Power play in the global climate movement

Tabitha Spence argues now is the time to draw lines within the climate movement.

Photo: Wretched of the Earth
Photo: Wretched of the Earth

Like all movements, the climate movement is ridden with contradictions. 2015 saw unlikely coalitions, rhetorical shifts, and increasingly visible ideological fissures within it. The question remaining is how lines will be drawn within the movement, and whether we can exploit the divisions to argue for a climate solution that is both fair and just.

The weakness of a left facing crushing neoliberal policies and austerity, and new forms of violence being deployed for political, economic and military domination, mean claiming victory from COP21 involves telling only part of the story. On the one hand, however weak the agreement, it remains important – any small gain could potentially turn the tide of history. On the other hand, we must be honest about the obstacles we are facing in order to find creative ways around them in order to carry the struggle forward.

There are two battles  in the climate movement today. The first is a struggle between the movement and those that stand in the way of limiting global warming to 1.5 – 2 degrees.  Those blocking change are usually considered to be fossil fuel related industries and the governments supporting these industries rather than developing renewable alternatives. The second is a struggle within the broader movement. A struggle between those who hold a ‘system change, not climate change’ analysis, fighting for climate justice, and those who want to limit warming without fundamentally challenging capitalism. Both of these struggles are yielding important small gains, while being held back by skewed power relations and an ideological apparatus that reinforces them.

Building for Paris

The Coalition Climate 21 (CC21), comprised of a wide array of organisations, from big NGOs to small grassroots groups, working together to organise civil society spaces in Paris during the COP21. All agreed recent history showed lobbying governments for a good international deal was futile, and that the only hope lay in building a mass global movement capable of confronting the powerful inertia of fossil fuelled political and economic systems. We agreed the aim of the ‘Paris moment’ was not to feed hopes there could be a fair international deal, but to build international connections, deepen our analysis of what is to be done, and use the two weeks of the COP21 as a springboard to build the climate justice movement globally. That all these groups, with diverse politics and strategies, agreed a focus on movement-building seemed a feat in itself.

Despite this, it is hardly surprising that many groups in the coalition, including trade unions and major NGOs, still procured credentials to access to the official negotiation space in Le Bourget. Once again unsuccessfully competing with corporate lobbying machines to bend the ears of government delegates. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), for example, worked painstakingly for ‘just transition’ to be referenced in the deal, and not just in the non-binding preamble. If they had succeeded it would have ensured workers in industries likely to close to meet climate targets would be given training and work in the new renewable sectors. The ITUC and others show more groups are considering notions of justice to be essential, though interpretations of justice vary and many remain committed to securing it by working through official channels.

At the same time the corporations’ conflicts of interest at the COP and the false solutions often promoted in the media are being openly discredited. Despite the work of activists corporate power was still able to ensure not one mention of fossil fuels made it into the Paris Agreement. Just as the USA have ensured any reference to military emissions have been excluded in two decades of COPs.

Climate justice

The ‘climate movement’ is morphing, in rhetorical terms at least, into the ‘climate justice movement’. This is in large part due to do grassroots organisers from frontline communities consistently showed up to the CC21 and other meetings, despite the material constraints they face, to push for a deeper understanding of the root of climate change and systemic violence of capitalism. Sharing stories of homes and lives already wrecked by exploitation, extraction, pollution or dispossession and changing biophysical systems. Their work helped show many environmentalists that the struggle to save bees and birds is bound up with the struggles that have existed for generations to defend the rights of people against domination by the free market.

While many in the movement are deepening their understanding of wider questions of social justice, many terrible mistakes have been made due to the ignorance or co-option of others. For example Avaaz’s mission to keep the 29 November People’s March for Climate, Justice and Jobs ‘politically-neutral’. The march was the day before the COP21 was to begin in Paris. Activists in cities around the world had organised to show delegates that we are many but the ‘state of emergency’ imposed after the Paris mass shooting meant that the demonstration would be banned. Many from global frontlines communities who’d been due to lead the Paris demonstration descended on London. They planned to join the ‘Wretched of the Earth’ bloc organised by solidarity groups in the UK. Yet, as the 60,000 strong march was setting off the events team, hired by Avaaz and other large NGOs, accused the 500-strong bloc of being a rogue group hijacking the march. They attempted to snatch banners highlighting the connections between colonialism and climate injustice, and make them march behind a group in giraffe costumes to present a sanitised mass of people holding flowers and heart banners to save the animals. Fortunately, the bloc held their ground.

Many similar battles have played out in similar spaces, often with better funded NGOs maintaining the upper hand. At the same time, more people are coming to understand that changing our political and economic, not just energy, systems is required. More are coming out in solidarity with those most vulnerable to structural and climate destruction. There is a discussion underway in the UK between groups involved in organising the climate march. Those who fought to have ‘justice’ as a key demand are investigating what happened and assessing their relationships to the some of the larger NGO’s in future actions.

Drawing lines

Other large groups that regularly express a more justice-based analysis failed in the coalition-planned ‘action of mass civil disobedience’ on 12 December in Paris – the day the deal was signed. Friends of the Earth (FoE), officially pulled out of the ‘red lines’ action. An action for people to surround the COP21 conference centre with massive red lines to symbolise those being crossed in the deal. Due to fear of serious liability, coalition organisers resorted to negotiating with police and asking the French President to permit the civil disobedience to be held elsewhere. The state of emergency served its purpose during the COP, being used to instil fear of violent repression or lawsuits in activists and organisations. With little worry of activists mobilising at short notice in the streets of Paris, the president gave a last minute go ahead to legalise the ‘act of civil disobedience’. Even so, several competing separate actions were held by FoE and other large groups. The ‘red lines action’, hailed widely as a celebratory affair since the activists ‘won’ was denied its original purpose of giving world leaders something to worry about as they returned home. Yet the symbolic action may quickly find resonance in struggles against the destruction caused by fossil fuel extraction in the coming months.

What Paris made clear is that now is the time to draw lines as the wider climate movement cannot fulfil its own agenda. The system will not allow for greenhouse gas emitters to be seriously challenged, and major NGOs are unable to challenge the system. We are at an impasse where the struggle between professionalised NGOs and grassroots activists is becoming vital. Can those at the front line of climate change draw red lines around compromises forced by well meaning professionalised institutions? Can climate activists drawn to work for NGOs be won to a more radical agenda?

The climate justice movement needs to become a movement of movements, able to build a base in communities facing the reality of climate change. A movement working to take power into our own hands and transition to a cleaner more humane world.


This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of the rs21 magazine.


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