The Warsaw Walkout and the Climate Movement


The story is now part of climate history. Yesterday, as climate talks degraded into a sideshow for the coal industry, more than 800 conference participants walked out. Wearing T-shirts adorned with the word, Volverermos (We will return), the activists handed in their registration badges and abandoned the United Nations Climate Change Summit. The conference is sliding into its last day like a baseball player who doesn’t realize he was tagged out at third base. But what difference does it make?

If Oxfam, Greenpeace, and a couple dozen other NGOs and nonprofits walk out of a conference that was obviously farcical to begin with, is anything actually accomplished? One glance at the fossil fuel funders of COP 19 would raise the question: What were these groups really doing there in the first place?

The popular narrative, repeated by credible journalists and activists, points to the Warsaw Walkout as the first of its kind within the broader global climate discussion. By walking out, the groups involved exposed the problems with the process. However, heightened protests both within and outside of the Conference of Parties meetings have gone on for years. At COP 15 in Copenhagen, between 200-500 delegates walked out of the talks as a bike bloc flooded the streets amongst massive “blue” and “green” blocs of protestors penetrated police barricades to join the delegates. Upwards of 100,000 protestors marched in the streets of “Hopenhagen” during COP 15, including campesinos, indigenous peoples, environmentalists, and social justice activists. They were met with brutal police repression—unjustified raids, mass arrests, and border closures.

Lumumba Di-Aping, Chairman of the G77 delegation at COP 15, stated, “it has become clear that the Danish presidency—in the most undemocratic fashion—is advancing the interests of the developed countries at the expense of the balance of obligations between developed and developing countries.” Mainstream media closed out the talks as though Obama had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat after the US and China struck a last-minute agreement. But the deal was defeated by the larger conference, and largely viewed as a power-play. The bamboozled populous was summed up by the disenchanted slogan, “Hopenhagen: What the Fuck!?”

The Long Road to Warsaw

To be absolutely clear, beyond exposing the climate talks as a sham (a task perhaps better executed by simple non-involvement), the COP 15 walk out had little-to-no lasting effect. Like 350.org’s no Keystone XL campaign, it was all sound and fury signifying nothing: large publicity-grabbing actions were held, but when faced with political stagnation, the higher-ups declared victory and the grassroots action was reallocated. The bureaucrats higher up the ladder make the call, and their networks follow in formation.

In the case of climate negotiations, the portentous rift between the protestors and G77 on one hand and the powerful, developed countries on the other was succored back together by stop-gap compromises and lies after Copenhagen. The next year in Cancun, the Conference of Parties talks went surprisingly smoothly. As opposed to Copenhagen, where the entire African Group walked out of the conference to protest economic injustice, COP 16 saw almost total collaboration. Bolivia stood alone in opposition against the general trajectory of the climate talks, as the internal opposition became absorbed into the image of REDD agreements. COP 17 the following year in Durban, South Africa, seemed to continue the sentiments of Cancun.

The next year, at COP 18 in Doha, the Philippines’ negotiator interrupted the log-rolling with a heart rendering plea: “I appeal to the whole world, I appeal to leaders from all over the world, to open our eyes to the stark reality that we face. I appeal to ministers. The outcome of our work is not about what our political masters want. It is about what is demanded of us by 7 billion people.

“I appeal to all, please, no more delays, no more excuses. Please, let Doha be remembered as the place where we found the political will to turn things around. Please, let 2012 be remembered as the year the world found the courage to find the will to take responsibility for the future we want. I ask of all of us here, if not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here, then where?””

His admonitions fell on deaf ears.

A Broken Movement

Typhoon Haiyan marked the cruel irony of the COP tragicomedy, as proceedings opened in Warsaw to the worst recorded natural disaster in the Philippines’ history. In a significant display, Naderev Sano with the Philippines’ delegation, began a fast after the typhoon to encourage immediate and meaningful steps through COP 19. Circumstances in Poland also hinted at the farcical nature of the conference. Scandalously, the two-day International Coal and Climate Summit convened in Warsaw as the climate talks went underway, and the UNFCCC chief Christiana Figueres gave the keynote speech, prompting Greenpeace activists to drop a banner from the Ministry of Economy stating, “Who rules Poland? Coal industry or the people?”

In a shocking move, Poland’s Prime Minister Donald Tusk waited until immediately after the coal summit was over—right in the middle of the climate summit—to fire the environmental minister of Poland, Marcin Korolec, in an obvious gesture towards increasing resource extraction. Korolec was still expected to chair the climate negotiations in spite of his new career path.

The shambolic display of industrial false solutions and international skullduggery exceeded even Poland’s terrible performance. Australia’s participation in the conference came on the heels of a nation-wide protest, in which an estimated 60,000 protestors jammed public spaces around the country to protest anti-climate policies. Australia remains the worst carbon emitter per capita, and have fought emissions standards tooth-and-nail.

Home of the groundbreaking Kyoto accords, Japan now resides around fifth worst in carbon rankings, and shows no sign of recovery. In fact, Japan received heavy criticism for drastically scaling down its emissions targets just before the climate talks began. Ironically, one of Japan’s heaviest critics was Su Wei, deputy chief of the Chinese delegation to the climate talks, who declared, “I don’t have any words to describe my dismay.”

Coming out of the Warsaw conference, China is liberalizing both its land and environmental regulations, making it easier for markets to “regulate” pollution, and for corporations to grab public lands. China must do something about the environmental conditions, since pollution-caused “group events” involving tens of thousands of raging protestors have reached epidemic proportions throughout the country. While China’s new reforms may cut back on some forms of pollution, the loosening up of old Communist-era land rights, which theoretically grant collective ownership to rural lands, may enhance accumulation of capital at the expense of regional employment by increasing dependency on foreign resources—much like the steady trend of de-employment and “quality of life” projects in the US since the late 1970s (also known as gentrification or accumulation by dispossession).

Picking Up the Pieces

Barring a miracle of contemporary protest organizing, coal will continue to be steady flowing from Australia and New Zealand, as well as the US—if, that is, companies are able to suppress widespread public outcry from the Powder River Basin where the coal is mined in Montana to Coastal Pacific Northwest, where terminals are being proposed. In the meantime, agreements like REDD that pretend to sponsor sustainable forestry policies enable palm oil plantations to spread wings of destruction across Malaysia and Indonesia. The smoke from forest clearances for palm plantations has drawn the ire of Singapore, among other places, who blame the monoculture for their terrible air quality. And the palm plantations are metastasizing throughout the world, speared on by corporations from Scandanavia to the US to South Korea.

By all means, the Warsaw Walkout must be seen as a step in the right direction. It also coincides with other important global actions, like the drafting of the strongly-worded Calabar Statement, signed by 21 important land rights organizations operating in Africa. At the same time, the rift between civil society and the Global South on one hand and the North on the other is becoming more elastic. As the past few years have shown, COP meetings in the Global South meet less resistance, while the meetings held in the North meet higher levels of civil unrest. This is not to say that the North keeps the promises it makes, but perhaps that it is forced to make more promises when playing on the other side’s home turf and then races back to Europe when called to account.

What remains to be seen, however, is how civil society organizations who walked out of the COP 19 will organize beyond climate collaborationism. If their strategy is to sign up for big conferences, and then walk out to expose the fraud, then we’re all doomed. How many of them will go back to the table next year? How long before the symbolic rejection of the industrial status quo moves into systemic and unceasing methods of resistance? It is here that climate activists stand as inheritors of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising—not through some singular action, but as constant rebels against the ongoing Holocaust (literally, Great Fire) that continues to annihilate the world as we know it, as well as the possibility for the survival of humanity into the next generation.

Alexander Reid Ross is a co-founding moderator of the Earth First! Newswire and editor of the forthcoming anthology Grabbing Back: Articles Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press 2014). He is also a contributor to Life During Wartime: Resisting Counterinsurgency (AK Press 2013).

This article is also being published at the Earth First! Newswire.

Alexander Reid Ross is a contributing moderator of the Earth First! Newswire. He is the editor of Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press 2014) and a contributor to Life During Wartime (AK Press 2013). His most recent book Against the Fascist Creep is forthcoming through AK Press.

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