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As negotiations fell apart inside the Copenhagen climate conference, protesters from around the world came together outside. But was the counter-mobilisation a success? Ben Lear reports

March 11, 2010
7 min read

The United Nations climate change summit in Copenhagen loomed on the political horizon all last year. As speculation about what would be brokered there reached saturation point, the world waited with bated breath for the deal that would save the planet. And it was not just the politicians, NGOs and the media who had made their way to Copenhagen – climate justice campaigners from across the world had spent much of the year preparing to make an impact during the summit.

That doesn’t mean the different groups agreed on their tactics. In the UK, for instance, views ranged from the Camp for Climate Action, which argued it was an inherently illegitimate conference, incapable of solving the crisis, to the Stop Climate Chaos coalition, which got 50,000 people onto the streets of London and Edinburgh for ‘The Wave’. Instead of rejecting the summit, it called for ‘a climate deal … that protects the world’s poorest’.

The Wave had massive NGO support, and even corporate sponsorship from the Co-operative group and the backing of climate change secretary Ed Miliband. But while it called on world leaders to take action in Copenhagen, others were gearing up to take direct action themselves. This was to culminate with protesters outside the summit coming together with the more radical NGOs and groups inside to try to occupy the centre and turn it into a ‘people’s conference’.

Copenhagen came ten years after the anti-WTO protests in Seattle, where the anti-globalisation movement launched itself into global popular consciousness when it succeeded in shutting down the summit. Author and activist Naomi Klein had predicted we would witness the same for climate justice in Copenhagen. She backed the ‘more thoughtful approach to direct action’ she believed was demonstrated by the call for a people’s summit inside the conference centre – a clear shift from previous mobilisations, which sought to shut summits down rather than open them up.

Cop-enhagen

There was plenty to do in Copenhagen, whether or not you had a pass for the main conference centre. An alternative forum, the ‘Klimaforum’, organised workshops and debates throughout the two weeks, and there were constant demonstrations.

The largest of the protests was on 12 December: the ‘Flood for Climate Justice’, organised by Friends of the Earth and others, with the stated aim of building ‘pressure on governments to find fair solutions to the climate crisis’. Among the 100,000 marchers was a substantial anti-capitalist bloc, which was more critical of the idea that the conference could produce a ‘fair deal’. This bloc was the target of the indiscriminate mass arrests used against the demonstration.

So the anti-capitalists were tied up and left to freeze as the rest of the march continued. The biggest political task would be bringing these two contrasting groups into a productive conversation.

The ‘Reclaim Power’ day of civil disobedience saw thousands try to gain access to the conference centre. Despite their nonviolence, they were met with police batons and pepper spray, and more than 200 were arrested. In the end the people’s conference was held outside the conference, with the protesters coming together with delegates who had either walked out of the summit or been barred from entering.

This conference was not as big as might have been expected given its high profile. Nevertheless, it was important for the way it brought together delegates and movements from the global North and South.

It was not the only action to suffer at the hands of the police, and these confrontations dominated the media coverage of the movement. But much of the important political work in Copenhagen took place far from the lenses of the media, in the social centres and other alternative spaces.

Big issues

The counter-summit was ‘an alliance between northern and southern activists that has not been seen since the early days of the alter-globalisation mobilisations,’ says Ed Thompson, a spokesperson from the UK Climate Camp.

This spirit of co-operation was demonstrated again and again. Indigenous representatives came to political meetings in Christiania, the semi-autonomous, self-organised neighbourhood of Copenhagen. Particular attention was paid to the ways in which indigenous groups were being hurt by false solutions to climate change.

On the streets, the No Borders demonstration saw 2,000 people march to demand the right of freedom of movement for all, especially when large parts of the world might become uninhabitable. Many of the more liberal environmentalists joined the demonstration, even though it was focused on a particularly radical demand.

It was a similar story on the two demonstrations over agriculture. European anarchists marched side by side with members of La Via Campesina, the grassroots peasants’ organisation of the global South.

These protests showed how the concept of climate justice appears to be moving beyond a focus on simply opposing carbon trading and excessive energy production in the global North – it is widening to take in progressive visions of migration and agriculture as well.

The future

In the end the Copenhagen summit failed to produce any solutions to climate change – no surprise, many would say. But what about those outside the steel fences? Given the huge build-up and the significance of the conference, did the mobilisation live up to expectations?

The numbers were lower than some had predicted. The 100,000-strong ‘Flood for Climate Justice’ march was still smaller than the numbers seen at G8 and anti-war demonstrations in the past. And the other demonstrations and actions often numbered in the hundreds rather than the thousands.

Noticeable by their absence were large sections of the European autonomous left, even though three years ago Copenhagen was making international headlines with rioting over the eviction of an anarchist social centre – and the city is just a quick hop from Germany, a similar centre for the autonomists.

Even many Danish radicals seemed to have decided not to take part in what, numbers wise, was the biggest political event of the year. And many who had travelled to Copenhagen left straight after the 100,000 demonstration early in the week. So can it be called a success?

Climate Camp’s Ed Thompson believes it can. The counter-mobilisation took a ‘step towards creating a mass social movement to push for a radical reorganisation of society and create social justice,’ he argues.

Adela Cadena from Climate Justice Action, the network of radical groups and NGOs, agrees, arguing it was ‘a massive step forward for us and a great success – north, south, east and west, and all shades of red, black and green came together, talked, built and acted.’

After all, there is more to success than numbers. One of the key aims of the counter-mobilisation was to build the political foundations for a new global climate justice movement.

In Copenhagen activists from across the world, and from different political traditions, were tentatively able to begin to develop a common language of climate justice.

It is often forgotten that the Seattle protests of 1999 emerged from almost a decade of painstaking international organising and movement-building. A political rupture of the scale of Seattle will be needed in the struggle for climate justice, but we are still at the movement-building stage right now.

Copenhagen may not have been the huge manifestation of an already existing climate justice movement that some expected – but it felt like a positive step towards it.

The next United Nations conference on climate change will take place in Mexico in November. But we should not have to wait that long to see something come out of the discussions we had here in Copenhagen.

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