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  • Musician Pharrell Williams at the UN General Assembly hall for the International Day of Happiness on the theme "Young People in Support of Climate Action" at U.N. headquarters in New York, March 20, 2015.

    Musician Pharrell Williams at the UN General Assembly hall for the International Day of Happiness on the theme "Young People in Support of Climate Action" at U.N. headquarters in New York, March 20, 2015. | Photo: Reuters

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Will a “climate movement across the movements” produce Seattle-style shutdowns or a Paris cul de sac?
TUNISLooming ahead in eight months’ time is another Conference of Polluters, or COP (technically, the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change). The last twenty did zilch to save us from climate catastrophe. Judging by early rough drafts of the Paris COP21 agreement recently leaked, another UN fiasco is inevitable.

The Coalition Climat21 strategy meeting on March 23-24 began in Tunis just before the World Social Forum. I had a momentary sense this could be a breakthrough gathering, if indeed fusions were ripe now, 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 “Seal the Deal” narrative served to draw activist 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 once 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. 

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 both November 28-29th – just before the summit begins – and onDecember 12, as it climaxes. There was consensus that later events should be more robust than the first, and that momentum should carry into 2016. (The December 2016 COP22 will be in Morocco.)

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 CJ movement in most countries;
grounded local CJ 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.”

But 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 COP17 Durban climate summit. Actually, fewer than a half-dozen of the 17 representatives really pitched in throughout, and the moderate organisations which had promised 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.

The Durban counter-summit 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 unfortunately presented UN elites and local politicians with 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 excessiveunity, without ideological clarity, institutional responsibility or political accountability. 

At COP21, radicals outside and only moderates left standing inside 

Maybe it will be different in France, because their 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 4km each from northern Sweden to Paris; the “Alternatiba” alternatives project with 200 participating villages from the Basque country to Brussels which will culminate on September 26-27; and getting warmed up, onMay 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 poisoned by the rise of the far right to 25 percent support in municipal elections. French society will be distracted by regional elections from December 6-12 and “there is a high risk of co-optation,” she warned.

Indeed there are no reliable state allies of climate justice at present and 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. 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 outed by WikiLeaks for agreeing to a $50 million deal to get support for the Copenhagen Accord, was 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;

an Amazon jungle road-building controversy 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 

Filippino 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 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 immediatetransition: 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. The movement’s 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 percent 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 of climate justice and climate action.

The necessity of a radical narrative 

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 geoengineering, 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; a different approach to climate debt is needed.

Looking at more optimistic messaging, Anderson 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 are against carbon markets, geoengineering and the weak emissions targets.”

But the clearest message of all 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.

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