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Reality bites

Today will prove monumental not simply in the history of climate negotiations, or of civil disobedience, or even of global politics – it will prove truly historic in an unprecedented way: it demonstrated conclusively that climate change is a social justice issue, and not just a scientific or ‘environmental’ concern.

The disruption of the talks at the Bella centre in Copenhagen today by thousands of protestors demanding climate justice, the brutality of the police, and the resignation of the Danish environment minister demonstrated three incredibly important things:

1. Civil disobedience and grassroots uprisings truly can bring about change. It is incredibly easy to believe that they are ineffective – especially after seeing the Iraq war demonstrations come to nothing – but days like today remind us that they really can be an effective tool not only to change public perception but to force issues onto the political agenda.

2. The UN climate negotiations were not going to work. They were stagnant in a political stalemate, and absolutely nobody with a solid understanding of climate change science – such as James Hansen – believed the political process was remotely capable of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to an effective degree.

3. Perhaps most importantly, that climate change – and all environmental issues for that matter – is an issue of social justice and of human rights.

Ten years ago, climate change was barely a concern of social justice activists, who from Seattle to Quebec City to Gleneagles campaigned primarily on issues to do with trade, finance, and social inequality. Certainly they were not unaware of climate change, but it was not perceived as a deeply pressing concern or as central to their humanistic agenda.

Now, where Copenhagen saw perhaps the largest gathering of social activists in recent history, climate change has become not just an issue, but the issue. It concerns not just melting polar caps, or changing weather patterns, or biodiversity loss – issues that people can easily perceive as abstract, as ‘external’ to their own lives, as unimportant in practical terms.

Climate change, how we have caused it and how we propose to deal with it, is also about water. It is about food. It is about energy. It is about minerals, timber, and other resources. It is ultimately about who has access to those things, who doesn’t, and why.

In other words: climate change is about humanity. It is about human rights, social justice, and – simply put – people.
This shift in the frame of mind for the entire world will prove historic: for decades ‘environmental’ issues have been perceived as secondary to ‘human’ issues. Forests and whales and polar bears and bees are nice, but not as important as people, society, and the economy.

Now our collective thinking is finally shifting, in a sense that cannot be underestimated in its importance: environmental and economic issues are one and the same.

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