Copenhagen and Seattle: From climate denialism to activist alliances

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We need to learn the main lesson from Seattle: by walking out  and halting a bad deal in Copenhagen, we can together pave the way for subsequent progress

By Patrick Bond

Preparations for the December 7-18 Copenhagen climate summit are going as expected, including a rare sighting of African elites’ stiffened spines. That’s a great development (maybe decisive), more about which below.

While activists help raise the temperature on the streets outside the Bella Centre on December 12, 13 and 16, inside we will see Northern elites defensively armed with pathetic non-binding emissions cuts (Obama at merely 4% below 1990 levels), with carbon trading, and without the money to repay their ecological debt to the South.

The first and third are lamentable enough, but the second is the most serious diversion from the crucial work of cutting emissions. A nine-minute film launched on the internet on Tuesday, December 1 – ‘The Story of Cap and Trade’ – gives all the ammunition you need to understand and critique emissions trading, and to seek genuine solutions.

Another important diversion emerged on November 20, when hackers published embarrassing emails from the University of East Anglia’s (UEA’s) Climate Research Unit. What I’ve understood from here  is roughly as follows:

  • the UEA researchers were silly egocentric ultracompetitive academics who were at times sloppy – an occupational hazard true of most of us, only in this case there is a huge amount at stake so their silliness is massively amplified,
  • but a few academics who are silly about their work ethos do not reverse the universal understanding that scientists have regarding climate change, and
  • people who want to distract the world from getting to the root of the climate crisis may well be empowered and have a field day with the UEA emails scandal, which should in turn compel the rest of us to redouble our efforts.

The unapologetic UEA researcher Phil Jones seems to think that because climate denialists have been a pain in the ass (since 2001), it was ok to hide scientific data (paid for by taxpayers), and to avoid wasting valuable time addressing the loonies’ arguments: “Initially at the beginning I did try to respond to them in the hope I might convince them but I soon realised it was a forlorn hope and broke off communication.”

Look, where I live, in Durban, we’ve had dreadful experiences with two kinds of life-threatening denialisms: apartheid and AIDS:

  • dating back many decades, apartheid-denialists insisted that black South Africans had it better than anywhere else in Africa, that anti-apartheid sanctions would only hurt blacks and not foster change, and that if blacks took over the government it would be the ruination of SA, with whites having all their wealth expropriated;
  • from around 1999-2003, AIDS denialists very vocally insisted that HIV and AIDS were not related, that AIDS medicines were toxic and would do no good, and that the activists’ lobby for the medicines was merely a front for the CIA and Big Pharma (denialist-in-chief Thabo Mbeki is now being widely cited for genocide involving 350 000 unnecessary deaths due to his presidency’s withholding of AIDS medicines).

In both cases, as with the climate, the denialists’ role was to entrench the status quo forces of state and capital. They were, simply, hucksters for vested interests. In both cases they were defeated, thanks to vigorous social activism:

  • fighting against apartheid-denialism, during the 1980s, the United Democratic Front, African National Congress and other liberation forces found that the denialists’ main damage was opposing sanctions/disinvestment pressure. So we intensified our efforts and by August 1985 won the necessary breakthrough when NY banks withdrew lines of credit to Pretoria, thus forcing a split between Afrikaner state rulers and white english-speaking capitalists. Within a few days, the latter traveled to Lusaka to meet the exiled ANC leadership, and then over the next eight years helped shake loose Afrikaner nationalism’s hold on the state, and indeed today in SA you will search long and hard to find a white person who admits they ever defended apartheid;
  • as for AIDS, the Treatment Action Campaign found that a mix of local and internationalist activism was sufficiently strong to pry open Big Pharma’s monopoly on intellectual property rights and also overthrow opposition by the US and South African governments, a story worth revisiting in more detail in below. In short, by 2003, the coterie of AIDS denialists surrounding Mbeki lost to street heat, ridicule and legal critique, so today nearly 800,000 South Africans and millions more elsewhere have access to the medicines.

I hope we’ll look back at the climate denialists and judge them as merely a momentary quirk in human rationality, ultimately not in the least influential. The real danger comes from fossil fuel firms which, like Big Tobacco decades ago, know full well the lethal potential of their product. Their objective is to place a grain of doubt in our minds, and climate denialists are rather useful.

The fossil fuel firms – especially BP, Shell, Chevron and ExxonMobil – not only fund denialist thinktanks and astroturf advocacy (such as the Global Climate Coalition). They support members of the US Congress – such as Rick Boucher from Virginia – who energetically sabotage legislation aimed at capping emissions (Congress’ offsets, carbon trading and other distraction gimmicks mean there will be no net US cuts after all until the late 2030s). They also work with mainstream ‘green’ groups – WWF comes to mind – to halt environmental progress.

These corporations are far more insidious than the email hackers. I hope we aren’t further distracted by the UEA affair and that this is a quickly-forgotten little episode of dirty academic laundry meant for the dustbin of our sloppy movement where it belongs, so we can make the movement stronger, more transparent, more rigorous, more democratic and much more militant in trying to defeat the fossil fuel industry.

One way to do so is to flash back to Seattle exactly a decade ago, when the World Trade Organisation (WTO) fiasco on November 30, 1999 taught civil society activists and African leaders two powerful lessons. Turning 85 years old on Saturday, our comrade Dennis Brutus reminded us of two lessons from one of the most eventful weeks in his amazing life.

First, working together, African leaders and activists have the power to disrupt a system of global governance that meets the Global North’s short-term interests against both the Global South and the longer-term interests of the world’s people and the planet. Second, in the very act of disrupting global malgovernance, major concessions can be won.

Spectacular protest against the WTO summit’s opening ceremony is what most recall about Seattle: activists ‘locking down’ to prevent entrance to the conference centre, a barrage of tear gas and pepper spray, a sea of broken windows and a municipal police force later prosecuted for violating US citizens’ most basic civil liberties. (See David and Rebecca Solnit’s excellent new book The Battle of the Story of the Battle of Seattle – for the spin on the spin)

That was outside. Inside the convention centre, negotiations belatedly got underway, and African leaders quickly grew worried that further trade liberalization would damage their tiny industrial sectors.

The damage was well recognized, as even establishment research revealed Africa would be the continent to suffer the worst net losses from corporate-dominated free trade. The US trade representative, Charlene Barchefsky, repeatedly insulted African elites who raised this point.

With the exception of South African trade minister Alec Erwin, who enjoyed an insider ‘Green Room’ role to promote SA’s self-interest, delegations from the Organisation of African Unity (OAU, since renamed the African Union) were soon furious.

As OAU deputy director general V.J.McKeen recalled: “They went out to a dinner in a bus, and then were left out in the cold to walk back. To tell you to the extent that when we went into the room for our African group meeting, I mean, there was no interpretation provided… so one had to improvise. And then even the microphone facilities were switched off.”

Tetteh Hormeku, from the African Trade Network of progressive civil society groups, picks up the story: “By the second day of the formal negotiations, the African and other developing-country delegates had found themselves totally marginalised… [and threatened] to withdraw the consensus required to reach a conclusion of the conference. By this time, even the Americans and their supporters in the WTO secretariat must have woken up to the futility of their ‘rough tactics’.”

By walking out, the Africans’ strong willpower earned major concessions in the next WTO summit, in Doha, in November 2001. At the same time as the global justice movement began widening into an anti-imperialist movement in the wake of the USA’s post-9/11 remilitarization, African activists delved deeper into extreme local challenges, such as combating AIDS. In Doha, African elites joined forces with activists again.

On this occasion, the positive catalyst was a South African government law – the 1997 Medicines Act – which permitted the state’s compulsory licensing of patented drugs. In 1998, the Treatment Action Campaign was launched to lobby for AIDS drugs, which a decade ago were prohibitively expensive – $15,000 per person per year – for nearly all South Africa’s HIV-positive people (roughly 10% of the population).

That campaign was immediately confronted by the US State Department’s attack on the SA Medicines Act, a “full court press”, as bureaucrats testified to the US Congress. The US elites’ aim was to protect intellectual property rights and halt the emergence of a parallel inexpensive supply of AIDS medicines that would undermine lucrative Western markets.

US vice president Al Gore directly intervened with SA government leaders in 1998-99, aiming to revoke the Medicines Act. Then in mid-1999, Gore launched his presidential election bid, a campaign generously funded by big pharmaceutical corporations, which that year provided $2.3 million to the Democratic Party.

In solidarity with the South Africans, the US AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power began protesting at Gore’s campaign events, in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. The demos soon threatened to cost Gore far more in adverse publicity than he was raising in Big Pharma contributions, so he changed sides.

As pressure built, even during the reign of president George W. Bush and his repressive trade representative Robert Zoellick (now World Bank president), the WTO’s Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights system was amended at Doha in late 2001 to permit generic drugs to be used in medical emergencies.

This was a huge victory for Africa, removing any rationale to continue to deny life-saving medicines to the world’s poorest people.

In 2003, with another dreadful WTO deal on the table in Cancun and 30,000 protesters outside, once again the African leadership withdrew consensus, wrecking the plans of the US and Europe for further liberalization. The WTO has still not recovered.

These are the precedents required to overcome the three huge challenges the North faces in Copenhagen: 2020 emissions cuts of at least 45% (from 1990 levels) through a binding international agreement; the decommissioning of carbon markets and offset gimmicks; and payment on the vast ecological debt owed to victims of climate change.

Realistically, the adverse balance of forces currently prevailing will not permit victories on even one, much less all three. What response is logical?

In Barcelona, in early November, African negotiators boycotted the pre-Copenhagen talks, making good on AU leader Meles Zenawi’s September threat, given that the North put so little on the negotiating table.

Indeed, that is the main lesson from Seattle: by walking out – alongside civil society protesters – and halting a bad deal in Copenhagen on December 18, we can together pave the way for subsequent progress.

Two years after Seattle’s failure, progress was won through African access to life-saving medicines. We must ensure it doesn’t take two years after Copenhagen’s failure for Africa to get access to life-saving emissions cuts and to climate debt repayment, alongside the demise of carbon trading – but those are surely the battles just ahead.

Patrick Bond directs the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society. This article was originally a ZNet commentary.

1 Comment

  • It will take years, I’ll bet – this is THE BIGGIE. But I agree with the strategy, and really enjoyed reading about precedents.