could be a breakthrough gathering, if indeed fusions were now ripe to move local versions of “Blockadia” – i.e. hundreds of courageous physical resistances to CO2 and methane emissions sources – towards a genuine global political project. The diverse climate activists present seemed ready for progressive ideology, analysis, strategy, tactics and alliances. Between 150 and 400 people jammed a university auditorium over the course of the two days, mixing French, English and Arabic.
It was far more promising than the last time people gathered for a European COP, in 2009 at Copenhagen, when the naivety of “seal the deal” rhetoric from mainstream climate organisations proved debilitating. That was a narrative akin to drawing lemmings towards – and over – a cliff: first up the hill of raised expectations placed on UN negotiators, before crashing down into a despondency void lasting several years.
Recall that leaders of the US, Brazil, South Africa, India and China did a backroom deal that sabotaged a binding emissions follow-up to the Kyoto Protocol. In “Hopenhagen”, even phrases like “system change not climate change” were co-opted, as green capital educated by NGO allies agreed that a definition of “system” (e.g. from fossil fuels to nuclear) could be sufficiently malleable to meet their rhetorical needs.
That precedent notwithstanding, the phrase “A climate movement across the movements” used here seemed to justify an urgent unity of diverse climate activists, along with heightened attempts to draw in those who should be using climate in their own specific sectoral work. The two beautiful words “climate justice” are on many lips but I suspect the cause of unity may either erase them from the final phraseology or water them down to nebulousness.
Unity – without clarity, responsibility and accountability?
Over the last nine months, since an August gathering in Paris, a great deal of coalition building has occurred in France and indeed across Europe. The proximate goal is to use awareness of the Paris COP21 to generate events around the world in national capitals on November 28 and 29 – just before the summit begins – and on December 12, as it climaxes. There was consensus that later events should be more robust than the first, and that momentum should carry this movement into 2016. (The December 2016 COP22 will be in Morocco.)
The initial signs here were upbeat. Christophe Aguiton, one of Attac’s founders, opened the event: “In the room are Climate Justice Now! (CJN!), Climate Action Network (CAN), international unions, the faith community, and the newer actors in the global movement, especially 350.org and Avaaz. We have had a massive New York City march and some other inspiring recent experiences in the Basque country and with the Belgium Climate Express.”
But, he went on, there are some serious problems ahead that must be soberly faced:
- there is no climate justice movement in most countries;
- grounded local climate justice organisations are lacking;
- we need not just resistances but alternatives; and
- there are some important ideological divisions.
Still, he explained, “We won’t talk content because in the same room, there are some who are moderate, some who are radical – so we will stress mobilisation, because we all agree, without mobilisation we won’t save the climate.” \For more than 15 years, I’ve known Aguiton as one of the most persuasive, committed radicals in Europe. And in New York last September, I remember the “c” word being used quite freely, partly prompted by the launch of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. So to me, the tone here suddenly sounded bland.
This unity-seeking-minus-politics was reminiscent of a process four years in South Africa known as “C17”, a collection of 17 civil society organisations that did local preparatory work before the UN’s 2011 Durban climate summit, the COP17. Actually, fewer than a half-dozen representatives really pitched in throughout, and the big moderate organisations expected to mobilise financial resources, media attention and bodies ultimately did none of these. South Africa’s “Big Green” groups and trade unions failed to take C17 ownership, to commit resources and to add the institutional muscle needed.
I watched that process fairly closely, and with growing despondency. The first choice for a university counter-summit venue close by the Durban International Convention Centre was found to be unavailable at the last moment, so my Centre at the University of KwaZulu-Natal became an instant host for the “People’s Space”. Thousands came but the messaging was vapid and virtually no impact was made on the COP or on South Africa’s own reactionary emissions policy. The final rally of 10,000 activists midway through the COP17 gave UN elites and local politicians a legitimating platform. Nor did we use the event to build a South African climate justice movement worthy of the name.
So my own assessment of the “state failure, market failure and critic failure” in Durban strongly emphasised the problem of excessive unity, without ideological clarity, institutional responsibility or political accountability.
At COP21, radicals outside and only moderates left inside
Maybe it will be different in France, because its movements are mobilising impressively, with projects like November 27-29 mass actions aimed at municipalities; a Brussels-Paris activist train; a “run for life” with 1000 people running 4 kilometres each from northern Sweden to Paris; the Alternatiba alternatives project with 200 participating villages from the Basque country up to Brussels, which will culminate on September 26-27; and on May 30-31, an anticipated 1000 local climate initiatives around the country.
Yet the local context sounds as difficult in 2015 as it was in South Africa in 2011. As Malika Peyraut from Friends of the Earth-France pointed out, national climate policy is “inconsistent and unambitious” and the country’s politics are increasingly chaotic, what with the rise of the far right to 25% support in municipal elections. Worse, French society will be distracted by regional elections from December 6-12, and with national elections in 2017, “there is a high risk of co-optation”, she warned.
No politicians should have their faces near these mobilisations, suggested Mariana Paoli of ChristianAid (reporting from a working group), as COP21 protesters needed to avoid the celebrity-chasing character of the big New York march. Al Gore’s name came up as one whose own corporate messaging was out of tune. But Avaaz’s Iain Keith asked, “Hypothetically, what if the president of Vanuatu came to the march – should we refuse him?” Vanuatu is probably the first nation that will sink beneath the waves, and the recent Cyclone Pam catastrophe made this a twister question. Without a real answer, Paoli replied: “What we are trying to avoid is politicians capturing the successes of movement mobilisation.”
Behind that excellent principle lies a practical reality: there are no reliable state allies of climate justice at present and indeed there really are no high-profile progressives working within the COPs. It’s a huge problem for UN reformers because it leaves them without a policy jam-maker inside to accompany activist tree-shaking outside. The UN head of the COP process is an oft-compromised carbon trader, Christiana Figueres. Although once there were heroic delegates badgering the COP process, they are all gone now:
- Lumumba Di-Aping led the G77 countries at the Copenhagen COP15 – where in a dramatic accusation aimed at the global North, he named climate a coming holocaust requiring millions of coffins for Africa – and so was lauded outside and despised inside, but then was redeployed to constructing the new state of South Sudan;
- President Mohamed Nasheed from the Maldives – also a high-profile critic at Copenhagen – was first a victim of US State Department’s cables (revealed by Wikileaks) which documented how his government agreed to a February 2010 $50 million bribe to support the Copenhagen Accord (just as Washington and the EU agreed that the “Alliance of Small Island States countries ‘could be our best allies’ given their need for financing”) and was then couped by rightwingers in 2012 and, earlier this month, was illegitimately jailed for a dozen years;
- Bolivia’s UN ambassador Pablo Solon was booted from his country’s delegation after the 2010 Cancun COP16, where, solo, he had bravely tried to block the awful deal there, and not even the Latin American governments most hated by Washington – Bolivia, Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua – supported him thanks to Northern bullying;
- in any case a jungle road-building controversy (TIPNIS) soon divided Evo Morales’ supporters, and in 2013 the COP’s progressive leadership void grew wide after the death of Hugo Chavez and the battle by Rafael Correa against green-indigenous-feminist critics for his decision that year to drill for oil in the Yasuni Amazon (after having once proposed an innovative climate debt downpayment to avoid its extraction); and
- Philippines climate commissioner Yeb Saño had a dramatic 2013 role in Warsaw condemning COP19 inaction after his hometown was demolished by Super Typhoon Haiyan, but he was evicted by a more conservative environment ministry (apparently under Washington’s thumb) just before the Lima COP in 2014.
If you are serious about climate justice, the message from these COP experiences is unmistakeable: going inside is suicide.
Framing for failure
It is for this reason that the original protest narrative suggestions that CAN’s Mark Raven proposed here were generally seen as too reformist. Acknowledging the obvious – “People losing faith in the broken system, corporations sabotaging change” and “We need a just transition” – his network then offered these as favoured headline memes: “Showdown in 2015 leads to a vision of just transition to fossil-free world” and “Paris is where the world decides to end fossil fuel age.”
Yet with no real prospects of reform, the more militant activists were dissatisfied. Nnimmo Bassey from Oilwatch International was adamant, “We need not merely a just transition, but an immediate transition: keep the oil in the soil, the coal in the hole, the tar sands in the land and the fracking shale gas under the grass.” That, after all, is what grassroots activists are mobilising for.
Added Nicola Bullard: “This narrative is too optimistic especially in terms of what will surely be seen as a failed COP21.” Bullard was a core Focus on the Global South activist in the 2007 Bali COP13 when Climate Justice Now! was formed based on five principles:
- reduced consumption;
- huge financial transfers from North to South based on historical responsibility and ecological debt for adaptation and mitigation costs paid for by redirecting military budgets, innovative taxes and debt cancellation;
- leaving fossil fuels in the ground and investing in appropriate energy efficiency and safe, clean and community-led renewable energy;
- rights-based resource conservation that enforces Indigenous land rights and promotes peoples’ sovereignty over energy, forests, land and water; and
- sustainable family farming, fishing and peoples’ food sovereignty.
Just as valid today, these principles were further fleshed out at the April 2010 World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Bolivia, to include emissions cut targets – 45% below 1990 levels in the advanced capitalist economies by 2020 – plus a climate tribunal and the decommissioning of destructive carbon markets which have proven incapable of fair, rational and non-corrupt trading. Dating to well before the CJN! split from CAN in Bali, that latter fantasy – letting bankers determine the fate of the planet by privatising the air – remains one of the main dividing lines between the two ideologies: climate justice or climate action.
New York as a positive example
A unity project is by no means impossible, and these are extremely talented organisers. The world was left with the impression of vibrant climate mobilisation in far more difficult conditions last September 21, after all. Cindi Weisner from Grassroots Global Justice Alliance reflected on the New York march, reminding of how broad-front building entailed surprising trust emerging between groups – leftists at the base, big unions, Big Green – whose leaders in prior years would not have even greeted each other.
From Avaaz, Keith reminded us of the impressive New York numbers: 400,000 people on the streets including 50,000 students; 1574 organisations involved including 80 unions; another 300,000 people at 2650 events around the world; three tweets/second and 8.8 million Facebook impressions with 700,000 likes/shares. The next day’s Flood Wall Street action was surely the most dynamic moment, what with the financial core of fossil capitalism under the spotlight of several thousand protesters.
But with corporate and UN summits following the big New York march and without escalation afterwards, the elites’ spin was dominant and ridiculously misleading. US President Barack Obama told the heads of state who gathered two days later: “Our citizens keep marching. We have to answer the call.” Needless to say the UN summit’s answer was null and void from the standpoint of respecting a minimal scientific insistence on emissions cuts.
The necessity of a radical narrative
Since the same will occur in Paris, concrete actions against the emitters themselves were suggested, including more projects like the Dutch “Climate Games” which saw a coal line and port supply chain disrupted last year. There are coming protests over coal in Germany’s Rhineland and we will likely see direct actions at Paris events, such as Solution 21, a corporate “false solutions” event where geo-engineering, carbon capture and storage, and carbon trading will be promoted.
Likewise, ActionAid’s Teresa Anderson reported back from a Narrative Working Group on lessons from Copenhagen: “Don’t tell a lie that Paris will fix the climate. People were arrested in Copenhagen for this lie. No unrealistic expectations – but we need to give people hope that there is a purpose to the mobilisation.”
Most important, she reminded, “There is global North historical responsibility, and those who are most vulnerable have done the least to cause the problem.” This is vital because in Durban, UN delegates began the process of ending the “common but differentiated responsibility” clause. As a result, finding ways to ensure climate “loss & damage” invoices are both issued and paid is more difficult. The UN’s Green Climate Fund is a decisive write-off in that respect, with nowhere near the $100 billion annually promised for 2020 and beyond by then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Most important, said Anderson, given the tendency of Third World nationalists to posture on this point, “Elites in both North and South are to blame, so it’s not a matter of pure geographical injustice. It’s the economic system that is driving climate change.” Looking at more optimistic messaging, she concluded the report back: “Powerful positive actions are in play. We are life – fossil fuels are death. Paris is a moment to build movements, to show we are powerful and will fight into 2016 and beyond to solve the climate crisis. It takes roots to weather the storm ahead.”
Responding, said former Bolivian negotiator Solon (now Bangkok-based director of Focus on the Global South), “I think we need a clearer narrative: let’s stop an agreement that’s going to burn the climate. We already know that agreement exists. If China peaks emissions only by 2030 or if we accept Obama’s offer to China, we all burn. The Paris agreement will be worse than the draft we’ve seen. The point is not to put pressure for something better. It’s to stop a bad deal. We are against carbon markets, geoengineering and the emissions targets.”
But the clearest message came from veteran strategist Pat Mooney of the research network called the etc group, describing to the mass meeting what he wanted to see in Paris: “It should start like New York and end like Seattle. Shut the thing down.”
Back in 2009, just weeks before he died, this was what Dennis Brutus – the mentor of so many South African and international progressives – also advised: “Seattle Copenhagen!” The Paris Conference of Polluters also needs that kind of shock doctrine, so that from an activist cyclone a much clearer path can emerge towards climate justice in the months and years ahead.
[Patrick Bond directs the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society in Durban.]