The political success of the COP15 mobilisations is still to come… - Bertie Russell

Bertie Russell argues that the success of the COP-15 mobilisation will be on a much longer time-scale. Originally published in January 2010.

A feeling of failure will undoubtedly be one of the most common emotions for those who spent a cold week or more in Copenhagen. I felt defeated after participating in an ineffectual affinity group, staring at a screen in the Støberiet convergence centre watching reruns of my friends being beaten, arrested and pepper sprayed. It is hard to associate any emotions with the ‘Reclaim Power’ action on the 16th other than regret, sorrow, and failure. In terms of affirming personal commitment to social change, the Reclaim Power action will not be remembered fondly. However, I believe to read the events of Copenhagen in this way is quite limited, putting the emphasis on personal emotions and experience rather than a broader political reading of the outcome of the mobilization. Contra to what my heart tells me, the mobilizations of Copenhagen were a success.

The mobilization around the UNFCCC’s fifteenth summit in Copenhagen was a politically messy process. As illustrated by the tiresome ‘shut them in or shut them down’ debates that dragged on for months like a bad summit hopping hangover, there was no easy ‘inside/outside’ relationship that provided simple alliances between those ‘against’ climate change opposed to those ‘for’ it. Rather we faced a complex institutional process that pulled together NGOs and governments around the desperate myth that they were there to ‘solve climate change’. The reality is that the COP15, despite the intentions of many of the participants, served as an attempt to inaugurate a new round of ‘green’ capitalist accumulation and to establish new regimes of political legitimacy. In the most literal of terms, these high level political processes are designed to capitalize on the environmental crisis.

Contra to major NGOs such as WWF that actively support the extension of capitalist markets and stronger state control as ‘solutions’ to the climate crisis, networks such as Climate Justice Now! (CJN!) and Climate Justice Action (CJA) understand that it is only through forcing profound systemic change that we are going to prevent the worst effects of global warming becoming reality. Influenced by the Durban Declaration of 2004, CJN! emerged at the Bali COP as a network of organisations with strong representation from the global south unified by their opposition to carbon markets and the burning of fossil fuels, and their shared commitment to building a global grassroots movement for climate justice. Over the past five years many of the member organisations have continued to be active within the COP process, actively resisting attempts to establish carbon markets and false solutions that serve only to further capitalist accumulation and state legitimacy. CJN! was responsible for initiating the ‘System Change not Climate Change!’ block on the 12th, of which CJA later became a co-organiser.

The goals of CJN! are broadly shared by Climate Justice Action (CJA), a predominantly European network of individuals and organisations that formed around a call to action in September 2008. A series of working principles and network goals provides CJA’s cohesion, echoing CJN!s desire to challenge false and market-based solutions and to build a global movement for climate justice. Whilst the heterogeneity of participants is reflected in the somewhat cautious wording, one particular goal – ‘To both sharpen our understanding of, and to address, the root social, ecological, political and economic causes of the climate crisis towards a total systemic transformation of our society’ – reveals the radical pretension of a network whose concerns go far beyond ‘climate change’ as an isolated and apolitical condition. CJA was responsible for initiating the ‘Reclaim Power: Pushing for Climate Justice’ action on the 16th. The decision taken by CJN! at the September meeting in Bangkok to play a role in co-organising both events transformed the political potential of the Reclaim Power action, the possibility of internal disruption of the COP and increased participation in the mass walkout overcoming any sterile inside/outside binary that it could so easily have fallen into.

Seen by some as the more ‘radical’ element of the mobilizations, Never Trust A Cop (NTAC) emerged out of the March CJA meeting in response to the perceived need for a more explicitly anticapitalist platform in the mobilizations. The March meeting was consumed by negotiations over the goals of CJA and the mass action concept, and the formation of NTAC was arguably grounded in concerns that NGO elements within CJA were compromising the politics of the network to the point that it was impossible to maintain an explicitly anticapitalist and antagonistic position. Indeed, NTAC’s original call out stated – “we will refuse to side with sell-out NGOs and all the would-be managers of protest”. Notwithstanding these concerns, NTAC’s ‘Hit the Production’ action was formally supported by CJA at the October gathering, whilst many individuals were active in both networks, suggesting there was little in the way of political division between the two. What NTAC offered to the mobilizations was ultimately a confrontational aesthetic utilised to mobilize a ‘European’ crowd with significantly different political histories to those in the UK. Despite the fact that it was less problematic for NTAC to articulate a critique of capitalism and the dangerous tendencies of environmental movements towards ecofascism, those claims that NTAC was ‘more’ radical/anticapitalist are mostly superficial, and are likely to be based on aesthetic judgement rather than political analysis.

Finally, CJN!, CJA and NTAC must be clearly distinguished from the Climate Action Network (CAN). CAN is the hegemonic NGO block within the COP process which tends towards apolitical contributions based on urging governments to ‘take action’. Campaign networks such as TckTckTck and Stop Climate Chaos act as the ‘public face’ of CAN and serve to demonstrate ‘popular public support’ for the bargaining positions of reformist positions within the negotiations.

In the weeks before Copenhagen I asked myself what it would mean to succeed. First and foremost, we needed to see the seeds of a global movement planted, we needed a new ‘Seattle’, we needed to create a refrain that allowed us to struggle shoulder to shoulder regardless of our geographies. Second, we needed to delegitimize the entire COP process, revealing it as an attempt to restart capitalist accumulation as ‘Green Capitalism’ and to reassert a political legitimacy grounded in a ‘Green authoritarianism’. Third, we needed a future. Quite simply, we needed to leave Copenhagen seeing new political possibilities that were not there before.

The events of the fortnight, not limiting it to the activist ghetto, lead me to answer positively to all three of my standard bearers of success. There were a number of catalysts, some in our hands and some not, that have led to the very real possibility of a global movement surfacing over the coming year. Dealing with these catalysts chronologically, the ‘Danish text’ leaked in the first week enraged those organizations that, despite their critiques of the COP, were still engaged in the COP process. These were largely NGOs such as the Indigenous Environmental Network, who despite critiques of not only the COP process but often capitalism and the state, engaged in the formal talks in the hope it offered the ‘pragmatic’ option in preventing the imminent destruction of their communities and livelihoods. The Danish text played a crucial role in confirming that the COP was not only flawed in principle, but also failed to fulfil any claim as the pragmatic option.

Secondly, the experience of the ‘System Change not Climate Change’ block on the 12th revealed the increasing divide between reformist NGOs and CJA/N!. Despite the scandal of the Danish text and an increasing clarity that the COP was destined to fail, the organizers continued with a rhetoric of calling on ‘world leaders [to] take urgent and resolute action’. This position clearly contrasted with the systemic critique articulated at the joint CJA/N! press conference, which was held inside the Bella centre itself the day before the Reclaim Power! action on the 16th. Participants from both climate justice networks denounced the possibility that solutions to the climate crisis were compatible with the extension of the capitalist system through mechanisms such as carbon trading and REDD. The press conference was immediately followed by the arrest of CJA spokesperson Tadzio Mueller, illuminating that the repression was occurring not simply against those ‘outside’ the Bella centre, but rather against dissenting voices per se regardless of their position inside or outside of the formal COP process. Any reading of Copenhagen that draws simplistic lines between those ‘inside’ and those ‘outside’ will fall far short of developing an understanding of where our affinities lie.

Thirdly, the action on the 16th pulled together these various threads to form a new political subjectivity - if only we are capable of realizing it. The explicit aims of the action were to delegitimize the COP itself, and to work upon building a social movement capable of building another world to that pursued by established institutions. When we decry our inability to breach the fence of the UN area as a sign of failure, we should recall what one member of the Italian social centre network articulated at the October CJA gathering – ‘We should not think that the measure of our political success will be found in the lines drawn in the sand. Rather, our success will be based on our ability to reveal and breach immaterial lines, political lines drawn in the air’. Unlike Seattle, where the political lines correlated closely with physical fences or police lines, the political lines of Copenhagen were between those who wanted to further expand capitalist accumulation and state control and those fighting for a more egalitarian world based on respect and a shared life with each other and the planet we live on. What was unique about the 16th, and what allowed these political lines to be revealed, was the homogenous police response to both those confronting and those undergoing exodus from the Bella centre. It mattered not where the dissenting voices came from, the physical fence between us was far less important that the emerging unification of dissent that was suppressed in every instance.

To be clear, the action of the 16th had enormous potential that was not fulfilled. If the fence truly had been breached, if there had been broader political and numerical participation, and we had something that really could be called a peoples assembly inside the UN area, the political affects may have been immeasurable. We can only dream of what could have been. Yet as it stands the COP was publicly revealed as a process that suffocates all dissenting voices by default, that excludes those that believe in a world based on anything but accumulation and control. This exclusion and suffocation revealed a shared political subjectivity that has the strength to become the basis of a global movement - all those who reject a world of accumulation, control and environmental degradation in favour of a world of egality, openness and creative potential. In short, all those who not only demand but will create ‘system change not climate change’.

The CJN! debrief and ‘where next?’ meeting held on the 19th in Øsknehallen brought together participants in the CJN! and CJA network, ranging from members of Via Campesina and ATTAC to Filipino fishing communities and UK Climate Campers. This diverse group of people announced together that what binds us is our desire for system change not climate change, that we have a basis of resistance and a dream of other worlds that can be realized together. This shared desire moves us beyond the post-political space of carbon towards a shared antagonism against capitalism as the root cause of the climate crisis we face. Undoubtedly what is meant by ‘system change’ is up for debate – we almost certainly do not agree upon what we mean by either ‘system’ or ‘change’ – yet the reinvigoration of this discussion necessitates a fundamental shift in terms of what it means to struggle ‘against’ climate change.

We live in exciting times where we face the very real possibility of building a global movement capable of engaging with climate change on a different terrain, yet if we are to realise this movement we must recognize the antagonistic subjectivity that affiliates us. The time for ‘carbon post-politics’ is over - we will not find affinities in the abstractions of carbon, it is not a language conducive to political movement. Instead we must realise a subjectivity based on an antagonism towards capitalism and control, a subjectivity that is not exclusive but capable of iteration across social, geographical and topical boundaries. We must develop a shared critical understanding of climate change as a power struggle rather than a neutral field where ‘we are all in this together’ – the peasant farmer in Brazil does not stand shoulder to shoulder with Wall Street and the White House.

A number of ‘recommendations’ towards this realisation emerged out of the meeting on the 19th - calls for a global day of action for ‘system change not climate change’ in the autumn are real and supported by a diverse network of people that share a fundamental desire for another world. The possibility of global-regional ‘Peoples Assemblies for Climate Justice’ to be held concurrently has had support from participants on every continent. Yet none of these things will happen unless we make them happen. It is up to us to make this movement move, to resist co-optation and capture by corporate solutions, political parties or reformist unions in favour of strategies that free us from the expanding cycle of capital that is responsible for climate change.

"Bertie Russell is involved in CJA and the Camp for Climate Action. The author would like to thank Sanne Braudel for her insightful reflections and commitment in correcting his inaccuracies."