COP-15: a change in the climate of democracy

Also published at Immanence.


It’ll take some time before the dust settles and we’ll be able to make sense of exactly what happened at the Copenhagen climate summit. But what’s becoming clear is that this may be a genuine turning point in the history of global politics.

The most remarkable thing that will come out of the meeting is not whatever set of policies will be agreed to tomorrow: this is because the key player, the president of the most powerful nation on Earth, is hamstrung by a conservatively poised party (his own Democrats) in power in the two houses in which he needs support in order to pass significant legislation. The most remarkable thing, rather, will be what happens to global civil society and its relationship to the structures of national and international power.

National governments, and none more so than that of the US, are deeply encumbered by the stranglehold of corporate lobbyists and other economic interests on their political systems — which is why nongovernmental and civil society groups are necessary to solve the issues that traditional political actors cannot. But while the NGOs and civil society groups speak of “democracy,” they are not elected and are, arguably, not representative in an obvious way. The democracy they speak of is of a different order than the one that’s doled out once every few years to the voting citizen of a given country.

What the activists mean by “democracy” is the activity and mobilization of citizens taking things into their own hands. And, unfortunately, that’s a kind of democracy that’s just as open to those on the right, from the Glenn Beck Tea Partiers and climate denialists in the US to racialist nationalists and religious fundamentalists around the world. So the lesson here, I think, is that we are now on a new and different political terrain — a terrain that is global and much more open than what we’re used to, and that really is a struggle for the hearts and minds of people around the world.

The climate justice activists in Copenhagen, fortunately, are sending a clear message to the rest of the world that there is a consensus emerging around basic matters of eco-social solidarity: that we are all in this together, and that the rich won’t get away with plunder any longer. As George Monbiot puts it, this is “a war between human decency and sheer bloody selfishness.”

A big piece of this message is that the industrial society that has grown over the last two centuries is hitting a wall, a limit point, beyond which something has to give way at a deep level. As David Loy argues, this limit point is forcing a test of people’s capacity to identify with humanity at the collective, global level and to internalize the lesson of interdependence. Assuming that the science is accurate — and science being what it is, we don’t and can’t know anything with 100% certainty, but we do know that the majority/consensus of climate scientists is strong in its conviction that anthropogenic climate change is most likely to be well on its way — then we are hitting a capacity limit that is comparable to the population density limits that triggered the shift from foraging societies to settled agriculture several thousand years ago.

This time, the limit is atmospheric: the waste that industrial processes have been emitting into the global atmosphere is now dangerously close to, if not already beyond, the point that could trigger a series of convulsions in global climate systems that will be followed by ecological and social disruptions on a mass scale, with the movement of refugee populations putting pressure even on those who think they are most protected.

A growing, industrially-consuming human population coupled with such global system changes can only result in a competitive mad scramble for resources — or else in a coordinated transition to a sustainable ecological society. The only way to effect the latter is through a widespread recognition that the means that were used to get us to this point cannot be the means that will get us out of it. The developed “North” (what used to be called the “West”) was able to get so far ahead of the rest of the world by, in effect, blowing the global bank account of stored fossil-fuel energy reserves, so that we now live in a biosphere that’s become filled to overcapacity with carbon-emitting techno-humans. Industrial capitalism worked to the benefit of some, and delivered some goods that can be shared with others, but in its present form it cannot continue. A post-carbon economy has to emerge, quickly, and it has to be both socially just and ecologically sustainable.

That message will, unfortunately, get blunted or completely lost in the USA, and it will get countered, blurred, and twisted in other places. In part, this is because things are muddied in the real world, a world divided by stark economic class differences which exist not only between the rich and poor countries but within each of them. Those who are in positions to benefit from the possibility of quickly cashing in on available resources will try to do exactly that, even though it will be at the expense of others. So none of the actors, least of all heads of state, but also not “the global South,” are united enough to take on the change that is needed.

If Copenhagen is a turning point, then, it’s not because there is a new message coming out of it (“350,” “climate justice,” “climate debt,” or something else) or because that message will be clear and obvious to everyone from this point on. What makes it a turning point is that a new set of connections are being forged in the heat of the confrontation of active citizens from around the world with the reality of global political-economic power structures. Paul Hawken’s “largest movement in the world,” the movement of movements made up of environmental, social justice, and indigenous rights civil society organizations — which isn’t a movement yet until it begins to move and act in a coordinated manner — and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s “multitude” — the multiple and internally differentiated force that is, or that can become, capable of acting in common toward a global democracy — are both being born today, in the stark meeting of global justice activism with ecological reality.

That, at least, is the hope and the dream. The reality is, of course, more complex, but let’s spin out this more optimistic scenario a little further.

* * * * * * * *

Infusion, coalescence, rearticulation: a new world struggling to be born

What I think is happening in Copenhagen can be summarized by the terms infusion, coalescence, and rearticulation.

There is an infusion of new energy into global activism and mobilization that has not been so visibly present before. Every international gathering since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit has had its NGO and civil society sideshow. Globalist meetings in Seattle, Prague, Genoa, Quebec City, Davos, Cancun, Miami, Athens, and beyond, have all been shadowed by “alter-globalists”, and previous environmental summits, from Rio through to Kyoto and Johannesburg, have also been the scenes of alternative “people’s summits.” Activists have gathered at the World Social Forums in between to pursue collective strategies.

But in addition to the alter-globalists and the international environmental groups, whose co-operation blossomed in Seattle in 1999, this meeting includes at least two new sets of activists: a youngish contingent of climate activists from the global North who came together around the “350” slogan at campuses and elsewhere around North America and Europe and who are connected to peers around the world, and new grassroots international activists from the very places that are most vulnerable to climate disruptions, including the Arctic and island nations around the world.

These include leaders who are heads of state — like Maldivean president Nasheed and Bolivia’s newly re-elected Evo Morales, as well as those, like founder Bill McKibben, who are relatively unencumbered by long histories of involvement in the enmity-generating grind of political activism. So where, in the past, grassroots activists have had to poke and prod their leaders to get anything done, today they are represented both among the “insiders” in the Bella Centre and the “outsiders” gathering on the streets. Leaders like Nasheed and Morales qualify as insiders on both sides because, as heads of state, even politically marginal ones, they are outspoken enough and are engaged in building coalitions with others (Morales with Brazil, Venezuela, and other Latin American countries), but they are also “of the people”: Nasheed’s country is so small and so close to the verge of climate disruption that whatever class differences might exist in the Maldives probably evaporate once he travels to an international forum like this one, and Morales, though he’s a bit of a grandstander like Hugo Chavez (and for good reason), is indigenous Mayan, which is rather unusual for a head of state anywhere.

Coalescence is occurring between these different groups, and especially between activists from the global South and environmental activists from the North. Similar kinds of left-green coalitions have been built before, but they have been more tenuous, and indigenous and “fourth world” peoples have not been nearly as prominent in them. International environmental organizations like Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, the Rainforest Action Network, the World Wide Fund for Nature, and others that had formerly been perceived by Southerners as an arm of the Northern power elite are now “becoming-Southern,” as Deleuze/Guattari might put it; and the global South is taking “ownership” of ecological issues in a way that had never really taken off at a global scale until now.

These connections are all being rendered both through the discursive rearticulation of justice and environment issues in slogans like “350,” “climate justice,” and “climate debt” (and there are legitimate disagreements about the virtues of each) and through media imagery that is being disseminated around the world: of walls going up to separate the global-elite insiders and the lobbyists that gather around them like moths, from the insurgent outsider-activists; of nonviolent activists being beat up by police (I’ve seen a lot of images of billy clubs being wielded but not much of rocks being lobbed at riot police or bricks being thrown through the windows of chain stores in downtown Copenhagen); and, most importantly, of the political-economic elites being unable to handle the strong showing of activists from around the world. If “they” need to resort to such tactics, then the message is that “we” are ultimately stronger than they are.

There will be questions to answer once the dust clears, such as why the Danish police resorted to violence to prevent NGO climate justice activists from even being close to the Bella Center; or why the UN had to prevent whole organizations, like Friends of the Earth International, from attending Bella Center events; and at whose behest these decisions were made.

There will also be the question of what happens to environmentalism as a movement when it is clearly fissuring along the line that separates the market-solutions pragmatists from the global justice activists. It’s not easy to embrace the global South (and the fourth world) and to schmooze with the power elites at the same time, and many will be forced to choose, instead of continuing the dance of wanting to have it both ways, or of at least feigning the first but retreating to the second when the going gets tough. The global “outsiders” alone — indigenous communities, developing world farmers, rainforest rubber tappers, the growing numbers of shanty-town dwellers around the world — aren’t enough of a force on this issue, and while the numbers of “outside/insiders” is growing, it will be crucial to get the global middle and “service” classes to take some ownership in the struggle as well.

Media and communication will be very important for this — which gives journalists (like George Monbiot and Andy Revkin, who just announced he is leaving the New York Times in advance of a cut of a hundred Times news staffers) and environmental and media scholars so much interesting work to do. But I do believe that COP-15 may become the biggest single step on the way to forging the kind of global consensus that could triumph over the political-economic hegemony of fossil-fuel capitalism.

The policies themselves will also be endlessly debated, and there are many points to work out in them, whatever form they end up taking. For instance, cap-and-trade policies like the Waxman-Markey bill being debated in the US, can become sleazy ways of benefiting those most responsible for the problem, but there are ways to tighten the holes and monitor the details. Cap-and-dividend and carbon tax models are better, especially if they are accompanied by significant instruments for funding resilience-based projects in vulnerable areas of the global South. (For a little background, see, e.g., here, but a little googling will go a long way for up-to-date information on all of these.)

But the real message of Copenhagen, I believe, boils down to this. While the mass media portray COP-15 generally as a struggle between the rich North and the poor South — sometimes, depending on their political preferences, singling out either the US or China (and to a lesser extent India and Brazil) as self-interested bully nations who don’t want to be equal partners within a global climate deal (and with the climate deniers as a weird side-show at the scene) — the message of grassroots global activists is that “a new world is being born.” That message has new slogans and now new images to go with it. And it is filtering down to the places around the world where it will resonate most deeply.

* * * * * * * *

Some of the sources I’ve been relying on for news from Copenhagen include video coverage at The Uptake and Climate Camp, blog reports at Grist, Dot Earth, Transition Culture, WorldChanging, and information on Klimaforum and left-green analysis at Climate and Capitalism, as well as some individual bloggers (like Ben Brangwyn and my colleague Saleem Ali at Newsvine — just a friendly plug).

Not being at the scene of the events, I’ve also been trying to keep an eye on the media coverage over here. Indy media network Democracy Now has done a remarkable job covering the climate justice movement directly from the Bella Center and from around town. They pride themselves as being the only network present in Copenhagen for the whole two weeks — in fact, I don’t think I’ve seen Amy Goodman look as happy as she’s been in a long time. PBS has been doing a reasonable job, with reports from the scene by Ray Suarez, but more usefully some contextual backgrounders including one on the REDD forest negotiations.

Otherwise, it’s been pretty slim pickin’s here. What little I’ve seen of Fox is as bad as I’ve expected (e.g. Bill O’Reilly going on about how it’s all a sham because of China, or for whatever other reason is handy in his conversation with any particular interlocutor; and then there’s Glenn Beck…). Most of what I’ve seen on CNN has been disappointing, if not revolting — including an atrocious examination of the “truth” behind “Climategate,” where they pitted a “pro-climate change scientist” against a “skeptical scientist” (who had trouble stringing a sentence together) and a “skeptic” who was a foaming-at-the-mouth blatherer. MSNBC’s Olbermann and Maddow continue to provide a welcome anti-Fox antidote (hooray), but they’ve been focused a lot more on health care than on Copenhagen.

But the images that are moving across television screens and computer terminals around the world call for interpretation, and the old frame of “rotten anarchist anti-everything ne’er-do-wells” won’t work so effectively when they themselves are not being violent (which is a tribute to work within the global justice movement) and when what they are saying is not so different from what many at the summit itself are saying. And when there are other nay-saying ne’er-do-wells around — like the James Inhofes and Glenn Becks of the world — who have eagerly taken up the “no-no-no” refrain and who are saying things that are completely opposed to the street activists, then the latter don’t look so bad anymore.

So whatever happens tomorrow, I think there is real cause for hope.

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About Adrian Ivakhiv

Adrian Ivakhiv is a professor of environmental thought and culture at the University of Vermont.
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1 Response to COP-15: a change in the climate of democracy

  1. For anyone interested, I’ve just posted a follow-up over at Immanence.

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