Cancún Eyewitness #3: Protests and Workshops

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Young NGO protests aim to shame the delegates; a scientist at Klimaforum calls for an end to capitalism

by Javier Sethness
The three points deemed to be central to the success of the sixteenth Conference of Parties (COP-16) currently being held in Cancún—efforts to prolong the Kyoto Protocol, finance climate-adaptation measures in Southern countries, and codify a global reduction in greenhouse-gases—have thus far seen little progress in the first three days of talks.

COP delegates arriving at Cancún’s Moon Palace this morning were met with protests from members of YOUNG NGO, an international association of youth representing various civil-society organizations.  Protestors, themselves located inside Moon Palace, employed the classic shame-tactic of turning their backs to the assembled, thus showing to these the message inscribed on the back-side of the shirts they were wearing:  a quote from Christina Ora, a youth-delegate from the Solomon Islands who quite rightly made the point last year at the Copenhagen summit that COP negotiators cannot justifiably call for “more time,” given that they have been putatively negotiating the problem of climate change during the entirety of her life—as well as that of the protestors assembled in the Moon Palace.

Other YOUNG NGO contingents held protests outside the Cancumesse, another site of the COP-16 talks, where they equated ongoing negotiations with the selling-off of their futures.  Later in the day, the YOUNG NGO delegation arrived at the El Rey Polo Country Club, site of Klimaforum10, one of the counter-summits being held in opposition to the official talks.

The Espacio Mexicano-Diálogo Climático (Mexican Space for Climate Dialogue, or EsMex) continues to set up its installations in downtown Cancún; its center of activities is being named the Mup Palas, in mockery of the center of the COP-16 talks.  The Via Campesina caravans that have been visiting various Mexican locales in an effort to visibilize the devastating effects climate change has had on such spaces to date are expected to arrive in Cancún tomorrow, in preparation for the alternative forum Via Campesina is organizing, slated to begin the next day.

Several events worthy of mention were held on the Klimaforum10 campus today.  The first was “Responding to Climate Change through a New Lens: Understanding the Commons as a Natural Alternative to Market and State Control,” organized by the U.S.-based Global Commons Trust.  The presenters of this event, themselves members of the Trust, stress the role that commons—lands, ecosystems, or resources managed in common by given communities—can play in light of the decidedly unsustainable nature of market-capitalist and public-statist property-regimes.  Because the commons are to be managed through popular decision-making processes, such an institution can, in the calculus of the Trust, better attend to “voiceless” interests such as those of nature or the animal world than historically have capital and the State.

While the commons are lauded by the Trust for the potential they hold for nature and non-human animals, no mention was made of the vast swathes of humanity excluded and dispossessed by the present, for they clearly too could stand to gain considerably with the abolition of capitalism.  Such an end is not one favored by the Trust, it seems, for its members made clear on several occasions during their comments that they do not in principle oppose either “business” or “government”; indeed, they see the commons as merely a “new operating system” that is to function alongside capital and the State rather than a means by which to do away with either or both.

This  blunting of a highly subversive concept is carried through to the Trust’s proposal for action regarding anthropogenic climate change, which is to democratize the profits gained through the conflagration of fossil fuels to all of humanity—the universal shareholder—following the declaration of the Earth’s atmosphere as a commons and the subsequent establishment of a generalized emissions trading system.

Another more positive Klimaforum event was a discussion with German scientist Jurgen Scheffran, from the International Network of Engineers and Scientists for Global Responsibility, or INES.  In his comments regarding the specter of climate catastrophe, Scheffran unequivocably called for capitalism to be “overcome,” insisting that any serious resolution of the problem of climate change could be had only with a break from the profit system demanded by capital.  Calling for the incorporation into science of knowledges to be found in the peripheries of the world-system and denouncing positivist scientific research into the challenges with which humanity is presently faced, Scheffran cited Marx’s famous thesis on Ludwig Feuerbach that calls for revolution.

The changes that must soon be had, stressed Scheffran, can only be had through coordinated collective action:  people must “take to the streets.”  Only then would the prospect for the historical opening of a liberated state—one characterized in Scheffran’s estimation by popular participation in decision-making processes and, in particular, the eradication of hunger and material poverty as well as world-destroying economic growth—become a concrete possibility, claimed Scheffran.

Also noteworthy was the workshop “Women for Climate Justice,” organized by the international NGO GenderCC.  This event featured presentations by female professors and NGO workers from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Kiribati, exploring the vulnerabilities faced by residents of those countries—in particular, female residents—because of climate change.  The general conclusion, illustrated by consideration of recent floods in Pakistan and the ever-worsening phenomenon of cyclones in Bangladesh, was that impoverished members of such societies arebeing forced into even more precarious situations due to anthropogenic climate change.   Though the workshop dealt principally with the problems experienced by Southerners—and in particular, Southern women—participants also rightly emphasized that climate change stands to induce hardship for Westerners and Western women as well:  single mothers in Germany faced with rising food prices, for example.

In general terms, those who participated in this event see the demands of gender justice as necessarily requiring climate justice.  While some approaches favored by participants were little more than institutional-reformist—such as “gender-sensitivizing” policy-makers—others took dominant approaches to climate change for what they are:  a “fraud” being perpetrated in the interests of business.  The alternative, for those who subscribe to such views, is to concentrate one’s efforts on remaking the world.

Curiously, though perhaps not surprisingly, participants at this workshop dedicated little energy to consideration of the realities that can be expected to come about if efforts to remake the world should fail:  horrific human suffering in South Asia, for example, or the disappearance of Kiribati altogether.

Javier Sethness is a libertarian socialist and rights-advocate. He maintains the blog Notes toward an International Libertarian Eco-Socialism.