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Forget Paris?

First Nations activist confronts oil rig

You Shell not pass: First Nations activist and singer Audrey Siegl confronts the oil giant’s drilling rig on its way to the Arctic. © Emily Hunter / Greenpeace

At the end of September, something Earth-shaking happened. After 10 years and $7 billion, Shell abandoned its plans to drill in the Alaskan Arctic.

Shell’s U-turn wasn’t driven by government action or international climate agreements. It was years of public protest, direct action, online organizing and legal challenges – particularly by Indigenous communities – that delayed the project and ratcheted up the costs.

Add the global oil price slump and the technical difficulties of Arctic operations, and suddenly the entire project hinged on the success of a few months’ drilling. When that failed, Shell was done. In one swoop, the campaign to save the Arctic has succeeded in keeping more fossil fuel in the ground than 23 years of international climate negotiations.1

Listening to the mainstream media, you might be tempted to believe that this is all about to change at the Paris climate talks, and that a ‘good deal’ on climate is finally within grasp.

World leaders and country negotiators will gather from 30 November to 11 December for COP21 (the 21st Conference of the Parties to the UN climate convention). Their stated aim is a binding international treaty to keep global temperature rise below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, to come into effect in 2020. Everyone in the climate world is talking about Paris.

Held hostage

Let’s be upfront: Paris is not going to deliver a plan to avert climate disaster. It will be ‘a walkover for the big polluters’, predicts Nigerian campaigner Nnimmo Bassey. ‘The outcome is already known: a package of non-binding promises and non-commitments. It will be another carbon stock exchange. With Air France as official sponsor, polluting activities will smell really good in Paris.’

We already know that the emissions cuts the most-polluting countries are going to pledge won’t even keep temperature rises below three degrees. That means low-lying islands disappearing, coastal cities flooding, mass species extinction, extreme droughts and weather catastrophes.

The campaign to save the Arctic has kept more oil in the ground than 23 years of climate talks

The entire process is held hostage to global power dynamics, where the ‘lowest common denominator’ rules. Another Nigerian activist, Adesuwa Uwagie-Ero, explains how the COPs have turned into ‘sessions where the powerful browbeat the weak and act in their narrow national interest’. She describes how ‘nations like the US, Canada, Japan and Australia openly throw spanners in the works and kick the noisy decision-making can further down the road. The rapid slide down this slope took root at COP15 in Copenhagen,’ she adds, and has worsened with every subsequent COP.

These familiar power imbalances between governments are exacerbated by a second, killer problem. A rapid global transition away from fossil fuels is not in most corporations’ interests – and they hold sway over many governments. Aneesa Khan, a youth delegate from India who has observed the climate talks first hand, told us corporations are ‘hovering over everything. A lot of the solutions that governments put forward end up benefiting the fossil fuel industry.’

Fighting back

There is a different way, one demonstrated by the victory over Shell’s Arctic drilling plans. In the words of Martín Vilela from the Bolivian Platform on Climate Change: ‘We thought a strong international deal could be achieved that would change politics at the national level. But it needs to work the opposite way, from the grassroots fighting back against the systems. This will lead to changes in the bigger structures.’

The fast-growing ‘blockadia’ movement could continue to stop fossil fuel extraction on the ground by preventing new power stations, fracking wells, pipelines and runways. Social movements could work to protect forests and soils by defending the rights of Indigenous peoples and supporting small farmers, while communities get clean energy alternatives off the ground. Then, perhaps, we can force our governments down a more climate-friendly path.

Combined with the delegitimization of the fossil fuel industry through divestment and anti-sponsorship campaigns, this could create a very different political environment where a meaningful global climate deal might become possible.

But that doesn’t mean we should ignore this year’s climate talks. Majority World campaigners and grassroots activists from around the world identify three areas for Paris action: supporting Southern negotiators; challenging the rich governments’ narrative; and building the climate justice movement.

Defending the good, blocking the bad

Some Majority World countries have been fighting fiercely within the talks. Tuvalu, Sudan, Bolivia and Venezuela formally opposed the pathetic ‘Copenhagen Accord’ in 2009, with Sudan’s negotiator branding climate change ‘a coming holocaust requiring millions of coffins for Africa.’

The following year, Bolivia’s passionate representative Pablo Solón attempted to block the terrible deal. Filipino Climate Commissioner Yeb Saño hit global headlines at the Warsaw talks in 2013 when he publicly wept after his hometown was demolished by Typhoon Haiyan, then joined the protesters to urge greater ambition.

All these countries have subsequently been brought more or less into line with a mixture of threats and bribes, their outspoken negotiators ‘moved on’. Meanwhile, representatives of frontline communities whose very survival is at stake have little or no influence over the outcome, and are sometimes even physically shut out of the talks, as happened at Copenhagen.

While it may be tempting to write off Paris or to join the call by some activists to shut the whole thing down, many believe that would be counterproductive. ‘The US would love the negotiations to end so it can move these discussions into the G8,’ argues Asad Rehman of Friends of the Earth. At least in the UN all countries are represented, have a voice and a vote.

Maria Alejandra Escalante, a youth delegate from Colombia, agrees: ‘We need to participate in the UN spaces, because they hold power. Not because we want to legitimize them, or that we think anything really effective is going to come out of them, but as damage control.’

Even though the emissions cuts pledged at Paris will be deeply underwhelming, there are important elements in the text that Southern negotiators are fighting to defend. One is the principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibility – which the US hates, its negotiator warning ‘if equity’s in, we’re out’.2 Another is the transfer of funds and technology from the North to the South, vital for clean development, adaptation measures and as compensation for the climate chaos already in the pipeline.

There are also plenty of things in the talks that need to be opposed, such as the use of (distracting and ineffective) carbon markets. South American countries and their allies have succeeded in slowing their expansion, and will need to do so again.

Tom Goldtooth, leader of the Indigenous Environmental Network, lists a bewildering array of dangerous technofix ‘solutions’ that could also appear in the deal: ‘Carbon capture and storage, genetically modified organisms and geoengineering, synthetic biology and nanotechnology, agrofuels, fracking, nuclear projects and energy generation from incineration: all these will do more harm than good to Mother Earth. The UN climate negotiations are about the continued privatization of nature.’ Indigenous communities, he says, are being ‘forced to negotiate with this reality of capitalist false solutions’ in order to defend their rights.

Changing the story

Heading into Paris, social movements need to be incredibly careful what message they convey. The story that is told through protests, marches and other mobilizations must be strategic and nuanced.

Some organizations are getting it spectacularly wrong. Our hearts sank at a July email from online petitionistas Avaaz entitled ‘Five months to save the world’, claiming that Paris will determine the planet’s fate.

Asleep at the wheel: negotiators slumber during all-night crisis talks in Copenhagen, 2009.

Christian Charisius/ Reuters

It gave us hideous flashbacks to the Copenhagen experience of 2009 – campaigning organizations whipping their supporters into a frenzy of unrealistic hope for a one-off hit, followed either by failure, despair and disengagement or, worse, by claiming some kind of false victory that lets governments off the hook.

Thankfully, this time around many are resisting that trap. Global campaign group 350.org is downplaying expectations by talking pointedly about the ‘road through Paris’ and mobilizing for the end, not the beginning. It has also joined with the Global Campaign to Demand Climate Justice – a network of Southern grassroots organizations and progressive NGOs – in an attempt to avoid the perennial pitfall of calling for ‘climate action’ but not specifying what that is. The ‘People’s Test on Climate’ lays out a clear set of ‘climate justice’ goals that a Paris deal will need to achieve in order to be a success, including a clean energy transition, the right to food and land, and justice for those on the climate frontlines.3

Building the movement

The biggest opportunities at Paris may therefore be outside, rather than inside the talks. As Aneesa Khan puts it: ‘We need to see Paris as a stepping stone, a moment when people can mobilize, meet up, build alliances for the stronger civil society movement that we need.’

Huge numbers of campaigners and activists are planning to converge in Paris or hit the streets at home, and plans range from record-breaking marches to mass direct action.

Governments may not have moved on since Copenhagen, but the climate movement has

Governments may not have moved on since Copenhagen, but the climate movement has. Instead of empty and unchallenging calls for a ‘good deal’, campaigners are set to invade Paris with critiques of capitalism, economic growth, environmental racism and white privilege. Unions will demand climate jobs while standing in solidarity with refugees. Campaigners will emphasize the need to resist trade deals that could make climate regulation illegal. Real-world examples of energy democracy, frontline resistance and business-as-unusual will cross-pollinate, multiply and take root back home.

‘As the relentless drive to exploit more and more dirty energy brings that economic model into conflict with ordinary communities,’ says Asad Rehman, ‘people are reorganizing and new social forces are coming to the fore, with the potential to transform the climate movement away from a narrow white middle-class elite.’

Meanwhile, renewable energy is falling dramatically in price and taking significant market share. The oil and fracking industries are starting to take serious hits from the floundering oil price and on-the-ground resistance. Institutions worth $2.6 trillion have now pledged to divest from fossil fuels. Leftwing, climate-friendly candidates are suddenly electable in Europe, and the Pope’s outspokenness on climate is mobilizing faith communities and shaming world leaders.

We are finally seeing the glimmerings of a global movement that could become strong enough to change the political context on climate. We need to lead, so the politicians must follow. But we have to move fast, as our window for stopping runaway temperature rise is rapidly closing.

Paris is going to be an emotional rollercoaster, with victories and defeats, but we must hang on for the ride. ‘People often ask: “What’s the point of fighting for these things at the talks if you know you’re not going to win?”’ says Lidy Nacpil, a long-time social justice campaigner from the Philippines and co-ordinator of Demand Climate Justice. ‘That thinking is alien to us. When we begin a campaign we never say “Wait – let’s assess if we’re going to win before we decide to fight.” We always start from a position of weakness, otherwise, why would we need to fight?’

Also see our fundraiser to send New Internationalist Jess and Danny to the Paris climate talks and how you can help: crowdfunder.co.uk/Paris-grassroots

  1. Duncan Clark, ‘Has the Kyoto protocol made any difference to carbon emissions?’, Guardian, 26 November 2012.

  2. Jonathan Pickering, Steve Vanderheiden, and Seumas Miller, ‘If Equity’s In, We’re Out: Scope for Fairness in the Next Global Climate Agreement’, Ethics and International Affairs, 2013. nin.tl/equityin

  3. See demandclimatejustice.org and peoplestestonclimate.org

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