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Why Climate Justice Did Not Crumble at the Summit

Copenhagen Inside-Out

by PATRICK BOND

Writing in CounterPunch, Tim Simons and Ali Tonak (hereafter S&T) have gone overboard in their critique of radical climate politics, offering an always-welcome warning against ineffectual reformism, but making enemies inappropriately due to their inadequate exposure to the Climate Justice (CJ) movement’s political analysis and to their misreading of Copenhagen alliances, strategies and tactics.

For S&T, ‘the antiglobalization movement has been brought out of its slumber’ because ‘anniversaries and nostalgia often trump the here and now’. Yet ‘what is troublesome,’ they worry, is ‘the attempted resurrection of this movement, known by some as the Global Justice Movement, under the banner of Climate Justice.’

Others may differ, but I think it’s terribly important to generate political linkages to the earlier tradition, dating not to the Seattle World Trade Organization (WTO) protest but to Zapatismo in 1994 (as CJ might date its origins to Accion Ecologica’s pathbreaking work in Ecuador at roughly the same time). Seattle+10 wasn’t actually the leading CJ’s movement’s founding moment; that occurred in Bali, Indonesia two years earlier when Climate Justice Now! (CJN!) emerged outside another failed Conference of Parties (COP).

That crucial moment stitched together global justice and radical environmental activists. Since then, the growth of CJ politics has been not merely the rebranding of existing radical networks – but instead has witnessed a new red-green movement across borders that is necessarily going to be anti-capitalist if it addresses the problem with the seriousness required.

A litany of anti-CJ claims

S&T repeatedly insist that the CJ movement promotes ‘the financialization of nature and the indirect reliance on markets and monetary solutions as catalysts for structural change’. As is well known, CJN! and the main Copenhagen activist network, Climate Justice Action (and before them the Durban Group for Climate Justice starting in October 2004), are explicitly against commodification of the atmosphere, strenuously opposing carbon trading and offsets.

S&T also claim the movement ‘obfuscates internal class antagonisms within states of the Global South in favor of simplistic North-South dichotomies.’ This is a danger, of course, and always has been in internationalist politics. But against that danger, dynamic CJ movements are emerging to challenge national elites (and the transnational corporations they front for) in Brazil, India and South Africa (three of the four sell-out countries whose leaders joined Barack Obama for the December 18 Copenhagen Accord) and in most other major Global South sites.

S&T worry about ‘the pacification of militant action resulting from an alliance forged with transnational NGOs and reformist environmental groups who have been given minimal access to the halls of power in exchange for their successful policing of the movement’. Yes, there’s a danger of demobilization, but CJN! arose specifically because the existing Climate Action Network was so incompetent, compromised and ideologically corrupted. Moreover, in Copenhagen, some of the most militant South-based transnational movements – e.g. Via Campesina and Oilwatch affiliates – showed they are able to negotiate the inside-outside space with power and grace. So too did the CJ’s movement’s major formal NGO network which worked to undermine elite legitimacy within the Bella Centre, Friends of the Earth (as a result, they were booted).

S&T repeatedly allege that senior movement strategists (only Naomi Klein is named – though out of context, prior to the December 16-18 degeneration) ordered ‘those who came to protest to be one with a summit of world nations and accredited NGOs, instead of presenting a radical critique and alternative force.’ But in this instance, it’s not either/or but both/and: establishing a durable alliance with the Bolivian government delegation was perfectly consistent with presenting a radical critique and posing alternatives.

It may be tedious, but since S&T make so many unjustified allegations, consider some of the finer details.

Should climate damage be paid?

Regarding climate commodification, S&T begin by unfavourably comparing CJ politics to a decade past when, for example, ‘debt incurred through loans taken out from the IMF and World Bank [informed] the antiglobalization movement’s analysis and demand to “Drop the Debt.”’ Sure, but Jubilee South soon went much further and by 2001 also insisted on ‘Reparations for Slavery, Colonialism, Apartheid’ from the UN World Conference Against Racism (here in Durban). Because WCAR conference leaders Thabo Mbeki and Mary Robinson dogmatically refused to even table reparations for discussion (and also refused to recognize Zionism as racism), a march of 10,000 protesters set the stage for future anti-UN actions.

The best of the older Jubilee South debt/reparations language and ‘Ecological Debt’ demands that have been made ever more forcefully, culminating in the insistence on $400 billion/annum by 2020 (a figure that has been rising dramatically as we learn more about the damage ahead). CJ ecodebt demands were originally associated with Accion Ecologica and have overlapped closely with the broader global justice movement via Jubilee South, dating to the late 1990s. Hence it may embarrass S&T to recall that ‘Drop the Debt’ language was actually the least challenging component of this critique of world finance and economy.

The most obvious component of Ecological Debt is Climate Debt, and since S&T do not   recognize the latter, they miss the crucial difference between Northern elites owing vulnerable ‘countries’ (as S&T say), when actually they owe people and ecosystems. This is important because if the North provides climate monies to Ethiopian tyrant Meles Zenawi (a close ally of George W. Bush when invading Somalia in January 2007 and of Nicolas Sarkozy when halving Africa’s Climate Debt demands just prior to arriving in Copenhagen) plus most other African elites, these recipients would likely abuse the funds. We need Climate Debt paid, but directly to the victims of climate chaos, and mechanisms need to be established to do so. (Similar debates have characterized the apartheid reparations movement’s strategies for non-state funding mechanisms.)

Hence we don’t need to waste time with S&T’s misguided critique of Climate Debt – instead, we need to restate this relationship as one between the primary victims of climate chaos and the beneficiaries of greenhouse gas emissions, including Southern elites such as most white South Africans and  corporations such as SA’s Anglo American, Eskom and Sasol. Thus if articulated fully, Climate Debt should cover not only the damages done by climate change but also finance for the South’s transcendence of extreme uneven development associated with the world economy’s export-oriented operation. Payment of Climate Debt damages and of ‘adaptation’ financing – if done properly – would ideally permit (and compel) the Global South to delink from all manner of relations with the world economy that damage both the exporting economy and the climate: fossil fuel extraction, agricultural plantations and associated deforestation, export-processing zones, vast shipping operations and foreign debt that forces further attempts to raise hard currency.

Climate Debt is not, therefore, a ‘simple claim’, as S&T allege, it’s potentially a complex challenge to capitalism’s internal logic of commodification and neoliberal policy expansion. This is critical because S&T claim that the earlier ‘Drop the Debt’ language aimed to ‘not only stop privatization (or at least its primary enabling mechanism) but also open up political space for local social movements to take advantage of. Yet something serious is overlooked in this rhetorical transfer of the concept of debt from the era of globalization to that of climate change.’

Not true. Only by understanding Climate Debt simplistically do you fall into this trap. Likewise ‘Drop the Debt’ could be read in a simplistic way – as did the 2005 Make Poverty History campaign run mainly by Oxfam, the Gleneagles G8 ‘mobilizations’ (characterized by Bono and Geldof’s untenable victory claims), and the Global Call for Action Against Poverty’s white bands and Millennium Development Goals, which all stupidly encouraged debt relief alongside tighter subsequent relations with world financial, industrial, commodity and commercial circuitries.

Does counting climate chaos lead to climate commodification?

Most inaccurately, S&T claim that our CJ ‘demands for reparations justified by the notion of climate debt open a dangerous door to increased green capitalist investment in the Global South’. Yet the door has been wide open since 1997, when the mainstream greens adopted the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) as a North-South financing strategy. Climate Debt analysis does the exact opposite: delink reparations obligations from market mechanisms. This is so obvious a strategy that even African elites adopted it in their own negotiations rhetoric in late 2009.

In short, to promote Climate Debt does not require us to promote CDMs or other existing financing strategies that tie the South more deeply into Northern-controlled circuits of capital. On the contrary, the Climate Debt demand is why we can legitimately argue the South should halt export-oriented agriculture, extraction of minerals and petroleum, cheap manufacturing platforms and metals smelting, mass-produced consumer imports, further debt, further migrant labor supplies, further Foreign Direct Investment, further aid dependency, etc etc).

Moreover, S&T fail to recognize that Climate Debt is about reparations to people who are suffering damages by the actions of Northern overconsumption of environmental space – damages that can be proven even in courts (the way the Alien Tort Claims Act has proven useful in the US for some of the Niger Delta plaintiffs against Shell recently and for apartheid victims).

S&T further suggest that ‘“Climate Debt” perpetuates a system that assigns economic and financial value to the biosphere, ecosystems and in this case a molecule of CO2’, and that ‘Everyone from Vestas to the Sudanese government to large NGOs agree on this fundamental principle: that the destruction of nature and its consequences for humans can be remedied through financial markets and trade deals and that monetary value can be assigned to ecosystems.’

Even if S&T’s political conclusion is wrong, their resistance to quantification of nature is understandable and commendable. Yet it’s passé, particularly given the CJ movement’s hostility to – and track record fighting – carbon markets. Under capitalism, after all, everything gets commodified, and it seems to me that the optimal Climate Debt narrative involves recognizing this problem, to insist on explicitly compensation for damages done by climate chaos to the South (especially islands, Africa, Bangladesh and other vulnerable sites), and then, yes, to make a rough estimate of this damage. The point is both financing compensation (for ‘adaptation’ – i.e. survival) and disincentivizing further climate damage by penalizing the polluters.

Climate Debt analyst Joan Martinez-Alier responds to this kind of critique by acknowledging, ‘although it is not possible to make an exact accounting, it is necessary to establish the principal categories and certain orders of magnitude in order to stimulate discussion.’ Once we have generated discussion about the damages done to South climate victims (including their inability to use the environmental space that is occupied by the North), next comes the logical demand for reparations. To refuse on principle to make any kind of quantification, as do S&T, is to refuse to acknowledge that damage is being done – and then to refuse to halt it. That’s Washington’s revolting viewpoint, of course, as was stated repeatedly by Obama Administration officials in Copenhagen: ‘Don’t owe, won’t pay’ – while the president’s Kenyan relatives are amongst the first serious victims.

Alliances with enemies?

S&T then condemn Copenhagen CJ activists for insufficient militancy, which they trace to the inside-outside strategy. S&T’s mistake is understating the possibility for a large-scale walk-out from the Bella Centre, which appeared the most likely scenario until December 17th, when the African Union (AU) delegation lost spine. Prior to that point, it really did appear that Copenhagen might be ‘seattled’ by virtue of a denial of consensus by the AU, small islands and Bolivaran countries, similar to the outcome of the 1999 Seattle and 2003 Cancun World Trade Organization ministerial summits. What happened to the first two core groups between the 16th and 18th of December is unclear, but by Friday the AU and small islands had nearly all been pounded into submission, i.e., allowing the UN to ‘note’ the Accord.

Optimally, the AU delegates would have walked out, as was threatened as early as August, and as was dress-rehearsed the month before in a Barcelona meeting. But the elites running the AU – especially Zenawi of Ethiopia and Jacob Zuma of South Africa – took the AU in the usual direction, to work against the interests of the African masses and environment. One lesson we must draw is that the CJ activists did not sufficiently weaken the Northern negotiators and provide enough support to these Southern elites. Another is that the AU elites cannot be trusted, full stop (and I for one was mistaken by the extent of Zenawi’s militant rhetoric – we call this ‘talk left, walk right’ – from August-November).

But on December 14 we didn’t know the extent of the coming sell-out, so at that stage, CJ activists expressed the sense that the South elites might indeed repeat the Seattle/Cancun walk-outs – albeit as Naomi Klein put it, this would be ‘nothing like Seattle’ insofar as back in 1999 there was virtually no connection between the African elites who walked out and the street militants (only a couple of NGOs, Third World Network and Seatini, had feet in both camps). Indeed the final lesson of Copenhagen is that the only really reliable government to support CJ principles is Bolivia’s, perhaps adding Cuba and Venezuela (though petro-socialism is a contradiction in terms).

Looking ahead, only those sleeping through Copenhagen will have any expectation that in November the bulk of state delegations, the multilaterals and the mainstream green movement (WWF, IUCN, EDF, NRDC, etc) will do anything useful at Mexico’s COP 16. Given that reality, only a very few outliers in the CJ movement, such as Greenpeace, will be asking ‘our political leaders’ – as TckTckTck chair Kumi Naidoo described them in a widely circulated AP article on December 24 – to do better next time.

Instead, like James Hansen, the CJ movement has (or should have) wised up to the need for further Copenhagen-style global elite gridlock (e.g. in the US Senate where failure to generate a climate bill will be welcome in coming months since no legislation is on the table that will improve matters), and hence direct actions of a much more serious nature at local and national scales, e.g. keep the oil in the soil and coal in the hole, and protest at environmental regulatory agencies and planning commissions that are not doing their job properly.

Militants demobilized?

S&T claim that ‘the bureaucratization of the antiglobalization movement (or its remnants), with the increased involvement from NGOs and governments, has been a process that manifested itself in World Social Forums and Make Poverty History rallies’, a fair point. Though still brimming with potential, the WSF was always mainly a talk shop. MPH was, from the start, opposed to what S&T call ‘antiglobalization’, and its core force, Oxfam, called itself ‘globophile’ as against our movement’s ‘globophobes’. Sure, some global justice components are bureaucratized, but others – like CJ – show a very healthy radical orientation.

S&T claim that CJ activists were ‘asked by these newly empowered managers of popular resistance to focus solely on supporting actors within the UN framework’, but there are no names or organizations identified to go back for an accountability check, aside from Greenpeace. Indeed, Greenpeace embodies some extreme contradictions. In South Africa, we’ve criticized their applause of the Zuma government at the outset of Copenhagen for being a ‘star’ (thanks to Pretoria’s lies about potential emissions cuts), i.e., classical Greenpeace malpractice of parachuting into a place they don’t know and doing great damage by stumbling around, mismessaging and hogging the airwaves with their brand and ability to carry out effective publicity stunts (in SA, Greenpeace asked Zuma to attend Copenhagen by placing a high profile sign with this request around the neck of the main statue of Nelson Mandela, and Zuma not only did so in order to defend SA’s lamentable emissions and new coal-fired power plants, but on December 18 was one of five core leaders to sign Obama’s public relations gimmick). I hope the new Greenpeace director, Kumi Naidoo (from Durban), can turn that around, though his statement on December 24 wasn’t encouraging: `One thing our political leaders have learned is that they have to up their game’.

S&T allege that ‘solidarity with the Global South’ was conflated with ‘a handful of NGO bureaucrats and allied government leaders’. As one who applauded Zenawi’s walk-out threat as early as last August – mindful of his tyrannical role, to be sure – I’ll plead guilty to misreading the potential for fully seattling Copenhagen, and likewise I recognize that the new CJ movement in South Africa was not as effective in undoing the enormous damage of SA government officials as it could have been. But that just means much tougher analysis and better organizing is needed in future.

There are certainly some in the CJ movement who would put the North-South contradiction ahead of internal class conflict as a priority for struggle, and while I’m not one of those, that tension is openly recognized and has been the source of frank debating as this broad global movement is organized quickly, without secretariats and enforced norms/values/processes. It’s not easy, and requires constructive criticism, not a writing-off of the nascent CJ movement.

Romanticizing the 1999 WTO shutdown – ‘Ten years ago, resistance to transnational capital went hand in hand with resistance to corrupt governments North and South that were enabling the process of neoliberal globalization’ – S&T forget that in Seattle and Cancun four years later, there was plenty of celebrating in the streets when the African elites denied consensus and broke up the WTO ministerials.

S&T claim that ‘Those who came to pose a radical alternative to the COP15 in the streets found their energy hijacked by a logic that prioritized attempts to influence the failing summit, leaving street actions uninspired, muffled and constantly waiting for the promised breakthroughs inside the Bella Center that never materialized.’ As I understand it, though, the only real breakthrough that CJ movement people had hoped for, until around December 17th, was a walkout by the AU, AOSIS and ALBA.

Did Copenhagen wreck CJ’s future?

But the final outcome wasn’t bad: no legitimacy, a carbon market crash in subsequent days, and CJ movement building. Yet S&T believe that ‘the display of inside outside unity that the main action on the 16th attempted to manifest was a complete failure and never materialized,’ way too negative a conclusion. The December 16th protest action was a partial success, and certainly the beatings that many suffered trying to get out from the Bella Centre unveiled the UN process as profoundly flawed, if even those basic rights of expression were denied.

S&T therefore assume that ‘An important opportunity to launch a militant movement with the potential to challenge the very foundations of global ecological collapse was successfully undermined leaving many demoralized and confused.’ But only people who had the mistaken impression that Copenhagen would generate elite consciousness and action about climate were despondent. I don’t think that category includes any CJ militant realists.

S&T are simply wrong to conclude that in the process, the CJ movement ‘discarded the most promising elements of the antiglobalization struggles: the total rejection of all market and commodity-based solutions, the focus on building grassroots resistance to the capitalist elites of all nation-states, and an understanding that diversity of tactics is a strength of our movements that needs to be encouraged.’ The first two are obviously false claims, while the third is a matter of conjunctural analysis. I’m willing to hear a scenario in which more militant activities outside would have genuinely changed the process, but it strikes me that it could have degenerated into adventurism without doing anything more durable for movement building, mass concientization on the issues, and delegitimation of the elites. Copenhagen was actually a successful moment if we take those as three objectives.

This is, after all, a movement in its early stages, and if the long tradition of protests for democracy and social justice in Mexico are any guide, and if Cancun in 2003 and the 2006 Mexico City march of 10,000 against the World Water Forum (just as illegitimate a body as those deciding our climate future) are precedents for internationalism, then it will be worthwhile to again descend on the November 2010 Cancun COP and battle to get the issues raised properly – including big emissions cuts, big Climate Debt repayment and the decommissioning of carbon markets – and when the elites refuse the demands of science, environment and most of all radical Southern social movements, who will be there in much greater numbers than in Copenhagen, then the momentum will have decisively shifted away from the centrist NGOs and mainstream environmentalists who do, certainly, aim to band-aid not transform the system.

S&T would have preferred CJ activists to confront ‘the hyper-green capitalism of Hopenhagen, the massive effort of companies such as Siemens, Coca-Cola, Toyota and Vattenfall to greenwash their image and the other representations of this market ideology within the city center.’ But the world’s CJ movements are, it seems to me, targeting both the corporates directly (especially at coalface in the Niger Delta, Ecuador, Australia, Europe, West Virginia and S&T’s own San Francisco), and the national and multilateral executive committees of the bourgeoisie who go to COPS. As they should.

S&T wrap by appropriately asking whether ‘the NGO non-profit industrial complex has become a hindrance’, but this question has long applied to the big corporate green groups, not the bulk of the CJ movement. Their first task, I think, might be to add specific and more constructive critiques, and in the process to build a more radical movement that can demand accountability. This is the way it has always been, and always will be. S&T have made a start, but too sloppily to be of much use as it is.

PATRICK BOND directs the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society. He can be reached at: pbond@mail.ngo.za.