Circumventing the climate cul-de-sac: Charleston-Cochabamba-Caracas versus Kyoto-Copenhagen-Cancun

The simple three steps required to escape the greenhouse-gas governance gridlock between global and especially US elites are easy to see, though United Nations officials and nearly all the world’s climate negotiators refuse to take them:

• Make dramatic emissions cuts — 45% below 1990 levels in the advanced capitalist economies within a decade, so as to reduce the temperature rise to less than 1 degree centigrade in line with scientific demands and the calls of climate change victims.
• Acknowledge the vast climate debt the wealthy North owes the under-emitting South — estimated at $400 bn/year by 2020.
• Decommission the destructive carbon markets — which have proven incapable of fair, rational and non-corrupt trading.

The elites prefer other routes: shifting, stalling, and stealing. These represent three moves we can use to characterize both contemporary economic crisis management and climate malgovernance. The routes correspond to the ways capitalism dealt with its deep-rooted problem of overaccumulation, dating to the 1970s, using what David Harvey terms the “spatial fix,” the “temporal fix,” and “accumulation by dispossession.” In the field of political economy, these concepts refer, respectively, to

• Globalisation’s ability to shift problems around spatially, without actually solving them.
• Financialization’s capacity to stall problems temporally, by generating credit-based techniques — including securitization of toxic loans — that permit the purchase of products today at the expense of future arrears and defaults when the upside-down pyramid topples.
• Imperialism’s compulsion to steal from weaker territories via extra-economic extractive systems, variously termed “articulations of modes of production,” “primitive accumulation,” “uneven and combined development,” the “Shock Doctrine,” and accumulation by dispossession.

The mismanagement of capitalist crisis, most spectacularly in 2008-09, included vast taxpayer bank bailouts during bursting financial bubbles, which in turn set the stage for another coming round of subprime disasters (next time, sovereign debt defaults combined with commercial real estate) as well as more rapid devaluation of the dollar. No matter how much shifting, stalling, and stealing has been accomplished, more is required than US Treasury and the Fed have accomplished — but there are limits now emerging into plain view.
One crucial limit to capitalist political economy is political ecology. Shifting, stalling, and stealing on behalf of world capitalism, by the likes of Larry Summers — when he arranged Wall Street bailouts in 1995 (Mexico), 1997-98 (East Asia) and 2008-10 through extreme devaluations visited upon vulnerable countries and people — hark back to a similar insight in December 1991. At that point, as World Bank chief economist, Summers wrote (or at minimum signed a memo Lant Pritchett wrote) that “The economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste on the lowest-wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that,” and “African countries are vastly underpolluted”.
By this, I think Summers meant that the US and other ultra-polluters should:

• Shift problems associated with environmental market externalities to the Third World.
• Stall a genuine solution to the problems by instead opening up the field of pollution-trading for some future market solution, using financialization techniques and imaginary “offsets” that are ostensibly aimed at building tomorrow’s sinks so as to mop up today’s dangerous forms of Northern pollution.
• Steal more of the world’s environmental carrying capacity — especially for greenhouse gas emissions — and perhaps pay a bit back through commodification of the air (resorting to mythical carbon markets and offsets) while denying climate debt responsibilities (as the US negotiating team did in Copenhagen, especially chief envoy Todd Stern: “The sense of guilt or culpability or reparations — I just categorically reject that”).

Joined by Washington’s Big Green lobby, European elites were initially encouraging, setting up the EU Emissions Trading Scheme along the lines Al Gore requested in 1997 when he falsely promised the US would sign on to Kyoto if it included carbon markets (and which has made him, personally, even more wealthy, as a pioneer salesman). But the route from Kyoto to Copenhagen was one Washington declined to travel, as the Senate voted 95-0 against Kyoto and the Bush regime only showed up near the endgame, in Bali in 2007, with a vague commitment to join future post-Kyoto talks, but only if China and India were compelled to make deep cuts.
Then in Copenhagen, Washington “broke the UN,” as leader Bill McKibbon put it on December 18, by invoking a WTO-style Green Room strategy of divide-and-conquer. In a microcosm of last-minute shifting-stalling-stealing, the Copenhagen Accord brought together the US with the Brazil, South Africa, India and China (BASIC) bloc so that five leaders-of-color — Barack Obama, Lula da Silva, Jacob Zuma, Manmohan Singh and Wen Jiabao — could cement, for future decades, the untenable profits and lifestyles enjoyed overwhelmingly by white-owned capital and white overconsumers.
(Tellingly, amongst the first groups of rural Africans to be fatally affected by the extreme climate change that the Copenhagen Accord locks in, are the Luo of Kenya and the Zulu of KwaZulu-Natal: Obama’s and Zuma’s closest kin. Nine of ten African peasants will not be able to produce if the 2 degrees centigrade mark is breached this century, according to UN experts, and the Copenhagen Accord is expected to achieve no better than a warming limitation to 3.5 degrees.)
In Cancun in November-December 2010, we can expect what happened in the same place exactly seven years earlier, at the crashed WTO ministerial summit. The configuration could well entail protests outside and a walk-out and consensus-denial by insider elites representing desperate victims. In 2003 it was a brave African delegation, but in 2010 will probably mix small islands, a few Africans, and the feisty Bolivarians. They will be cheered on by a mass protest of tens of thousands of red-green activists outside the Cancun talks, far more militant than were the 100,000 in Danish civilized society who marched last December 12.
Aside from protesting climate injustice at these sites (as well as the 2011 follow-up here in South Africa), what, then, is the optimal route mapped by the red-green Climate Justice (CJ) movement? The CJ movement has been growing especially from roots in the US environmental justice and Latin American climate movements (led by Accion Ecologica), and a Durban Group for Climate Justice formed in 2004 to specifically contest the “privatization of the air” associated with carbon trading. By 2007 at the Bali climate negotiations, leading radical environmentalists united with the global justice movement to form Climate Justice Now! and in 2009, Climate Justice Action fused similar currents in Europe to generate protest at Copenhagen.
To come to grips with climate politics requires CJ organizers to:

• Halt elite shifting of the problem, by expanding our own spatial and s
calar political lenses from the local to the national and global (as was often accomplished in 2000s global justice organizing and activism).
• Halt elite stalling by telescoping long-term climatic processes into the present, but without getting so carried away by urgency that we endorse dubious deals (this is one of our most serious challenges because the most adverse impacts are years away for many, and some of the most opportunistic of false solutions are being imposed through rush-job environmental assessments).
• Halt elite stealing — not only of an unfair share of the planet’s environmental space, but also of multilateral political processes — by asking tough questions not only about mitigation and adaptation, but also about climate justice.

Given the terribly adverse balance of forces associated with global governance processes from Kyoto to Copenhagen to Cancun (the last solution to a world-scale problem, after all, was the 1996 Montreal Protocol banning ozone-hole endangering CFCs), the CJ movement must not only contest but also circumvent the elites in order to escape their climate cul-de-sac. Such a process starts elsewhere, in unlikely places like Charleston, West Virginia, where the scale-challenge has taken groups like Coal River Mountain Watch and Climate Ground Zero from their localized mountaintop removal protests — including tree-sit microsites — to the state capital, where they locked down at the WV Department of Environmental Protection last June. Their demand was a handover of responsibility from local bureaucrats captured by Big Coal, to the national Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
But at the same time, the EPA is becoming the subject of intense climate protest, due not only to its slovenly attitude towards WV mountaintop removal, as occurred in late March when activists blockaded a Washington headquarters entrance. In addition, the EPA needs more direct action to punish EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson’s February announcement that her agency would delay substantive implementation of its 2009 “endangerment finding” on coal until 2013 (curiously timed to avoid the Obama reelection campaign).
It is in national state regulation (in every country) that climate accountability has been most obviously missing. Direct command-and-control regulation of emissions sources — far beyond current EPA plans for imposition of better coal-burning technology — must be higher on the agenda in 2010, since the Senate is unwilling to pass a genuine climate bill.
Gridlock in the Senate is thus rather useful. As climate scientist James Hansen and activists at Climate SOS and Rising Tide point out, the cap-and-trade strategy adopted by Senators Kerry, Boxer, Lieberman and Graham will do far more harm than good (see: As in Copenhagen, better to have no deal than to have a bad deal which locks in a false-solution climate strategy.
Somewhat less objectionable than Kerry et al’s efforts on behalf of the fossil fuel and financial industries, is a bill introduced by Senators Maria Cantwell and Sue Collins last last year, which some progressive US climate activists are now actively supporting. Yet this effort, the Carbon Limits and Energy for America’s Renewal (CLEAR) Act, is also fatally flawed, because of inadequate emissions cuts (around 5% from 1990-2020), the  lingering presence of carbon trading and offsets, the lack of revenues earmarked to pay the US’s fair share of the Climate Debt, its inadequate strengthening of the command/control regulatory mechanisms/mandates for EPA, utility boards and planning commissions, and its inadequate mandate to assure economic transformation so as to generate new production, consumption, transport, energy and related systems. Also, if it passes the Senate, the likelihood is that the House will insist on many of the objectionable features of Waxman-Markey (offsets, carbon trading, oil/nuke/agro subsidies, EPA neutering, etc). (Upon invitation, I put these critiques to one of the bill’s technical managers, Amit Ronan of Cantwell’s office, and got no rebuttal.)

In contrast to the Capitol Hill quicksand, California provides more radical grassroots insights into jumping space and scale, with Chevron headquarters a special target of the vibrant Movement for Climate Justice-West (the most active group of CJ activists in the US), AmazonWatch, and Global Exchange. Californians and Alaskans who have previously fought to “leave the oil in the soil” — halting offshore drilling and tundra destruction, respectively — will obviously need to remobilize against Obama. But everywhere, organizers can find excellent local climate change targets to raise consciousness and effect emissions cuts, with direct action against major greenhouse gas sources or large-scale corporate fossil-fuel consumers. Two particularly good sites for climate activists are, first, the public utility commissions which control pricing and electricity generation techniques (and hence coal-fired and nuclear power plants); and second, the municipal or regional planning commissions which give the go-ahead to suburban sprawl and all manner of other climate-threatening projects.
Which brings us to the global scale, where in Cochabamba, Bolivia from April 19-22 (Earth Day), Bolivarians led by host Evo Morales and grassroots indigenous, community, feminist, and environmental movements will be joined by genuinely solidaristic labor and NGO forces. This could set in motion a much more serious transnational CJ strategy, based not upon the illusion that the UN will address the climate crisis anytime soon, but instead upon more serious, pragmatic strategies. These can come only from a much richer merging of social and ecological rights discourses (for what such narratives are worth), and choices of unifying targets (such as fossil fuel companies, carbon traders, and the World Bank). Also in April, in Caracas, the new “Fifth International” will meet, and if red-green activists are there in force, the region’s petro-socialists (e.g. Hugo Chavez) and petro-Keynesians (e.g. Rafael Correa) may face up to contradictions in their own political ecologies. This is crucial, because in one of the world’s most important sites of struggle, Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park in the Amazon, an official presidential threat has been made that oil drilling commences on June 1, unless countervailing pressure by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador and Accion Ecologica is successful.
There are indeed, sometimes, deep-seated contradictions between red and green. In Africa, one of our objectives is universal supply of free basic electricity. South African activists in the Energy Caucus demand the equivalent of 100 kWh/person/month (so as to eliminate dirty energy inside the house for health/safety and gender equity purposes) to be supplied partially by universal passive-solar hot water heaters and partially through a connection to a progressively decarbonized national grid. But the only way to do so is to reverse a surreal apartheid inheritance: what is currently the world’s cheapest electricity (less than $0.02/kWh) goes to the world’s largest metals and mining firms (which export profits to London, Luxembourg, Zurich, and Melbourne), while a typical black township household will suffer a 127% price rise from 2008-12. The rationale for the higher higher rates is the construction of two huge new coal-fired powerplants — required so as to maintain cheap power to the smelters. A World Bank loan is critical to the process, and against it, a red-green alliance is forming — initiated by Climate Justice Now!SA  (CJN!SA) members (especially groundWork, the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, and Earthlife Africa) and joined by major international environmental groups which aim to halt the Bank’s coal-oriented energy strategy. Given that a few thousand jobs in smelters, mines and the auto industry are at risk, environmentalists, communities and unions are seeking ways to work together, so that fossil fuel-dependent jobs can be compensated for through equally well-paid Green Jobs, especially the construction and installation of solar water heaters (in a Just Transition approach that the left of the British labor movement is also strategizing with red-green forces).
The situation elsewhere in Africa is similar, since so many of the extractive industries are the sole beneficiaries of electricity grid expansion. Red-green campaigns aim to “leave the oil in the soil” and “the coal in the hole,” exemplified in Nigeria where Delta activists have intimidated oil companies through both non-violent and armed struggle. In the former category, Environmental Rights Action in Port Harcourt insists on an end to extraction and exploration on grounds of the climate threat, and the descendants of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight of his Ogoni movement comrades won a precedent-setting out-of-court-settlement with Shell last June that may scare off other oil firms. In the latter category, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta continued to kidnap foreign oil workers, demanding they vacate the Delta for good. Thanks in part to organizing by the Ogoni Solidarity Forum, Shell was evicted from Ogoniland in June 2008, 13 years after the company arranged for Saro-Wiwa’s execution.
In contrast to the compromise-oriented lobby group, Climate Action Network, led by large NGOs which support carbon trading, the radical red-green activists formed Climate Justice Now! in December 2007. They issued five demands:

• Reduced consumption.
• Huge financial transfers from North to South based on historical responsibility and ecological debt for adaptation and mitigation costs paid for by redirecting military budgets, innovative taxes and debt cancellation.
• Leaving fossil fuels in the ground and investing in appropriate energy-efficiency and safe, clean and community-led renewable energy.
• Rights-based resource conservation that enforces Indigenous land rights and promotes peoples” sovereignty over energy, forests, land and water.
• Sustainable family farming, fishing and peoples’ food sovereignty.

No matter that the CJN! component-movements are disparate. These are the kinds of organizations and arguments that link spatio-temporal resistances amongst diverse eco-social forces during a period of austerity, civil society weakness, and repression. The agents of social and environmental change can take advantage of neoliberalism’s still-discredited ideological status and demand from the next global and national negotiations a strategy for justice, not one based upon commodifying carbon.
But to do so the CJ activists still need to generalize an innovative critique, one that emerged over time as the global emissions trading strategy rose from birth in 1997, peaked in 2008, and attempts a last-gasp resurrection after the economic crisis and climate negotiations breakdown. The frenzied failure of elite climate politics stretching narrowly, in 2009-10, from the UN to the US Senate and G20 in June should make bottom-up alternatives much easier to advocate, including globally-coordinated actions against destructive projects (such as the World Bank’s loan in South Africa).
From the wider, deeper, and increasingly common critique of the Kyoto-Copenhagen-Cancun cul-de-sac, will come more confidence in the types of analyses, strategies, tactics and alliances associated with CJ politics. The challenge is to aggregate experiences from the Charlestons of the world, so as to move into alignment with the Cochabamba conference, and in turn, to generate a formidable red-green force uniting radical governments and the popular movements that will keep them accountable in Caracas and beyond.
Patrick Bond is senior professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal School of Development Studies in Durban, South Africa, where since 2004 he has directed the Centre for Civil Society. His work presently covers environment (energy, water and climate change), economic crisis, social mobilization, public policy and geopolitics.  Amongst recent books are: Climate Change, Carbon Trading and Civil Society (2009); Looting Africa (2006); Talk Left, Walk Right (2006); and Elite Transition (2005). 
He was a founding member of the Durban Group for Climate Justice and is active in Climate Justice Now!’s South Africa branch. Patrick earned his doctorate in economic geography under the supervision of David Harvey at Johns Hopkins in 1993. He was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1961 and has lived in South Africa since 1990.
Photo: “The Power Suites #22” by Brian McKee (copyright 2010)

patrick bond