What Next for the Global Climate Movement?

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A movement of movements is already starting to take shape. Spurred into action by the announcement of the Accord, activists came together on the Saturday after the COP to discuss building a united global movement in each country.

By Roy Wilkes

Something rotten happened in Denmark. The fifteenth session of the Conference of the Parties, in which so many had invested so much hope, began as farce and ended in tragedy. Anyone who still had the faintest illusion that the climate crisis could be resolved within capitalism has now seen it fatally dashed against the rocks of Copenhagen.

Of course, our rulers cannot blame themselves for this fiasco. So, who then is to blame? “China!” screams a furious Ed Milliband, the UK’s Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, upon his return to London, with the media machine joining the chorus. Blame China! Blame Venezuela! Blame the poor countries who obstructed The Deal! Blame the victims who dared to ask for a 1.5C limit, those unrealistic fools who dared to ask to be allowed to live.

But what was this ‘deal’ that these obstinate rascals obstructed? “A 50% reduction in emissions by 2050 and an 80% reduction by the developed countries,” laments Mr. Milliband. “Both were vetoed by China.” What he refers to of course is none other than the infamous Danish Text. But what he carefully omits from his account is the reason why this deal was ‘obstructed’.

The Danish Text, which had been secretly put together by the US, the UK and Denmark, revealed the true aim of the rich countries in Copenhagen. There was to be a gesture towards cutting emissions, sure there was … on condition that the natural order and balance of the world remains unaffected, that the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor, that growth and accumulation continue unhindered.

The proposal would have sidelined the UN by handing power and control to the rich countries themselves; it would have entrenched global inequality by allowing the rich countries to emit 2.67 tonnes of CO2 per capita while granting developing countries only 1.44 tonnes; it would have handed control of climate change finance to the World Bank; it would have locked the world into a disastrous system of carbon trading; it would have attached tight strings to any financial aid; and it would have abandoned any interim 2020 targets. All in all, the ‘deal’ would have condemned the world, and the South in particular, to a climate catastrophe of unimaginable horror.

Some developing countries, including the Maldives and Ethiopia, were bullied into accepting this deal. But most weren’t. Most African delegates were incensed. “We will not die quietly,” they chanted in the conference halls. Lumumba Di-Aping, delegate head of the G77 of developing countries, rejected the deal as “a suicide pact, an incineration pact, in order to maintain the economic dominance of a few countries.”

Such obstructive behavior cannot of course be tolerated by the Great Powers. If the delegates of the South are impertinent enough to disagree with their imperial rulers, then they will have something much, much worse imposed upon them. By diktat.

President Obama, Nobel Peace Laureate and the bearer of so much hope and so many expectations, flew into Copenhagen on the last day of the conference. He brought with him an Australian backed US proposal. He gave a short speech then met Premier Wu of China. The two of them went on to meet Prime Minister Singh of India, President Lula of Brazil and President Zuma of South Africa. These five men agreed the Copenhagen Accord. At 3 a.m. the Prime Minister of Denmark convened a meeting to conclude the summit. The representatives of the rich countries and those involved in agreeing the Accord attempted to impose it as the consensus outcome of the conference. But as a result of vigorous objections by Cuba, Venezuela and other developing countries, the conference was only able to “take note of the Copenhagen Accord.”

The Accord is not legally binding, does not commit governments to interim targets and only expresses a ‘general aim’ of limiting temperature rises to 2 degrees C. Each country chooses its own targets, which can be whatever they want them to be And that’s it, little more than a vague hope that if our rulers close their eyes and wish hard enough, temperatures will not rise. They may as well have called it the King Canute Accord. The targets will not even be reviewed at COP16 in Mexico 2010, the first review will not be until 2015. Five more wasted years.

Whose interests are most faithfully served by this travesty? Here’s a clue: the world’s biggest coal producer is China, followed by the USA, Australia, India and South Africa. The Copenhagen Accord is the climate strategy of Big Coal.

Nnimmo Bassey, the Nigerian chair of Friends of the Earth International, was scathing: “Justice has not been done,” he said.

“Rich countries have condemned millions of the world’s poorest people to hunger, suffering and loss of life as climate change accelerates. Instead of committing to deep cuts in emissions, and putting new public money on the table, rich countries have bullied developing nations to accept far less.”

Pablo Oroza, Bolivia’s climate change ambassador, explained what the conference should have discussed and what it should have delivered:

“We are asking first to discuss the main issue, which is Mother Earth. Second, we are asking for a goal that will save all of humanity. We think the goal they have put on the table is going to save only half of humanity, because a 2 degree increase and a rise in carbon levels to 450ppmv means a 50% chance that there will be severe ecological failure. Thirdly, we want the climate debt to be paid … $10bn! When you compare it to what they have spent in terms of military budgets, or to save Wall Street, they spent trillions of dollars. But to save the future of mankind they are saying only $10bn!”

Similarly disgraceful is the much trumpeted agreement to ‘protect’ tropical forests, which explains Lula’s inclusion in the Gang of Five. ‘Protection,’ which involves expelling the indigenous people who inhabit the forests, will be counted against the rich countries’ targets, and will therefore allow the rich to continue with business as usual. The real danger to the tropical forests is not the indigenous peoples but the emissions of the rich.

But not everyone was disappointed with the Accord. “It has been a long battle to get us to this point, but this is an agreement that Canada is very comfortable with,” enthused Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, no doubt still gushing with pride at receiving the Fossil of the Year award from climate activists in Copenhagen. Harper is looking forward to getting away from climate negotiations so he can concentrate on more serious matters. He has implored his fellow G20 leaders to put economic recovery before efforts to protect the environment at their meeting in Toronto later this year. In this he is faithfully representing the real priorities of his class: accumulate, accumulate, accumulate!

And there’s the nub of the matter. For any capitalist power to substantially reduce emissions would risk ceding competitive advantage to the others, hence the wheeling, dealing and childish squabbles in Copenhagen. And the risk is all the greater for those powers with the highest level of fixed capital tied up in fossil fuel and fossil-fuel-related industries, in which category we would include the not only most of the advanced capitalist countries (and especially the US, Canada and Australia) but also China.

For very different reasons, many climate scientists are pleased that no legally binding agreement emerged from Copenhagen. James Hansen had said in advance that a failure to agree would be better than a dangerous fudge. Dr Myles Allen, head of climate dynamics at the University of Oxford, explains:

“Current thinking that nationally negotiated emissions targets and a system of carbon trading will solve this problem is flawed. A legally binding regime based on that principle would lock us into that process, and it could take 20 or 30 years before it became sufficiently obvious it was not working.”

Dr Allen is spot on. Carbon trading, the key mechanism to emerge from Kyoto, has proved a massive source of windfall profits for capital (and especially for the biggest polluters) while doing nothing to reduce emissions. And it isn’t just a question of tweaking the system. Any trading system which offers further opportunities for capital accumulation is adding to the problem. As Evo Morales explained to the COP15 delegates:

“Who is responsible? The responsibility lies with the capitalist system.”

The biggest cause for optimism in Copenhagen came not in the official conference discussions but on the streets. Europe has now seen the emergence of a real mass movement on climate. 50 000 marched in London on 5th December, compared to previous marches of under 10 000. And 100 000 marched in Copenhagen itself. Chavez recognised the significance of this movement. “I have been reading some of the slogans painted on the streets,” he told delegates during a landmark speech.

“One said, Don’t Change the Climate, Change the System! Let’s change the system! And consequently we will save the planet. Capitalism is a destructive development model that is putting an end to life; it threatens to put a definitive end to the human species. Socialism, this is the direction, this is the path to save the planet.”

A ferment of discussion and debate has followed Copenhagen. Monbiot, Klein and Hari call for mass action, including mass civil disobedience. Lynas blames China and despairs. And this process is not confined to professional commentators, there is fevered debate among activists too. Old assumptions are being questioned, new ideas sought out. Some retreat into utopian schemas, hoping for example that sustainable local initiatives will snowball and displace ‘the elites’. Others draw more radical, anti-capitalist conclusions. The emerging movement could go either way: it could fragment in despair and demoralization; or it could grow, radicalize and deepen. Copenhagen has given eco-socialists a unique opportunity to promote the latter course, and to thereby influence the course of history.

Klimaforum09, the global civil society counterpart of the official UN conference in the Bella Centre, released its own statement at the end of the conference. The People’s Declaration includes four key demands:

  1. A complete abandoning of fossil fuels within the next 30 years.
  2. Recognition and payment of the climate debt.
  3. Rejection of purely market oriented and technology centered false and dangerous solutions.
  4. Real solutions to the climate crisis, based on safe, clean and renewable use of natural resources.

The Forum calls for a global ‘movement of movements’ which can bring forward peoples’ visions and demands on every level of society.

This movement of movements is already starting to take shape. Spurred into action by the announcement of the Accord, activists from Climate Justice Now (which groups the more radical NGOs, such as Friends of the Earth International, Via Campesina, Jubilee South, Focus on the Global South and Attac France) and Climate Justice Action (the younger, direct action wing of the movement, which includes the British Camp for Climate Action), came together on the Saturday after the COP to discuss building a united global movement in each country.

In Britain this will take the form of People’s Assemblies. Every ecosocialist must be fully committed to building these assemblies, which may well become the springboards for a mass movement of civil disobedience.

Bolivian President Evo Morales announced on 20th December that a world conference of social movements will be held in Bolivia, as a response to the failure of COP15. The meeting will take place on April 22, which is the International Day of Mother Earth. “It will be a great meeting where we’ll be able to come up with solutions for the problem of climate change,” Morales said.

Struggling over climate change has a huge impact on consciousness, because it doesn’t only question how the pie is divided up, but directly confronts how we live our lives, what we produce and how we produce it. Although many young activists first approach these questions at a personal level, the dynamic is such that the issue quickly assumes a social character. Social relations and alienation are brought into the frame more completely and more directly than struggles over ‘bread and butter’ issues. The climate movement therefore reasserts the primacy of the political struggle.

But of course, this struggle is not being played out in a social or political vacuum. The imperial maps are being redrawn as economic power shifts from West to East. The war in Afghanistan is intensifying, as is the crisis of Zionism. The costs of the banking crisis, which is by no means fully played out, are being passed on to workers through mass unemployment and a drive to savage public spending. Upward pressure on oil prices threatens to derail the economic recovery while casting millions of the world’s poorest people back into the despair of hunger and starvation. All of these crises are interrelated, all of them point to the desperate need to overthrow capitalism at a global level.

The emerging climate movement will need to reach out to the working class, to sink roots in the workplace, since that is where the social power that can challenge capital resides. The campaign for a Million Green Jobs Now, launched by the Campaign against Climate Change with the support of several leading trades unionists, will be important, especially in situations where workers fight to defend jobs in response to the bosses’ austerity offensive.

And of course, a vibrant mass movement fighting climate change, especially one which is promoting millions of green jobs, will be self reinforcing, in that it will help to embolden workers to act in their own defense.

The transitional demands of the Klimaforum and the Million Green Jobs campaign, and the dynamic activism of Climate Justice Action, are of course to be welcomed. But ecosocialists must go further. Increasing numbers of workers and youth are craving general solutions to the crisis of life in a socially and ecologically decaying society. Many climate activists still equate socialism with Stalinism, as indeed do most workers. We have not yet overcome that historical legacy. We therefore need to promote a positive vision of the socialist future, not just to ‘create jobs’ and tackle the climate crisis, but a positive vision of a disalienated future.

In particular, we need to confront consumerism, which is the corollary of alienated labour. We argue that consumption should be reduced not by austerity, which is the solution advocated by the bourgeois ecologists, but by socializing and collectivizing transportation and domestic labour, by a radical reduction in the working week, and by imposing restrictions on the advertising and marketing industries.

We mustn’t allow capital to monopolize claims to freedom. True freedom will be that experienced by the associated producers in a classless society. It is by advancing such arguments that we will not only aid the development of an anti-capitalist ecological consciousness, but more importantly promote its evolution into revolutionary class consciousness.

Climate change is the Achilles’ heal of the ruling class. The bourgeoisie, that class which in the 19th Century heroically proclaimed itself the last word in man’s domination of nature, has now exposed not only its true weakness in the face of the real forces of nature, but also its cynical and callous disregard for other members of its own species. Our ruling class is not only the most powerful class in history but also the most degenerate. Its imperial arrogance will be its downfall.

The only question remaining is whether it will fall at the hands of the global working class, in which case humanity will have a chance to establish a rational and sustainable metabolism with nature — or whether it will bring all civilization crashing down with it.

But as the foundations of the old order start to creak under the strain of its multiple contradictions, so a new force is emerging to challenge its right to rule, a global movement of all those left behind in the unseemly scramble for personal enrichment, a movement of workers, of indigenous peoples and oppressed nations, of women and youth. Therein lies our hope for the future.

Roy Wilkes is Secretary of the British Campaign against Climate Change Trade Union Group, and a member of the Socialist Resistance Editorial Board.


  • Dear Roy,

    Congratulations on an excellent, brilliant piece and idea for new global movement of movements. So inspiring! First time in many an age! Right on!

    I certainly hope that your Campaign against Climate Change Trade Union group and the many other anti-capitalist groups really do keep anti-capitalism and pro-socialism at core. What is and how to achieve socialism must also be an open question for debate.

    Please include Evo Morales’ call for International Refendum on Climate Change with five keys questions. I wrote about this in a piece posted here beside your own, an ALBA insider view. See the question and put them in the People’s Declaration demands. I worked for Bolivia and ALBA as a media consultant during those fantastic consciousness raising weeks.
    And, as you wrote, from Bolivia could/should come the international global call for this movement on April 22, Mother Earth’s Day.

    Hasta la Victoria Siempre,
    Ron Ridenour


  • I agree with Roy’s analysis and strategy. I think the Million Green Jobs campaign has a great deal of potential – it’s a catchy idea that can have wide appeal, and it links the politics of climate change with the economic crisis (especially rising unemployment). I’ll be interested to hear more about the People’s Assemblies idea too.