New Internationalist

In our hands

Issue 428

The UN climate summit in Copenhagen is doomed before it even starts. But don’t despair – the real action on climate change is happening elsewhere, argues Jess Worth.

Photo by Andrew Testa / PANOS.
Reclaiming power: climate activists try to pull down the fence at Ratcliffe-on-Soar coal-fired power station, on a day in October which saw 1,000 people swoop on the UK’s third largest greenhouse gas emitter and attempt to shut it down. Photo by Andrew Testa / PANOS.

As we hurtle towards the Copenhagen climate talks this December, the rhetoric is reaching fever pitch. Copenhagen is ‘the world’s last chance to stop climate change before it passes the point of no return,’ warns Stavros Dimas, EU Environment Commissioner. ‘There is no Plan B,’ mutters British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, darkly. This is ‘the most important meeting of our lives,’ agrees the Global Campaign for Climate Action, an international NGO coalition. ‘Failure is not an option,’ chimes in Nick Robins, head of Climate Change at HSBC bank.

Welcome to the topsy-turvy world of Copenhagen, where politicians, bankers and corporations compete for the best campaign slogans, Coca-Cola entreats the world to sign its ‘Hopenhagen’ petition, while Shell sponsors glossy magazine pull-outs reminding us we only have ‘10 days to save the world’.

Don’t be dazzled by this extraordinary show. The idea that the UN’s ‘COP 15’ Climate Summit – where governments will attempt to negotiate a climate change treaty to see us through the next few decades – is our ‘last chance’ is a very dangerous one indeed.

Bad deal

It’s dangerous for several reasons. For a start, it’s not true. If it were, then quite frankly we’d all be screwed, because there’s no way that any deal that comes out of Copenhagen will effectively curb global warming.

Firstly, recent scientific observations of the rate of ocean acidification, the thawing of permafrost and the melting of ice in the Arctic and Antarctic confirm that the climate is changing faster than the UN’s global gang of scientists, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, had predicted. Indigenous people living in the Arctic and in low-lying islands in the Pacific are already experiencing devastating impacts.

But the climate talks haven’t caught up with reality.

We now know that to have a good chance of preventing runaway climate change, global greenhouse gas emissions need to peak by 2015. Industrialized countries must cut their emissions dramatically, year-on-year, by more than 40 per cent by 2020 and over 95 per cent by 2050.1 But this isn’t on the table. And even the inadequate targets that are being discussed look unlikely to be agreed to by major polluters such as the US and Canada, forcing negotiators to admit that they are only likely to get a ‘political agreement’ out of the summit, not a full-blown treaty.

Secondly, in order for Majority World countries to deal with the impacts of climate change and pursue their right to develop along a low carbon route, they need a serious amount of money. It’s a deal-breaker for them. Rich countries have agreed, in theory, to provide it. In practice, they are saying they can’t afford to, having blown all their spare cash on bank bailouts and wars.

Thirdly, there’s a reason why the business world is so enthusiastically trumpeting the need for a deal at Copenhagen. It’s because it’s their deal. Even if by some miracle industrialized countries do sign up to deep emissions cuts, the plan is to deliver a large slice of them via carbon markets. The market-based mechanisms that have been placed at the heart of the proposed treaty by unrelenting corporate lobbying allow major polluters to ‘offset’ their emissions rather than reduce them, and generate massive profits along the way. Carbon markets aren’t actually reducing emissions, unfortunately – as even Deutsche Bank has recently admitted. But that detail doesn’t appear to be important at the UN, because any deal at Copenhagen is set to revolve around them.

The idea that Copenhagen is our last chance is dangerous for another reason: it assumes that the current UN process is the only possible path towards global emissions reductions. It isn’t.

Currently, the negotiations resemble not so much a paragon of selfless co-operation as the brutal wrestling match so deftly depicted by cartoonist Marc Roberts (see page 6). Things at the UN are little different from the World Trade Organization these days: rich élites band together to protect their interests and make sure the little guys don’t get a look in. Corporations set the agenda (see Oscar Reyes, page 16) and those most affected by climate change – poor people, indigenous people, small farmers – are firmly excluded.

The concept of ‘climate justice’ so eloquently articulated by a swelling grassroots movement is utterly absent. In the UN, we are not hearing serious discussions about how we shift the global economy away from the fallacy of infinite economic growth on a finite planet; or how we ensure that the rich curb their consumption levels and pay their vast ecological debt to the Global South; or how we can leave fossil fuels in the ground and roll out the low-impact alternatives that we know to work. Instead, it’s capitalism-as-usual with a veneer of green: ‘cleaner coal’, nuclear power, attractive investment opportunities in ‘avoided deforestation credits’ and, if all else fails, filling the oceans with pollution-munching algae.

And yet too many larger NGOs are playing along with this. Why? Well, some are quite openly working hand-in-hand with carbon traders and the fossil fuel industry. Others are well intentioned but naïve. According to Mike Childs, Head of Campaigns at Friends of the Earth UK: ‘They’ve got themselves into a difficult position. A lot of NGOs have staked a lot of time in getting an agreement, and they need to demonstrate to their supporters and funders that they have achieved success – even if what we’ve actually got is a shoddy deal that isn’t scientifically robust and won’t solve the justice issues. There’s a real risk that the world might then think, “great, we’ve got an agreement, the climate’s sorted”, rather than keeping up the political pressure.’

Beyond Copenhagen

This is, of course, a desperate state of affairs. There needs to be some international co-operation and co-ordination if collectively we’re going to reduce our emissions to a safe level in the very short time that remains. And financing for the Majority World to deal with the effects of climate change and develop without depending on fossil fuels must materialize. But any kind of international effort will need to look very different from what’s on the table at Copenhagen.

So what is to be done?       

One strategy being discussed by African civil society and government delegates is to turn Copenhagen into another ‘Seattle’. Dennis Brutus, venerable South African poet and activist, explains: ‘African Union insiders would work with massed protest outside to prevent the North from doing a deal in their own interests, against Africa’s and the planet’s. A decade ago, that formula stopped the World Trade Organization’s Millennium Round from succeeding in Seattle.’

It could happen. African delegates have already walked out en masse from the final UN preparatory meeting in Barcelona, and activists are gearing up for street protests that could rival those at Seattle (see page 19).

Meanwhile, grassroots social movements are already looking beyond Copenhagen. Clayton Thomas-Muller, a member of the Mathais Colomb Cree Nation in Canada, is a campaigner with the Indigenous Environmental Network, and has been closely involved in Climate Summit discussions.

‘Because it’s clear that the political will just doesn’t exist, either in the UN or at national government level, the global climate justice movement is re-evaluating its strategy and upping the stakes. If laws become unjust, it is our responsibility to challenge and change them. We need to consolidate people power in the face of this concentration of corporate power, and we need social movements to embrace more direct forms of action to push for the world we want to see.’

We don’t have time. We need to stop emissions at their source now...

In some parts of the world, grassroots social movements are already succeeding where governments have so spectacularly failed. In the US and Britain there is now a de facto moratorium on new coal-fired power stations: not because of any change in policy, but because a combination of public campaigning and concerted direct action has made it impossible for any company to build one.

In Peru and Ecuador, indigenous communities are mobilizing to resist the expansion of oil and mining companies. In Canada, there has been a spate of direct actions against oil extraction from Alberta’s tar sands – widely accused of being the most destructive development in the world. In Australia, the coal industry is being repeatedly targeted, with coal trains, mines and power stations all recently disrupted by activists.

All these movements recognize that we don’t have time to wait for international agreements to be painstakingly negotiated over many years, then wait some more for them to be ratified, then cross our fingers and hope that governments will actually stick to the targets they’ve signed up to.

We don’t have time. We need to stop emissions at their source now, take action locally to build the alternatives, and create such strong national movements for climate justice that politicians are forced to follow suit.

Making history

The most important meeting in Copenhagen will take place outside the conference centre. It will take place at the civil society summit, where the world’s climate justice movements will come together as never before to strategize and make plans. It will take place in front of lines of riot cops as indigenous people, peasants, the young and the old take action together and build relationships of solidarity that will bear fruit long after the tear gas has floated away. It will also take place in cities across the world as hundreds of thousands mobilize in hope, only to be let down by their leaders – and radicalized in the process.

Copenhagen is the last chance – for the bloated and corrupt UN circus to deliver genuine action on climate change. When it fails, it will be time for the rest of us to take over.

  1. From a baseline of 1990. See Indigenous Environmental Network, ‘Indigenous People’s Red Road to Copenhagen’, http://bit.ly/4gdMfv

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