How can the climate change movement move ahead in 2012?

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It is important not to underestimate the harm caused by the failure of negotiations in Copenhagen and Durban — but it is equally important not to succumb to pessimism. 


by Elaine Graham-Leigh
Counterfire (UK), January 24, 2012

In the planning stages, the demonstration at the climate talks in Copenhagen in December 2009, and the associated protests in cities around the world, were often discussed as if they were the culmination of all previous years of campaigning against climate change. Almost two years on, it is easy to look back on them as the apogee of the movement, meaning that from then on it has been all downhill.

The comparison between the movement in the UK before and after Copenhagen is as instructive as it is depressing. The protest at Copenhagen itself was made up of at least 100,000 people, while Stop Climate Chaos’ The Wave demonstration in London culminated in 50,000 people encircling the Houses of Parliament; the largest ever climate protest in the UK. During and immediately after Copenhagen, there was talk of new alliances between environmental groups across Europe, and the possibility of creating a wider, stronger movement which could take the energising experience of the Copenhagen protests and use it to take the campaigns against climate change forward.

While there have been some excellent attempts to turn this promise into reality, such as the Climate Alliance, the position now in early 2012 is not what anyone would have hoped for in January 2010.

In one view, the movement is simply the victim of unfavourable objective circumstances. The furore over ‘Climategate’, the hacked emails from climate researchers at the University of East Anglia, along with the contemporaneous accusation of mistakes in IPCC reports, empowered a new wave of climate change denial, while the failure of world leaders to come up with a meaningful deal at Copenhagen dealt a significant blow to the idea of climate change as a solvable problem. Despite efforts by the likes of Chris Huhne and Lord Stern to present the 2011 Durban climate summit as a success, the agreement to have an agreement for climate change reductions is hardly sufficient to reverse this Copenhagen effect.

That Climategate and Copenhagen were a difficult double whammy for the green movement is fairly uncontroversial, but there is another argument which sees climate change campaigns as the authors of their own misfortunes, actually damaging the agenda they are seeking to promote. This is not solely a post-Copenhagen contention, but it has been given extra impetus by the sense of crisis after the failure of the Copenhagen summit.

Since early 2010, criticisms have been levelled at climate change campaigners by figures who could be seen as having come from within the movement, and who were certainly widely respected in it, such as Mark Lynas and George Monbiot. These arguments seem both to come out of and foster the sense of failure post-Copenhagen and create the context in which the next steps for the movement are considered. It’s worth therefore examining them in some detail.

The most obvious point of contention between Lynas and Monbiot on the one hand and many greens on the other is the issue of nuclear power. For Lynas, nuclear power is a clear necessity, so much so that he states in his latest book, The God Species, that ‘anyone who still marches against nuclear today…is in my view just as bad for the climate as textbook eco-villains like the big oil companies.’ [1] Monbiot is less unequivocal than Lynas in his nuclear position, but he increasingly regards nuclear power as a least-worst, necessary replacement for coal. [2]

Lynas and Monbiot are clearly coming from different places politically, but they are united by what seems to be an appeal to pragmatism. In different ways, all these arguments present the idea that one of the major problems with the green movement is that it has become too ideological, and that ideological nature is preventing it from simply embracing what might work to deal with climate change. [3] This is not restricted to the nuclear issue; for Lynas in particular, the root of the problem lies in the fundamentals of what he characterises as green thinking.

The central opposition for Lynas is between green desires for untouched nature, secured from human influence, and those who, like him, appreciate the primary importance of human society. It is true that the idea of a pristine natural world is impossible. It results both from our alienation from nature under capitalism, and a failure to appreciate the dialectic between human society and the natural world, shaping and being shaped by each other. Lynas is not however asserting the importance of understanding this dialectic, but making the extremely undialectical argument that what matters is the irreversible status of man’s domination over nature.

That this is real domination is shown by the metaphors used to describe it: for Lynas, we need to embrace our role as the conquerors of the world and realise that ‘the first responsibility of a conquering army is always to govern’. [4] This expression of human dominance of nature in military terms is telling in the context of Lynas’ argument that greens have allowed a straightforward message about climate change to become contaminated by other political agendas.

Given the involvement of many greens in campaigning against imperialist wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in recent years, the characterisation of humans in general as a conquering army comes across as a very definite statement of position; a challenge to the totality of what the green movement might be thought to stand for.

The idea that all environmentalists pursue the separation of nature from humans is of course highly debatable, but framing the argument in these terms provides as a starting point the implication that the green position is to be opposed to any technical innovation to deal with climate change. The debate is thus portrayed as between on one side a green view which sees energy-saving austerity and cuts in living standards as the only way to reduce emissions, and on the other the sane, balanced thinkers who perceive that modern technology can do the job on emissions while enabling us to keep the lights on. As Lynas says:

‘Global warming is not about overconsumption, morality, ideology or capitalism. It is largely the result of human beings generating energy by burning hydrocarbons and coal. It is, in other words, a technical problem, and it is therefore amendable to a largely technical solution, albeit one driven by politics.’ [5]

The notion that greens in general are opposed to using technology to reduce emissions is at the very least difficult to sustain. One would be hard put to find green opposition to the concept of renewable energy, for example, or to the development and improvement of these sorts of technologies. The problem with the technofix is not the use of technology itself, as opposed to the return to the pre-technology age for which greens are supposedly nostalgic, but the attempt to use technology as a alternative to making changes in the way the current system works. Lynas’ argument is essentially that solutions to climate change can only be found within the current system, and they can therefore only be technical ones.

Given this basic assumption, it is not surprising that Lynas views greens who are critical of the system as actively unhelpful as well as misguided. They drive away those who have a stake in the current system, who need only to be convinced that dealing with climate change does not mean consorting with hairy lefties.

This is important because Lynas has to explain why, for all the eminent solvability of climate change within the current system it has not, in fact, been solved. The technofixes may be easily available, but evidence for their large scale imminent deployment is sadly lacking. If this failure cannot be laid at the door of counterproductive green campaigners, the only option is to conclude that the system is not able to respond to climate change by introducing measures to combat it directly.

George Monbiot, while writing from a more generally left-wing perspective than Lynas, seems to have a similar take on the movement, in that the perspective now is one following a significant setback. Monbiot’s adoption of a broadly pro-nuclear power position can be seen as a study in his move towards a view of the green movement which holds that it has been damaging its own cause by not adopting a pragmatic view on what is possible now. This is because, while it is possible to trace in Monbiot’s recent writing a move towards more enthusiastic support for nuclear power, it is clear that he remains far from the wholehearted nuclear enthusiast which Lynas appears to be. For Monbiot, nuclear power remains a far from ideal solution, but is the solution which is both available now, and is significantly better in climate terms than fossil fuel power stations.

That this is a capitulation to the status quo is demonstrated by the fact that Monbiot does not dispute that it would be theoretically possible to decarbonise energy generation, noting that Zero Carbon Britain and others have shown how this could be done in principle through a combination of renewable energy generation and energy efficiency. [6]

The barriers to a large-scale shift to renewable energy are not physical but political: the additional costs of managing the grid with a significant proportion of electricity from renewable sources, the time it would take to construct the new infrastructure, and local objections to new renewable installations, particularly to wind farms and to the new power lines they would require. [7]

It is interesting that for Monbiot, protestors against wind farms are a political reality whose views have to be accommodated, even to the extent of abandoning the idea of a decarbonised energy system derived from renewable sources, yet anti-nuclear protestors simply have to accept their error of their ways and stop their opposition to this best available answer to climate change. Why both groups of protestors do not have equal weight is not clear.

The other arguments in favour of nuclear as opposed to renewable energy also work only with the assumption that the system, and therefore the rules within which the different options for low-carbon energy generation are considered, cannot be changed. Defenders of capitalism often attempt to portray its workings as immutable, natural laws, [8] but in fact, given sufficient motivation, capitalist economies can move remarkably quickly, as for example the US economy’s ‘turn on a dime’ on entering the Second World War.

However, since Monbiot effectively rules out any such dramatic shifts in the current economy, the task of shifting energy generation to renewables appears an impossible one. Unlike Lynas, Monbiot remains unconvinced by the possibility of responding to climate change within the current system, yet for him no solution which looks beyond the current system is possible. It is small wonder that he sees the green movement as lacking in answers, given the unanswerable conundrum this reasoning sets up, nor that his writing on energy generation throughout 2010 and 2011 has become steadily more pessimistic.

This sense of pessimism is very much in keeping with the idea that Copenhagen and Climategate added up to a defeat for the movement, but it is clearly related here to the assumption that a practical response to climate change means not looking beyond the status quo. It is therefore worth examining quite why Copenhagen is now assumed to have been such a defeat for the climate movement.

That the Copenhagen summit ended without the agreement of a follow-up deal to the Kyoto Protocol was of course a serious setback to hopes that governments could get together and agree a rational response to climate change, barely ameliorated by the agreement at Durban to try again to get an agreement. This is not the same however as saying that it was also necessarily a serious setback for the climate change movement. Concluding that the climate movement was defeated because the Copenhagen summit did not result in a deal is rather like the argument that the Stop the War coalition failed in 2003 because it didn’t prevent the war in Iraq: an argument levelled at it by opponents which completely ignores how the activities of the anti-war movement shifted general opinion against the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan and eventually led to the resignation of Tony Blair.

However, it is true that there appeared to be considerable opportunities arising from the demonstrations around the world and in Copenhagen, along with the Copenhagen alternative summit, for creating a wider, more united movement against climate change, which to date have largely failed to come to fruition.

In part, capitalising on the links made by activists at Copenhagen would have required both energy and optimism, and it’s possible to speculate that the very discourse of failure in the media coverage of the summit played its part in the sense that campaigns against climate change had suffered a serious setback. There is a sense in which this perception of failure could have become self-fulfilling: the green movement was defeated at Copenhagen because after the fact it decided that it had been.

It is important not to underestimate this retrospective sense of failure, but it is equally important not to take it as the whole story of Copenhagen and its aftermath. This would, after all, be to see the movement as divorced from its objective circumstances. Understanding an event or a period as a success or failure can indeed help to make it so, but the progress or otherwise of a movement does not happen solely in the heads of its participants.

Aside from the discourse of failure, Copenhagen did objectively herald a change for the movement. Even if groups had been able to grasp the opportunities for working together, it would have had to have been in a very different way from the approach to campaigning in the lead up to the summit.

The demonstrations around the annual climate summits have tended to work as protests calling for government action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with the specific slogans comparatively muted by this general message. Although the issues around climate change have moved on, the idea of calling for government action, pretty much any government action, on climate change, has remained in some ways a meeting point for the movement. It has been the point at which those who believe in market solutions, lifestyle changes or revolution have come together to demonstrate for action, with the precise nature of said action in the small print.

With the demise of the hope of concerted government action within the current system, the green movement is left between two poles – system change or the profitable technofix – without the point at which it was able to cohere in the middle. It is easy to see why this might be disorientating for the movement, but more than that, it could call into question the need for a mass movement specifically and solely on climate change at all.

The strategy of building a mass movement on climate change contains the assumption that climate change can usefully be seen as a discrete problem for which there are solutions available within the current system, regardless of how difficult a political task it would be to compel governments to adopt them. Copenhagen however emphasised that climate change is an issue arising from the workings of the system itself, and so is not amenable to amelioration by statute.

This is not to argue that climate change campaigners should simply widen their remit. This would be unlikely to be a successful strategy, and in practice would be difficult to do. It has been suggested that part of the reason for Climate Camp’s decision to release its participants for other projects was the difficultly in moving from an understanding of themselves as activists against climate change specifically to more general anti-capitalism within the Climate Camp framework. Climate Camp could not itself take on the entire system, but there seems to have been an increasing sense that concentrating only on the climate change aspect of the wider problem was not enough. [9]

Climate change campaigns may not be able to bring down the system on their own, but what we can do is place ourselves at the centre of the movements which are taking on capitalism at the sharp end – campaigns against austerity, against cuts, against unemployment, against the war.

If we understand climate change as not a technical problem but an integral part of capitalism then joining these campaigns is fighting for climate action, just as much as marching on a climate change demo, and it is concentrating the fight where we have the greatest chance of building a genuinely mass movement.

Placing climate change at the heart of these campaigns also brings a necessary international focus to campaigns which can risk becoming parochial, plus many of the transitional demands which we fight for against austerity are climate change demands as well. The call for a million green jobs to create the necessary low carbon infrastructure is just one example.

Lynas and Monbiot in many ways are correct: under the current system, the only response to climate change is to find the commercially-profitable technofix, and if you don’t think that sounds like a good idea, then there are no answers at all. But the current system is not immutable, and if we don’t see privatised sky mirrors as the answer for global warming, the movement against the ConDem cuts may actually be the best place to continue the fight.



1 Mark Lynas, The God Species. How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans, (London 2011), p.10.

2 See the range of articles on nuclear power reposted on

3 See for example George Monbiot and Chris Goodall, ‘The moral case for nuclear power’.

4 Lynas, The God Species, p.12.

5 Ibid., p.66.

6 George Monbiot, ‘Nuked by friend and foe’.

7 See for example George Monbiot, ‘The lost world’.

8 As Lukacs points out, the bourgeoisie ‘must think of capitalism as being predestined to eternal survival by the eternal laws of nature and reason.’, Georg Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness. Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone, (London 1971), p.11.

9 My thoughts on the wind up of Climate Camp owe much to Sophie Lewis’ excellent The rise and fall (and rise) of the Camp for Climate Action UK : notes on interventions in challenging carbon democracy, unpublished ms, (Oxford University, 2011). However, my conclusions and any misapprehensions are my own. Also interesting on this point are comments made by some of the interviewees in the 2011 film Just Do It on their thoughts on the climate change movement post Copenhagen.

1 Comment

  • My gut feeling in response to climate change is that the only sustainable way for humankind to work with Nature is cooperatively, not exploitatively which, at a collective level, is our historic and our current mode of operation. As conscious creatures we are ideally suited to work with Nature cooperatively but because we work exploitatively we are not only squandering the opportunities that a cooperative way of working would offer us we are actually destroying our natural support systems and thus ourselves. As I see it if we want to survive as a species we, collectively, have to change to working cooperatively with Nature and that is the measure that we need to apply to everything that we do, or plan to do. Is it working cooperatively with Nature? If it is then fine, but if it is not then stop it, if it is already in operation, or, if only in prospect, do not embark upon it.

    The opposition to the above way of thinking and acting saddens me but does not surprise me, nor does it divert me from this trajectory and it should not divert or discourage others because humankind actually has no other option. Either enough people eventually get the message and we are saved from destruction by the skin of our teeth or they don’t and then we are all finished anyway. It is as stark as that.