We live in a time when the confrontation of reality with reason requires us to dwell on apocalyptic questions. Unfortunately, as Fredric Jameson observed over a decade ago, “It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism.” Jameson’s comment highlights the fact that our ongoing inability to deal with the challenge posed by climate change is ultimately a failure of political imagination. What we need today, if we heed scientific research that tells us that prolongation of our current behavior will lead inexorably to the collapse of the world as we know it, is an ecological revolution – a thoroughgoing transformation in the relation of humanity to the earth. Instead of such a radical transition, however, political elites, powerful corporate interests, and most of the mainstream environmental movement offer us pallid half-measures and blinkered free market panaceas.

The Copenhagen climate summit offers abundant fuel for the contemporary apocalyptic imaginary. Officially entitled the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), the Copenhagen summit hinges on three main questions: 1) how much are industrialized nations willing to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases?; 2) how much are major developing countries like China and India willing to do to limit their growing emissions?; 3) where will the money needed by developing countries to reduce their emissions and adapt to the impact of climate change come from and who will manage that money?

In the months leading up to the summit, officials in the Obama administration have been doing their best to dampen expectations that agreement will be possible on any of these counts. With a pathetically weak climate bill co-authored by the coal lobby mired in the Senate, US negotiators have been returning to the blame China script. The prognosis looks bleak: according to a recent poll by The Guardian newspaper, 9 out of 10 climate scientists have given up hope that political efforts to restrict global warming to 2° Celsius will be successful, and believe instead that an average rise of 4-5° by the end of the century is far more likely given soaring emissions and political constraints. Such levels of emissions would disrupt food and water supplies, exterminate thousands of species of plants and animals, and trigger massive sea level rises that would swamp the land of hundreds of millions of people.

Outside the conference halls and official forums at Copenhagen, however, an increasingly militant movement for climate justice has been consolidating around a few key demands. At Klimaforum09, running parallel to COP15, this movement of movements has published an alternative declaration for “system change – not climate change” that highlights the political character of the crisis. Rather than seeing climate change as a purely environmental problem that can be dealt with through market mechanisms such as carbon trading and technological fixes, in other words, the climate justice movement focuses on the unjust economic model that has seen a small group of countries develop through intensive exploitation of the planet’s resources. The movement is calling for rich nations to repay the climate debt they owe to the poor countries, communities, and people who have not benefited from fossil-fuel intensive development but who will bear the brunt of climate change. Equally important for the movement is the demand for the complete abandonment of fossil fuels within the next thirty years: keep the oil in the soil, the coal in the hole, the tar sand in the land. Rejecting market-oriented solutions such as carbon offsetting, the climate justice movement recognizes that a solution to the climate crisis will only come through acknowledging people’s right to just development based on equitably shared green technologies and a transition to food, energy, land, and water sovereignty.

The success of this movement for climate justice may lie in the extent to which the demand for climate reparations resonates not simply with global civil society but with the delegates inside the negotiating halls in Copenhagen. Like the Battle of Seattle, in other words, victory may ultimately come through the mobilization of a broad coalition of civil society groups and officials in countries affected by the environmental and political legacy of uneven development. There are signs that such official leadership may be forthcoming. In a recent article on the movement for climate justice, Naomi Klein quotes a speech by Angelica Navarro, Bolivia’s climate negotiator, whose call for a Marshall Plan for the Earth earlier this year resonated widely. As Navarro put it, “”Millions of people–in small islands, least-developed countries, landlocked countries as well as vulnerable communities in Brazil, India and China, and all around the world–are suffering from the effects of a problem to which they did not contribute.”

Unlike past struggles for social justice, the movement for climate justice has a limited amount of time to turn the political tide before environmental feedback mechanisms that fuel runaway climate change kick in. Will the climate justice movement succeed in overturning climate apartheid and averting eco-genocide? In this forum, a distinguished group of commentators offer their assessments of the Copenhagen summit and advance their visions of the path towards a just and sustainable transition.

Ashley Dawson

Ashley Dawson is professor of postcolonial studies in the English department at the Graduate Center, City University of New York and the College of Staten Island. His latest books include People’s Power: Reclaiming the Energy Commons (O/R, 2020), Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change (Verso, 2017), and Extinction: A Radical History (O/R, 2016). A member of the Social Text Collective and the founder of the CUNY Climate Action Lab, he is a long-time climate justice activist.