Considering Polyvalent Counter-Hegemonic Climate Justice Resistance Movements

What happened after Copenhagen? Claims of success and blame for who collapsed the talks fly from many sides of many aisles.  In his 18 December 2010 plenary speech to the heads of state attending the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) US President Barack Obama initially posited, “I believe we can act boldly, and decisively, in the face of a common threat.”

Later the same evening, before departing from the Copenhagen airport, the US President presented a slightly less triumphal position, essentially confessing, “[T]his progress did not come easily, and we know that this progress alone is not enough…We’ve come a long way, but we have much further to go.” When pressed about the likelihood of “getting to a legally binding agreement in a year” he answered, “I think it is going to be very hard and it’s going to take some time.”

A month later, on 20 January 2010, the UNFCCC Secretary General Yvo de Boer opined from a press conference in Bonn that the Copenhagen talks “didn’t deliver the cake,” while NGO coalitions from North and South offered split analyses. Major corporate-backed NGOs in the US claimed success and hope for coming talks in Mexico later in 2010, while many from the global south quickly lined up to hoist blame and shame on what some acridly called “Obummer.”

What is revealed in the official submissions to UNFCCC Secretariat is that the collection of 55 countries that represent the vast majority of the world’s emissions, 78%, did almost nothing new. Disturbingly, and largely unreported or unmentioned by (too) many observers from various political orientations, is that most countries simply (re)submitted the same emissions reduction commitments that they had offered prior to the Copenhagen talks! (One notable exception being Canada.) Adding a dash of pain to a veritable policy misery, two leading developing country polluters, China and India, underscored that their reduction submissions are strictly “voluntary.” India took even an extra step to clarify the meaning of “voluntary” noting it as “not legally binding.” 

Not to be outdone, the United States committed itself to a meager 3% reduction from Kyoto-mandated 1990 levels. In what can only be characterized as an effort to obfuscate and falsely inflate their commitment, the US reported its emission reduction as 17%, albeit based on 2005 emissions levels–which amount to the approximate 3% reduction from Kyoto-mandated 1990 levels.

Disturbingly, the official US commitment is clearly at odds with a wealth of leading science, as well as the emerging political rebalancing underway in the post-Copenhagen world.  Such rebalancing increasingly indicates that in order achieve a political agreement, large-emitting developed countries and blocks like the US and EU may very well have to reduce their emissions to very near zero. Such shifting political realities make the US’s “commitment” and the seriousness of the “voluntarism” on offer from leading developing countries even more laughable and worrisome.

The Maldives, whose President Mohammed Nasheed commanded and held the deck of moral authority during the two weeks of COP15 in December 2009, boldly committed to “carbon neutrality” by 2020 in its official submission.

The Maldivian commitment marks a sharp new kind of (re)positioning on ideological and tactical levels, growing both from above, at the level of state, and below, in the ranks of social movements and justice-oriented non-governmental actors.

The repositioning is evocative of Wallersteinian utopistical tendencies. As Wallerstein describes it:

is the serious assessment of historical alternatives, the exercise of our judgement as to substantive rationality of alternative possible historical possibilities. It is the sober, rational and realistic evaluation of human systems, the constraints on what they can be, and the zones open to human creativity. Not the face of the perfect future, but the face of an alternative, credibly better and historically possible (but far from certain) future.

It is thus an exercise simultaneously in science, in politics and in morality.

Such (re)positioning has parallels across the north-south chasm: Sweden and Ecuador are exemplary in this regard.

In late 2005 the Swedish government appointed a commission with the directive of “ridding ourselves of our dependence on oil by the year 2020” – not just imported, foreign oil, but oil.

To be sure, the plan has been attacked as making Sweden overly reliant on nuclear power sources, and recently, many note that, given center-right government shifts since 2007, the full ambit of the plan has been drastically curtailed.  Not withstanding these shortcomings, Sweden still leads the European Union in overall, verified emissions reductions.

Following suit, Ecuador floated the idea that if the countries in global north really wanted to tackle global warming it would be willing to receive compensation not to pump oil. Such a suggestion is especially bold from an oil-exporting OPEC member. Keeping to its strong commitment, in 2007 Ecuador launched the Yasuni Proposal. The proposal elaborates plans to keep 20% of Ecuador’s oil reserve in the ground, in exchange for debt relief and increased funds for conservation in Ecuador’s largest terrestrial park, a UN man and the Biosphere Protected Area, location of some the planet’s highest levels of species endemism, and the plan’s namesake: Yasuni National Park.

In the face of a numbers-game-playing Obama team–with few firm commitments and perpetual voluntarism by China and India–Maldivian, Swedish, Ecuadorian proposals underscore a new kind of exercise in science, in politics and in justice-based morality. These are the new forms of global (state-led) climate utopistics.

These bold moves by those in the North and South call into question pre-2010 divides of North and South, rich and poor vis-à-vis climate negotiations. To be sure, such divides have not fully collapsed.  They remain and are as entrenched now as they ever have been in the past generation.  Yet if less than a handful of countries dares to break rank with their various blocks, and with what some claim as scientifically or technically feasible, such new (re)positioning must at least be given further scrutiny.

Examining tenacious new configurations from above, at the level of the state, and their concomitant ideological and tactical (re)positionings warrants consideration of tendencies from below at the level of social movements and civil society alignments. Groups across old and persistent divides have formed alliances in science, in politics and in justice-based morality underneath the banner of climate justice, buoyed up by calls for “System Change! Not Climate Change” and “Keep Oil, in the Soil! – Coal in the Hole!” and “Tar-sands in the Land!”

Long prior to the post-Copenhagen euphoria by elite, corporate NGOs with green developmentalist tendencies, and even the tempering of expectations by the White House and the UNFCCC Secretariat, some opted to doubly condemn and see beyond the UNFCCC process long before the curtain rose and closed on Copenhagen. In mid-November 2009 Orin Langelle, US based co-director and strategist for the Global Justice Ecology Project noted:

Some of us are calling the COP “CorporateHaven” because the whole process is for corporations to have a place to trade the air, earth and people for their own personal profit.

Such strong positions, well before the negotiations got underway, call into question claims by commentators like Bello and Khor that “the real villain” was “the United States,” or simply some ill-identified character, or characters in “the West.” There is certainly a definite argument to be made, as Khor does, that “the [Danish] Presidency of the conference and Western political leaders tried to hijack the legitimate multilateral process of negotiations that had been taking place before Copenhagen and at Copenhagen itself.” Yet placing sole responsibility for villainy exclusively at the feet of “the United States” or “the West” writ large or even narrowly upon the shoulders of “US negotiators” is a move that suffers from arguably more than a degree of myopia. Such myopia fails to easily recognize the complexities of counter-hegemonic resistance hard fought by a broad spectrum of non-governmental organizations, social movement actors many with deep roots in “the West” and “the United States” (as well as from the global South) who actively collaborate with Bello’s organization, Focus on the Global South (Focus), and Khor’s former organization, Third World Network (TWN) and his new, multilateral, Geneva-based South Centre.

From the global South, Focus, TWN and a plethora of other organization and movement actors have joined forces with global northern based grassroots oriented groups (i.e., Langelle’s Global Justice Ecology Project; the California based Movement Strategy Center; the center-left, Washington, DC based Sustainable Energy and Economy Network, nestled inside of the Institute for Policy Studies)–all to form the Climate Justice Now! Network (CJN!). Years prior to the start of the Copenhagen summit, CJN! Network members actively began collaborating with the Danish backed Climate Justice Alliance (CJA).  The collaboration was formally announced just before the Copenhagen talks got underway, when Stine Gry Jonassen, one of the leaders Climate Justice Action Press Group, put it in a post to the Climate Justice Action List on 11 November 2009:

CJA, CJN! and the Danish-based Climate Collective has decided to come together that day with the clear message that what we need is System Change – Not Climate Change!

Everyone is welcome to join this block with their own groups and message that is based on this. In the bloc there will be mobile stages from where people can speak, dance, play music and what else we think will fit into the 1-2 hours walk. [11]

By late November 2009 a growing number of groups from around the world were frustrated at the way the preliminary talks, leading up to Copenhagen, had become dominated by business interests and rail-roaded down the path of failed market-based mechanisms, and they began to join forces. Carbon Trade Watch member Kevin Smith noted that “the Copenhagen summit [was] doomed from the outset from agreeing anything that would begin to meaningfully address the threat of climate change, and with governments the world over failing to stem the tide of new carbon-intensive infrastructure, there is a clear role for mass civil disobedience and targeted direct action.”

The day before US President Obama arrived and spoke in Copenhagen, Evo Morales reacted to Hilary Clinton’s suggestion “We can’t look back; we have to look forward.”  For Evo,

Looking forward means that we have to review everything that capitalism has done. These are things that cannot just be solved with money. We have to resolve problems of life and humanity. And that’s the problem that planet earth faces today. And this means ending capitalism. 

Accordingly, the principal Bolivian negotiator and Bolivia’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Pablo Solon, called on the world to join Bolivians in April 2010:

[W]e want to organise a world-wide referendum in relation to climate change. And president Morales says lets think about the 22nd April – the international day of ‘Mother Earth’. We want to see if we can organise this officially in some countries and with social movements and civil societies and environmentalists in the rest of the world. Because if we are able to demonstrate, in an action like a referendum, that we can mobilise fifty, one hundred million persons voting and saying ‘this is the kind of agreement that we want’ then the situation can change.

These tendencies reflect the growing synergies between an increasingly powerful global grassroots movement for climate justice and clear breaks by a small but growing gaggle of states seeking people-inspired and -backed alternative proposals.  Arguably these movements for climate justice from above and below represent a kind of double movement. One, on the one hand, demands and actively seeks a kind of polyvalent (re)construction and (re)theorization of political, economic and social forms of autonomy, as well as a veritable resistance against what I have elsewhere called “hegemonic forms of climate knowledge and power” that get exhibited variously by market proponents and ideologues, powerful state actors, and elites, particularly large, well-funded NGOs, primarily in the global North, but increasingly operating in the global South and across both spaces in the multilateral context. 

Climate catastrophe looms large on a near horizon. The World Health Organization, as of 2005–the latest available data–marks the ‘climate-change body count’ at 600,000 and growing.

When taken together the collective outcome of the “official proposals” in Copenhagen could see more than four degrees centigrade of average planetary temperature increase. Such a fate could doom vast swaths of the planet to near permanent Dustbowlification, potentially lock out half the planet from access to fresh water, possibly displace over a billion people and for the first time in history remove existing nations from the face of the planet, as sea levels rise to unimaginable levels. This grim specter of climate catastrophe unfolding is motivating bold proposals from above and below; notwithstanding elite foot-dragging.

The post-Copenhagen moment is arguably akin to an arc being yanked towards justice by the world’s social movements, non-governmental organizations and increasingly serious minded heads-of-state, informed and driven by science-literate, politically-muscular, and informed polities. This polyvalent chain of power, as it were, seems rooted in an exercise ‘in science, politics and justice-based morality’ and powered by a proverbial fierce urgency of now.

michael k. dorsey