Copenhagen’s Chaos-Reflections on the failure of COP-15.

Like many, I was under few illusions that the COP-15 process would get us out of this mess but instead went to Copenhagen in December to take part in the mobilisation calling for climate justice and to run workshops inside the Klima Forum, (the People’s Summit.) Despite the scientific evidence, the enormous political pressure and the legal imperative to act, world leaders failed to agree to the urgent action needed to avert climate chaos. Instead we have the ‘Copenhagen Accord’, complete with a blank page for ‘voluntary emissions cuts’. The first that many of the delegates knew of this document was when they saw Obama at a press conference announcing it! Even the deadline for signing this has been declared, ‘soft’, making the whole thing even more of a farce.

So what went wrong? There are many theories, and reams of analysis elsewhere, but the real story as I see it from being in Copenhagen is that as sci- fi writer, William Gibson’s said, “The future is here, it’s just unevenly distributed.” I had met a Bolivian delegate in the weeks before the summit and knew from him that the tensions inside were tremendous between those pushing for a real deal as a matter of survival and those that saw it as a trade fair and an opportunity to offset all the way to the bank. Sold on the idea that all the stops were being pulled out for the sake of a deal, many ignored the inherent contradiction between countries simultaneously engaging in economic competition and reaching a consensus. Cutting emissions to the required level (80% by 2050) means no more business as usual, and is not action that most governments are willing or able to take. Seen in these terms, any attempts to build a global consensus were doomed to fail, and indeed have stretched the UN to near breaking point

At one end of the spectrum we have ‘leaders’ of the industrialised countries and corporate lobbyists aggressively pushing false solutions such as agro-fuels and GM technology. Wedded to infinite growth on a finite planet, they are willing to pervert the supposedly democratic workings of the UN for the sake of short term political or economic gain. At the other extreme are the hundreds of thousands of people for whom climate chaos is already a reality. From this perspective, failure to cut emissions is tantamount to genocide. They know that the position of gross inequality where 20% of the global population are responsible for 80% of global pollution, is the result of a long history of exploitation. The root cause of the problem is the consumption patterns of the rich industrialised countries and the economic and political system on which that rests. Whether it is flooding in Bangladesh drought and resource wars in the Horn of Africa, or the multitude experiencing exploitation, poverty, war, malnutrition, forced migration, the global majority are on the sharp end of neo-liberal global capitalism. Increasingly we see that climate change is not THE overriding problem but rather an immensely serious symptom of a failing and corrupt system. Even when their own futures are evidently at risk from climate change, those who manage and benefit from the capitalist system refuse to act.

Despite this context, as I look back I can find some reasons not to lose all hope! Without making out that it was without tension, in Copenhagen the climate justice movements matured. Indigenous communities and small scale farmers movements on the frontline of the struggle inspired thousands of activists and organisers from around the world. Inside the Bella Centre, there were critiques of carbon trading and agro-fuels heard more loudly than at any previous COP process. Some say that the failure to reach a consensus was because the G77, (Group of least developed countries) chose no deal over a bad deal. The proposals of the ALBA, (alliance of Latin American and Caribbean countries opposing neo-liberalism) rejected green capitalist solutions, demanded reparations for ecological debt, a court for environmental crimes and recognition of Rights of the Earth. A parallel process to the UN has begun, The People’s Summit on Climate Change has been called by Bolivia in April. The declaration from Klimaforum, signed by almost 300 social organisations called for System change not Climate Change, a complete abandonment of fossil fuels in the next thirty years and a transition to land, energy, food and water sovereignty. 100 000 people marched in Copenhagen under various slogans, but with fewer polar bears and more discussion of climate change as an issue of massive human suffering happening right now.

Importantly, the police repression experienced in Denmark revealed the social control that will try and crush the movements for climate justice in order to maintain business as usual. It is no coincidence that it was the System Change not Climate Change block that was ‘preventively arrested’ at the main demonstration on the 12th December, leaving 900 people sitting with their hands tied behind their backs in freezing conditions for up to 6 hours. It is no surprise that during the Reclaim Power action on 16th December the walk out of delegates opposed to what was happening within COP15 was beaten back resulting in bruises and broken noses. These were just a taste of the everyday violence that the system rests upon worldwide.

It is not at all surprising that the movements for climate justice did not win any huge victory in Copenhagen with all the odds stacked against us. Nonetheless, those two weeks in Denmark were one leg of a long journey towards a just and sustainable transition, that will eventually be achieved in a great diversity of unpredictable and complimentary ways. I came away from Copenhagen more convinced than ever of the central role of grassroots organising and popular education to build critical movements, develop direct democracy, and create more resilient communities. I was also reminded that responding to climate change will involve a struggle against vested interests that will go to any length to maintain their positions of power. If this grim realisation is shared by enough of us we can get on with the real work of building grassroots social change rather than infinitely waiting for those that benefit most from the current system to change it.

Alice Cutler is part of Trapese Popular Education Collective, who co-edited Do It Yourself, A Handbook for changing our World, available to download from their website (www.trapese.org)

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