Confronting the climate crisis

May 18, 2010

Activists gathered in Cochabamba, Bolivia, this April for a conference on climate change, just months after world leaders met in Copenhagen, Denmark, at a summit sponsored by the United Nations. Both conferences claimed to take on issues of global warming and environmental devastation, but the differences between them wouldn't have been more stark.

Jonathan Neale is the author of several books, including Stop Global Warming: Change the World, as well as a recent article in International Socialism titled "Climate politics after Copenhagen." He was in Copenhagen for the protests of the UN--and in Cochabamba for the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth.

Neale spoke with Chris Williams, author of the forthcoming Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis about the prospects for a new environmental movement.

YOU WERE in Copenhagen last December for the UN climate summit. What are your thoughts on being there and what it was like?

WHAT WAS it like? Bipolar. Schizophrenic. Manic depressive.

On the one hand, it was enormously hopeful. Copenhagen saw the birth of a new climate movement. We had a demonstration in the middle of the two weeks of talks with 100,000 people--the largest demonstration in Copenhagen for 30 years. And that figure of 100,000 was the official police estimate before the march moved off, so it was probably bigger.

For most of the climate activists from all over the world, it was the largest climate demonstration they had ever seen.

That was followed by two significant groups of activists who came together. Some of the small radical NGOs, but also a lot of younger people working for big NGOs started to organize inside the conference center.

There were 25,000 people from all sorts of NGOs and trade unions and interest groups and so on, who had credentials for the big conference where the talks were held. Traditionally, those 25,000 people would have been co-opted and involved in the process. But the radical people inside began to organize to demonstrate on the inside. And on the outside, demonstrators with a background in the anti-capitalist movement, mostly autonomists and anarchists, began organizing to demonstrate on the outside.

Demonstrating at the Copenhagen climate summit in December 2009
Demonstrating at the Copenhagen climate summit in December 2009 (Amy Balkin)

In response, the UN, under pressure from the American government, began locking people out. They locked out 20,000 of the 25,000 people with credentials. Then they locked out all of Greenpeace, Oxfam, the World Wide Fund for Nature and Friends of the Earth International. By the time Obama got there on the last day, they had locked out almost all the delegates. But we still had demonstrations of 200 delegates on the inside and 3,000 people from outside, marching into the tear gas and pepper spray.

That coming together of climate activists--from the demonstrations outside and from the radical people from the NGOs, and on top of that, the really big demonstration included even larger numbers of people--marked the beginning of the new climate movement, and that was very exciting.

The other half of it was what the powers of the world did, and that was terrible.

YOU WROTE in your article that after Copenhagen, the movement faces both a crisis and a great opportunity. Can you how that dichotomy has arisen?

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THE REASON there's a crisis and an opportunity after Copenhagen is that what the other side, the ruling class of the world, did in Copenhagen was to smash up the possibility of any global agreement on solutions to climate change.

The UN process had been deeply flawed and wasn't halting climate change. But it was still an attempt by governments to do something. At this summit, what Obama's U.S. government and the Chinese government together forced on the other governments of the world was the Copenhagen accord, which is an agreement to do nothing--not to have a flawed agreement, like the Kyoto agreement, but to have no international agreement at all.

So there was both a crisis and an opportunity for two reasons. One was that a lot of people had seen Copenhagen and decent government action as the last resort, and when the governments--and particularly Barack Obama--told the world to get lost, basically, and that nothing would be done, an awful lot of people in the movement said to themselves, "Well, if even Obama won't do anything, what hope is there?"

That was one thing, but the other, more important thing was that the leaders of the NGOs were told, when they were locked out in Copenhagen, that they'd gone too far. That they had allied themselves with the social movements, the radicals and the anti-capitalists, and if they wanted any kind of seat at the table, they would have to stop that.

And for the people who run the NGOs, getting a seat at the table is what they do. They can't imagine doing anything else. If they don't do this, their funding is threatened. Their funding comes from governments, from foundations, from churches and from individuals, and all of those people want the NGOs to be lobbying governments and have a seat at the table.

So the leaders of the NGOs are faced with a choice, and the leaders of most of the global big NGOs have been deciding to buckle and do what they're told. That doesn't mean the NGO activists do, but there's still a bitter argument inside every NGO on what to do. Among most of the younger full-timers and activists in these organizations, there's an argument going on inside their heads.

The other side of it--the opportunity that exists now--is that among the people who understand what happened and understand the details of climate change, there's an absolute rage about what has been done. This means that a new and much more radical climate movement, with a much larger base, is now possible. I would have said before Cochabamba that it wasn't clear which way this was going to go. After Cochabamba, it's now clearer.

ONE OF the things that people were talking about with Copenhagen was how it could potentially be another Seattle--a turning point like the mass demonstrations against the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle in 1999 were. There, the demonstrators outside gave heart and confidence to some of the rulers of the countries of the global South to oppose the trade talks, and eventually they collapsed. But that didn't seem to happen in Copenhagen.

IT DIDN'T happen.

IN FACT, the majority of signatories to the Copenhagen accord are from the South. Why do you think there was that significant difference--in terms of the fracturing of a united voice of the South?

IT'S VERY significant. This wasn't a repeat of Seattle in several ways. One, very importantly, was that in Seattle, we were trying to stop them from making an agreement. In Copenhagen, we were trying to make them make a good agreement. It's a task on a different scale.

Second, we didn't have the numbers in Copenhagen. In Seattle, what happened was that large union delegation came together with a smaller, but still quite numerous, force of environmentalists and socialists and anti-capitalists. We had, by contrast, in Copenhagen, 2,000 to 3,000 people at the demonstration outside that was held at 9 a.m. on a working day. Because it was evidently going to be against the Police, and the people who were organizing it were talking up that conflict with the authorities. So you didn't go unless you were in for direct action.

But beyond that, the people who said--and most activists did say this--that this was a conflict between the governments the global North and the governments of the global South got that wrong.

The final agreement was pushed through by five men: Barack Obama of the United States, Wen Jiabao of China, Manmohan Singh of India, Jacob Zuma of South Africa and Luis Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil. Of those five men, four are from the global South. Between them, China, India and the U.S. burn three-quarters of the coal that is consumed in the world, and that accounts for almost a third of all CO2 emissions from fossil fuels. So this was, above all else, a triumph of King Coal, north and south.

It's simply not true that politics is a contest between the rulers of the global South and the rulers of the global North. And if you live in the global South, you know that. You always know that that the ruling class in your country is allied with the ruling class in the global North.

IN THE States, a lot of people were very disorientated by the stances that Obama took--in swooping in and then doing barely anything.

THERE ARE two reasons people are disoriented by what Obama did at Copenhagen.

One is that the explanations that they get make no sense. The idea is that Obama swooped in and didn't do anything--but the truth is actually much, much worse.

When Obama arrived on the last day, he gave an eight-minute speech to the assembled delegates. He met with Premier Wen of China for 55 minutes, and then, the two of them met with the leaders of South Africa, India and Brazil, and they came out with an agreement to destroy all possibilities of international agreement on reducing carbon dioxide emissions. That agreement said that every country would volunteer to do whatever level of CO2 emissions cuts it felt like.

That was the total destruction of the process going on about climate change since the Rio conference in 1992. What happened was that under the leadership of Obama, followed by Wen of China, this whole process was destroyed. That's something George Bush would have liked to do, but was never ever able to.

That's obviously what happened, but it's deeply dispiriting for people who put their faith and hope in Obama to recognize it.

And the other problem is that this makes sense in terms of American ruling class priorities. It makes sense for a ruling class in a capitalist order that sees its profits under threat and that dare not spend anything extra. These rulers are competing so hard in the global market that they dare not take on any more costs. In those terms, it makes sense. If you see Obama as the agent and leader of Wall Street and the car companies and oil companies, what he did makes sense.

I grew up in Texas. I was a teenager when my high school was integrated and the civil rights movement came along. I was 20 years old when Martin Luther King was killed. So when Obama was elected president, I cried for the Americans who voted for him and for the long struggle to get that. And I wasn't alone. It meant something to people that Obama was elected, and now, this is what we get--that's a hard thing to accept.

SO I think the question then becomes this: Will the logic of capitalist development trump any sane response to climate change? Because they read all the same scientific reports we do. Like recently, in Science, there was a letter signed by over 200 climate scientists affirming the severity of the problem and the science behind the climate change as real and valid. Ultimately this would undermine their ability to make profits or live in a stable climate system on planet Earth. What do you think?

I THINK it's more complicated than that in two ways. The first is that simply proceeding as usual also doesn't solve the problem for the capitalist system. Because when abrupt climate change hits in force--I mean runaway force--their profits are going to go to hell as well.

What's happening is that they're putting very short-term considerations in front of long-term considerations because their economic system, the global economic system, is in such deep trouble that each corporation and each national association of capitalists is panicked by the idea that some competitor might do better than them. That means that the action of the capitalist system--not the action of an abstract capitalist system, but the actual living capitalism that we have--is preventing anything being done.

But I know a lot of people in Europe, particularly in the autonomist movement, who drew the conclusion from Copenhagen that doing something about climate change was incompatible with capitalism, and for many of them, the lesson is that there's no point trying to do anything. They're feeling now demoralized.

I'm very surprised because I thought that they would have come from Copenhagen feeling energetic, and some of them were, but many of them weren't. And that's because if you just say it's either capitalism or a livable planet, then getting rid of capitalism appears to be such a big thing--to most people, the honest truth is it feels like an impossible thing.

What we need to say is that there is still space to fight. It's the same way in the United States. The policy of the Obama administration is lining up behind the banks, and not behind the unemployed and the people that are losing their homes. Obama could have taken the road of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and he seems to have taken the road of Herbert Hoover. That's what's happening domestically, but that doesn't mean the government can't be turned around.

IT SEEMS like we need a twin strategy of fighting for reforms in the here and now at the same time as holding a bigger vision.

THE NEW Deal that delivered some jobs in America didn't come until there was a mass movement in the country fighting to make Roosevelt do it. The Obama administration knows that road is open to it. They've chosen not to do it. But they can be forced into it.

The same is true with foreign policy. The brutal truth about Afghanistan is that the Obama administration has decided to kill lots more people than were being killed before. And thus, not incidentally, that leads to more Americans dying as well. That doesn't mean that the military and the imperial project is triumphant, because Americans could build a peace movement that would end that war, or the Afghans could win it--or some combination of both.

Again, policies can be turned around, and the same is true with climate change. We can turn it around, but to do that, you have to try. I'm a long way away from America now, so I don't have the feeling for it that people who live in America do, but my feeling is that quite a lot of the movement in America is still, in a sense, waiting for Obama.

I THINK that's true on not just the environmental question. I think it's true on a range of questions because there's this sense that we don't want to give in to the racists who are attacking Obama for other reasons. I think people are very concerned about jobs and think that maybe Obama can still do something on that--particularly after the health care bill passed, there was a resurgence of hope, though people realize it was very inadequate.

Then on the environmental front, there were just on Earth Day 100,000 people demonstrating in Washington, D.C. It was addressed by Obama and sponsored by corporations, so it was very different from the original Earth Day. But nevertheless, it shows the potential for people to go out and do something, and that they're concerned with this issue and it goes much wider than changing their light bulbs or anything like that. I think there's a lot of reason for hope, but I think a lot of the older activists are still wondering what is the next step.

I WAS surprised at the Americans in Copenhagen. I'm of the generation of 1968, and the men and women of my generation from the United States who were in Copenhagen and who had been environmentalists for a very long time understood what had been done, and who had been done, and they understood it quite quickly.

The people of age 25 were telling themselves stories--that Obama had done this in order to get a bill through the Senate, that that something else had happened, that really it was the Chinese. Do you know what I mean? They weren't very coherent stories, and they weren't stories that people believed, even if they told it to themselves, but they wanted to have a story that meant this hadn't happened. I think the older people had gone through betrayal before. That's a very strong word, but it's the appropriate word.

A LOT of what's being pushed by Obama is very negative, but it's been taken up quite widely--cap and trade, nuclear power, offshore drilling.

OFFSHORE DRILLING is the one that gives me real pause. I just don't see how burning more oil reduces carbon dioxide emissions.

YES, IT does seem somewhat contradictory. It seems that he has given in completely to the fossil fuel lobby and the idea that if he doesn't try to drill for more, then there's going to be a price spike, and he'll get blamed for that in the midterm elections.

I DON'T think it's just the fossil fuel lobby. I think it's deeper.

I think if you look at the world from the point of view of Obama, of Larry Summers, of Ben Bernanke--look at it from the point of view of the people who run American economic policy--they're in a capitalist world that's not working, one where the cold winds of economic competition have become suddenly much worse. The largest industrial corporation in the world, General Motors, has gone bankrupt. No one is safe from their point of view. No big entity.

They're seriously worried about the place of the U.S. economy in the world. And in this situation, you compete in a world capitalist economy by investing, by making more profit, and by investing more and more, so that you build better products that work better, and you build them more cheaply. To do that, you constantly have to invest in cutting-edge technology. To constantly invest in cutting-edge technology, you have to not spend the money on other things, like the needs of people in California or the planet or whatever.

That's what's happening. These people are being disciplined by finding themselves in a much, much tighter place, in which the option of being the kind of nice reformist wing of the prevailing order is disappearing.

LET'S MOVE on to talking about Cochabamba. I think that meeting was obviously a reaction to the disappointment of Copenhagen, and it represents a very striking initiative by Evo Morales. What did it turn out like?

IT WAS wonderful--just wonderful. What stands out in my mind is the last day, when we held a rally in a football stadium in Cochabamba with 3,000 people, mostly indigenous. Bolivia is the one country in the Americas where the majority of people are indigenous and speak a native language, and that's why it's both majority indigenous and majority working class.

I was standing on the grass in the football field in front of two circles of indigenous Andean peasants--middle-aged and elderly men and women wearing the traditional dress, where the women wear bowler hats and those big skirts, the men are in variations of cowboy hats and colorful clothes. They were doing a coca ceremony where they bless the coca leaves and then chew them.

And Hugo Chávez came on the loudspeaker and began to speak from the platform, and they listened to every word he said. When he made a particularly radical point, the women clapped, and when he attacked American imperialism and praised Lenin or Che, the older men blew on their big cow horn trumpets, a sort of thundering deep note.

These Native Americans are people who have been marginalized, hunted and exterminated for 500 years, and these were the people now leading the global movement to save the planet.

It wasn't just that the idea of an indigenous movement was everywhere. I sat for 12 hours in a working group on strategy. After eight hours, one of the working-class people in this room of 250 people I'd been sitting in started shouting and demanding a new president who was a leader of the local neighborhood association in the town we were in. You had a feeling that you don't have in almost all the rest of the world--a feeling of ordinary people who didn't have to behave with deference any longer. That was enormously moving.

There were problems. There are always problems in any movement, and there were several in Bolivia.

One was who was absent. The big NGOs were almost completely absent--Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Environmental Defense Fund, those kinds of organizations. They didn't officially boycott, but they didn't really participate. The labor movement, both globally and locally, was almost completely absent. I was looking for trade unionists, because I'm part of a climate jobs campaign in Britain, and I found, I think, 12 in three days of looking hard and leafleting like mad. So it was a movement of the Bolivian and Latin American social movements.

But it was a much more hopeful setting than Copenhagen, and a clear answer to the governments that decided to do nothing about climate change.

Transcription by Karen Dominguez Burke and Rebecca Anshell-Song

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