It has to be the least satisfying ‘I told you so’ in history.
Climate justice activists across the world had been predicting a shambolic outcome from COP15 all year. To actually see the desperate, miserable affair being played out, however, was another matter entirely. To see wealthy governments squirming out of their climate commitments whilst blaming the rest of the world for their failure to act; to see representatives of small and impoverished nations bullied and derided for daring to suggest that their countries might be better off above the oceans, with fertile soils and drinkable water; to see dissenting voices locked out and marginalized while the self-selected powers-that-be met behind closed doors to carve up the future; to see a final ‘agreement’ so weak and meaningless that negotiators may as well have spent the week go-carting instead; there’s no triumph to be had in any of this. The fact that we saw it coming doesn’t make it any less of a disaster.
But the COP15 summit wasn’t the only gathering in Copenhagen last month. I spent the week of the summit on the streets and in the squats and social centres of the city, along with thousands of other climate activists from all over the world. I marched with 100,000 others in (probably) the most diverse climate action demonstration the world has ever seen. I took part in the ‘alternative climate summit’ known as the Klimaforum, and joined with thousands of others on 16 December in attempting to enter the COP15 conference centre to hold a ‘People’s Assembly; on the real solutions to climate change. In stark contrast to the official talks, the participants in these events were driven by compassion, unity, positivity and hope. People from all over the world – including, crucially, those already most affected by the climate crisis – came to Copenhagen determined to find common ground with each other, and to build a real movement for change. We quickly discovered a shared critique of the failures of our dominant political and economic systems, a determination to create something new to take its place, and the ability to curse the Danish police in an exciting selection of languages.
Summit’s going on
We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of all this. It felt good, natural and real to be standing together, but consider the unlikeliness of some of these alliances. African farmers leaving their fields to plan a conference centre invasion in Denmark. Vegan anarchists from Europe championing the rights of Indian fisherfolk and South American hunter-gatherers. Indigenous peoples from across the world coming to the lands of their former colonial oppressors, and debating campaign tactics in the languages of European Empire. The mutual respect, political concessions and genuine ideas-sharing on display put the highly-paid self-interest peddlers in the Bella Centre to shame. The action on the 16th was organized by Climate Justice Action and Climate Justice Now, two vibrant and growing networks of radical groups and movements from across the globe. We succeeded in holding our Assembly for real solutions, led by Southern activists, in the jaws of what seemed to be Denmark’s entire police force. December 2009 saw a real step forward for the climate justice movement.
After so much build-up, the failure of Copenhagen means that there is now a serious risk that millions of people who care about the climate will plunge into cynicism and despair, at the very moment when we need everyone to stand up and be counted. Our urgent task now is to provide them with hope
And yet, on another level we failed. The violent and oppressive tactics of the Danish police kept us out of the Bella Centre (apart from three heroic people who charged across the moat on a bridge made from inflatable lilos, into the waiting arms of the riot cops; and six others who sneaked into the grounds after everyone else went home). The lurid tales of police brutality, tear gas, pepper spray, and innocent people being herded into cages may have shamed the Danish Government, but they also provided a distracting spectacle for the corporate media to focus on instead of our political messages. We are growing stronger, yet we are still nowhere near strong enough – and time is running out.
The Copenhagen talks were never going to address the root causes of the climate problem: a global economic system based on the myth of endless growth, and a global politics skewed in favour of a wealthy, polluting minority. They instead focused on maintaining the political status quo whilst pushing false market-based solutions, at the expense of most of the world. Despite this, Copenhagen was still perceived by many people as humanity’s last stand, the final chance to set the world on a different, sustainable course. Instead, the rich nations refused to give ground, and instead produced the equivalent of an apologetic note from their mum (in this case, Barack Obama), explaining that they really do want to tackle climate change but they just aren’t feeling up to it at the moment. They’ve since gone on to blame the nasty bullies in China for refusing to sign up to the unjust non-deal that the industrialized nations spent so much effort trying to stitch up behind closed doors at the end of the summit.
After so much build-up, the failure of Copenhagen means that there is now a serious risk that millions of people who care about the climate will plunge into cynicism and despair, at the very moment when we need everyone to stand up and be counted. Our urgent task now is to provide them with hope.
Could the climate talks be fixed at this late stage, pummelled into a more inclusive and fairer form? It’s difficult to see how. Over 17 years, the process has got steadily worse, not better – despite unprecedented pressure from mainstream NGOs and advocacy groups working within the talks. All the other international bodies with any clout (the WTO, the World Bank) are even less democratic than the UN. The UNFCCC is, for now, the best international process we can hope for – and as Copenhagen has shown, it’s not even tackling the real problems.
But if the official international process will not deliver climate justice, then what will? Taking my cue from others at Copenhagen, I found myself frequently saying things like: ‘This summit is the last chance for governments to act; when they fail, then it’s our turn to take over.’ But what does this actually mean? How on earth can we, a loosely-connected network of people and movements across the globe, create the scale of political and social change necessary to stave off climate disaster and deliver justice to those communities who did not cause the problem but are feeling its worst effects? And can we do it without a legally-binding intergovernmental deal?
Here’s a suggestion that’s already spreading amongst climate activists worldwide: we could come up with an international climate deal of our own. A global treaty based on both climate science and social justice; a Peoples’ Protocol that bypasses governments entirely and comes straight from the grassroots
Well, maybe we can – and maybe that process is already beginning. Here’s a suggestion that’s already spreading amongst climate activists worldwide: we could come up with an international climate deal of our own. A global treaty based on both climate science and social justice; a Peoples’ Protocol that bypasses governments entirely and comes straight from the grassroots. Not a list of demands, but a set of real solutions that we intend to put in place ourselves, using every tool available to us. If governments won’t phase out fossil fuels, then we’ll have to do it for them, by shutting down their coal mines and oilfields. If they won’t protect the world’s forests – or worse, if they try to sell them off for private profit – then we’ll unite with the people of those lands and defend them ourselves.
Dealing with it
Imagine a common statement of solutions, with clear goals that fulfil the needs of climate science. Rather than the statistical, loophole-filled nightmare of country-by-country emissions targets, we could keep it bold and simple. Let’s set a schedule for the closure of every coal mine, for the shutdown of the last Tar Sands pipeline, for the ultimate death rattle of the carbon markets. Let’s lay out plans for the reclamation of indigenous peoples’ lands, and for gaining community control over food, water and energy – all measures which would lead to rapid and measurable emissions reductions. Let’s reclaim our world democratically from below, based on the growth of human rights, health and freedom, not the destructive fiction of economic growth. Such a treaty could be a rallying point, a shared global agreement under which grassroots movements around the world could plan their own actions and set their own goals. We could link up our struggles and work together strategically, knowing that we are all striving towards the same end points. All of our protests and community projects would suddenly feel like part of a greater global whole, not just isolated acts of defiance.
We could link up our struggles and work together strategically, knowing that we are all striving towards the same end points. All of our protests and community projects would suddenly feel like part of a greater global whole, not just isolated acts of defiance
Some would join us with a genuine belief in our ability to make these changes. Others would see it, at least in part, as laying down a challenge to spur governments into action. For now, these differences are less important than many people think, and give us more than enough common ground to build a powerful movement. We’ll find out who was right later on, after we’ve won.
Plans for such a reality-based ‘people’s agreement’ are already afoot. December’s Klimaforum Declaration, and the alternative People’s Protocols put forward by The Peoples’ Movement on Climate Change and IBON all provide excellent starting points, and show just how much common ground there already is amongst grassroots climate justice campaigners. The success of the People’s Assembly on 16 December has led to calls for more such gatherings to be held all over the world, and a truly grassroots People’s Treaty could be a key item for debate.
Any such agreement would be useful, but to be truly powerful it will need to stand up to scientific scrutiny. Imagine an independent scientific assessment, stating that our plans – if implemented – could actually hold back runaway climate change and preserve the small island states, while governments’ proposals could not. This extra credibility would give us a serious chance of drawing in and involving the quiet millions who signed postcards and petitions for Copenhagen, only to be let down by the whole sorry process. We need to show the world that there are ways to avoid complete climate disaster outside of the established political and economic systems – that, in fact, these systems are a major part of the problem. We need to demonstrate that we have clear and credible alternative solutions. Perversely, the very urgency of the climate crisis might just be enough to spur us into doing this, forcing us to set our differences aside and achieve the unity that the last comparable uprising, the ‘anti-globalisation’ movement of the 1990s, never quite managed to do.
It’s all a bit daunting. But strangely enough, there is still cause for hope. Here’s a list of, if not reasons to be cheerful, at least reasons to be slightly less fearful in the wake of Copenhagen:
1) Common ground: The political declaration that emerged from the Copenhagen Klimaforum has a lot in common with the solutions proposed at the People’s Assembly, and with the People’s Protocols already drafted up by Southern movements. In a nutshell, they all call for a reduction in Northern overconsumption, the abandonment of fossil fuels for cleaner alternatives, a transfer of wealth and technology from North to South for climate mitigation and adaptation, the rejection of false market-based solutions and geoengineering, strong recognition of indigenous land rights, and local sovereignty over food, land, energy and water. They also – implicitly or explicitly – call for a different kind of global economy and politics, based on the needs of people and the environment rather than corporate profit and endless growth. Grassroots campaigners are already far closer to a meaningful, scientifically robust agreement than the UNFCCC is ever likely to be.
We need to show the world that there are ways to avoid complete climate disaster outside of the established political and economic systems – that, in fact, these systems are a major part of the problem
2) Ability to compromise: At Copenhagen, we learned that it is possible to put our political differences aside and unite behind a common purpose – and that diversity really can be strength. For example, there are people in the climate justice movement who utterly reject global capitalism and wish to build alternative societies with which to replace it, while others envision a more gradual transformation of our economic system into something less destructive. Luckily, it turns out that opposing destructive state and corporate behaviour and creating positive grassroots climate solutions all seem like excellent ideas whether you believe you’re doing it to change the system, dismantle the system, build a new system, or all of the above. We can work successfully together without having to agree on everything, so long as we’re honest about our differences and create spaces in which to openly debate the issues. Which is really rather great.
3) Positive solutions: The stuff that will sort out climate change is also stuff that can make all our lives better. Whether we’re talking about the wealthier minority escaping the consumerist treadmill and rediscovering the things that really make them happy, or everyone else gaining control over their lands and livelihoods, climate change is an issue which can bring together many different struggles and unite us with visions for a better world.
4) Numbers: We are more numerous than we realize. The majority of the world’s population would agree with the above common principles for climate justice – it is only the uneven distribution of power across the world that is preventing these ideas from becoming the accepted wisdom. Now, if we could just take some of that power back…
5) Moral power: The status quo represents a huge global injustice which we are struggling to correct. This is really important, and we should make more of it – people can be moved by the fight for global justice in a way that they won’t be by the fight for polar bears.
6) Tactics: We are willing to do what it takes to create this change. More and more people across the world are putting their bodies on the line and risking their liberty to achieve justice. Millions more are coming out to actively support these actions in a range of different ways. Within our movement, we also have the skills to create our own solutions from the bottom up, and are learning how to share and spread those skills.
7) Track record: People across the world have stood up against destructive developments, and won. Farmers in Karnataka stopped the construction of a coal plant. Campaigners in the Niger Delta beat the oil companies over gas flaring. The indigenous Totobiegosode people of Paraguay kept the logging companies off their land. Concerted campaigning has scuppered new coal power stations in the US and Britain. We now need to unite our efforts, and scale up our victories accordingly.
8) Timing: Even in the industrialized world, people are noticeably unimpressed with rampant consumer capitalism at the moment. There’s never been a better time to get people fighting for sustainable alternatives.
Of course, there are serious barriers ahead of us – in Denmark we got a small taste of the kind of opposition we face. The strength of the movement varies hugely across the world, and sometimes our ability to support each other seems limited. By definition, our allies are often those with the least official power. But we should not underestimate our creativity and imagination, or the strength we can find in working towards a common purpose, and in globalizing hope. We can build and strengthen our movements by acting, by showing our strength. Copenhagen was useful in this regard – but it’s time to move beyond summit-hopping. These meetings are useful focal points, but we’re not expecting them to provide the answers anymore. Copenhagen was, in the end, just a meeting. Let’s set our own timetable from now on.