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Doom at Doha, but hope outside

As the UN climate summit in Qatar comes to a close, Mads Ryle reports on the grassroots action on climate change that offers a real alternative

December 3, 2012
10 min read

Campaign group Power Past Coal protests in the US. Photo: Doug Grinbergs

If you’re already thinking that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of the Parties (UNFCCC COP) process is a bit of a joke when it comes to dealing with climate change, then you may sense a fitting and tragic irony in this year’s summit being held in Doha, the capital of Qatar. Geographically isolated and politically non-democratic, the Qatari emirate not only has the world’s highest GDP per capita but also the highest carbon dioxide emissions thanks to its petrodollar economy.

It would have been difficult and expensive for many climate activists to get themselves to Doha to either participate in or protest against the conference. But arguably the time is past when activists – or journalists, or indeed national governments – took these annual meetings seriously, at least as a forum for getting real action on climate change. At Copenhagen in 2009, which drew the largest crowds both inside and outside the conference hall, those in the streets were already under no illusions as to the likelihood of a fair deal. They went to Denmark to shine a light on the corruption of the negotiations by corporate interests and the inherent structural injustice of the process for those in the global South.

Copenhagen failed to deliver that elusive ‘binding agreement’ and three years on, with the Kyoto Protocol on the point of extinction, plus ca change. At Durban last year the decision was taken to postpone until 2015 an agreement that would only take effect in 2020. The 20th anniversary in June of the Rio Summit, which first gave birth to the Conference of the Parties, was a sad coming of age, barely registering in the public consciousness. It delivered little besides the advancement of a dubious ‘green economy’ agenda that seeks to give an exploitable market value to every last bit of sadly abused nature.

As to the much-lauded Kyoto Protocol, as Oscar Reyes commented after last year’s COP, ‘Durban reduced the protocol to a zombie-like state,’ moving yet further from binding emissions targets. With Canada, Russia and Japan all signalling their intention to abandon the agreement, it’s no wonder Janet Redman of the Institute for Policy Studies questions ‘what the use would be of enforcing the treaty anyway’.

Of course, not all environmental organisations have disengaged completely from the UN process. Of the 17,000 or so expected in Doha, around 7,000 are likely to come from NGOs. The Climate Action Network remains attentive to the negotiations, and continues to optimistically present demands to the new ‘Ad Hoc Working Group’ established in Durban on how to achieve a ‘fair, ambitious and legally binding deal’. There are also those who point out the dangers of simply leaving the negotiators to their own devices, with no civil society eyes upon them. Nele Marien, formerly part of the Bolivian climate negotiating team, admits that ‘the negotiators, they do whatever they want anyway’ but nonetheless thinks ‘it’s better that [NGOs] are there paying attention to them’, for the purposes of public awareness if nothing else.

The Bolivian negotiating team has itself played a particular role in the past few years, establishing itself as a key point of resistance to the corporate-friendly agenda of rich countries and a voice for the dispossessed south. Marien and her colleagues in the team saw themselves as part of the climate justice movement that gathered outside the conference walls, and she considers Bolivian initiatives (such as pushing for carbon budgets) as important alternatives to the business-as-usual approach of many nations. However, she quit the negotiating team ahead of last year’s COP, knowing that Bolivia would sign the Durban Accords, and unwilling to agree ‘with something that is just un-agreeable’.

Surprising alliances

Now, with even these points of resistance seeming to lose their footing, many simply regard the UN process as a waste of climate activists’ time. Post-Copenhagen the ‘movement’ has been through a period of fragmentation and is still at a time of reassessment. I spoke to several people, however, who noted a reinvigoration of climate activism thanks to the spirit that Occupy and similar economic justice movements have inspired for grassroots action and civil disobedience. This is translating into concrete campaigns to block fossil fuel extraction, with these forming behind some occasionally surprising alliances.

Scott Parkin is an organiser with the Rainforest Action Network and has been active for years with Rising Tide North America. The latter group, under no illusions about corporate influence post-Copenhagen, ‘embarked on this strategy – which I would say is playing out well nearly three years later – of putting a really big emphasis on grassroots action at the point of extraction’. Parkin expresses optimism about what he prefers to pluralise as the ‘climate movements’ in the US, describing 2012 as a ‘big year’.

He says the radical wing has been able to push the mainstream ‘big greens’ more and more to the left. ‘Now they all really embrace working with frontline communities, and are more open to the tactics of nonviolent direct action.’ He attributes this to ‘the economic state of the world, Occupy and things like this’.

The big thing happening right now in the US is the Tar Sands Blockade in Texas, the next phase of the campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline. Parkin tells me that first on the scene at the blockade were Occupiers from Dallas and Austin, ‘but also they’re standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Texas landholders, conservatives, some of whom are self-identified Tea Party members.’ Unlikely coalitions are forming on the basis of frontline exposure to ‘eminent domain’ land grabs by companies that go on to poison local communities with pollution from coal mining or transportation, or dangerously toxic crude oil pipelines.

While it looks like Keystone may already be a ‘done deal’, for Parkin ‘the more important thing is that it’s a training ground and a place for strengthening involvement in the direct action movement. We’re giving more power and credibility to what Occupy did, and then we’re doing it on fossil fuels. It’s a movement-building moment for climate.’

Back to the grassroots

Chris Kitchen, a researcher for Corporate Watch and part of the UK Climate Justice Collective, decided after going to COP 14 in Poznań (with the Climate Action Network) that it was ‘a waste of time trying to influence the process’. He went to Copenhagen the following year in order to highlight this failure and help build a network for genuine action. While he acknowledges that the kind of media attention garnered at Copenhagen can sometimes provide good opportunities for messaging, if articulated correctly, he regards the COP as already so ‘overtaken by corporate and national interest that any civil society engagement acts as a legitimising force . . . some street mobilisation can still be interpreted as mobilisation for the process itself, so you have to be very careful.’

The grassroots movement on climate has always seen ecological crisis within the wider lens of a socio-political critique of capitalism per se. Like Parkin in the US, with the global rise of dissent towards the austerity conditions of economic crisis Chris sees UK activism on climate in something of a ‘recovery phase’. It’s a ‘great thing’, he says, ‘this realisation that going on a march and getting your MP to sign something won’t cut the mustard.’

Some of the UK movement’s energy has gone into the fight against fracking. Many of those now involved in Frack Off UK were key organisers in the climate justice protests in Copenhagen. One of them told me that ‘hope of a global deal that would seriously address humanity’s present predicament, if it ever existed at all, has now completely evaporated . . . So called “green capitalism”, which is just business as usual with a load of greenwash poured over it, is centre stage now.’

In the face of this, ‘the only possible hope is concerted grassroots action by communities to force change. While this may seem like a pipe dream, in fact the effects of climate change and energy extraction give us some hope. As the desperate rush to keep fossil fuels flowing is pushing extraction almost literally into people’s back gardens, more and more people are seeing the effects of this system up close and personal.’

Frontline campaigns

A set of recent profiles of climate campaigns by the Bolivia-based Democracy Center provides further evidence that communities on the frontline of climate change-causing decisions, and exposed to their localised effects, are taking matters into their own hands. What is more, their success in winning the support necessary to achieve this is precisely based on strategies that highlight the impacts of these decisions on local people – rather than by talking about ‘global climate change’.

As with Keystone, the Power Past Coal coalition in Washington state – one of the featured campaigns – is targeting the infrastructure that delivers dirty energy (in both these cases designed to take it overseas to Asian markets). It is by talking about the blight that huge coal trains will have on things such as local tourism and air quality that the campaign has gained momentum. This dynamic also demonstrates the importance of fighting to retain the power to affect these decisions at the local level – rather than leaving them up to national institutions, or multilateral ones such as the World Bank, where corporate power is strong and citizen power at its weakest.

The World Bank has been pushing, along with the US State Department, for a new generation of coal power in Kosovo – a small, low income nation vulnerable to such pressure given its currently insufficient and inefficient energy supply system. But campaigners in Kosovo, backed up by allies in the US who object to their country’s financial involvement in the plans, are doing all they can to halt the process, arguing instead for a long-term sustainable energy strategy. Along with academic analysis that busts open the myths about new coal being ‘clean’ because it would replace dirtier and less efficient power stations currently in operation, campaigners in Kosovo have again managed to bring farmers and rural landowners into the coalition and given them a chance to talk about the direct impacts they experience from strip mining on their land.

Things are happening outside the US and Europe, too. In a very different kind of ‘campaign’, one couple in Thailand, well versed in the decision-making processes of the Thai government on energy issues, have steered a quiet revolution in renewable energy by working with ministers and the state utilities companies. Policies that allow for generation and grid feed-in from small energy producers – from solar, biomass, biogas and other sources – are being looked at as a sustainable model for developing economies.

India, meanwhile, is another nation aggressively pushing for coal-fired power to meet its burgeoning energy requirements as it follows the well-trodden path to fossil-fed ‘development’. But here too campaigners – fisherman and farmers, supported by legal activists – are literally putting their lives on the line to block the government’s plans and defend their livelihoods, power station by power station.

So as we gear up for more of the same old nothing at Doha, it is to these multiple and various examples of grassroots mobilisation against the fossil fuel industry that we should be paying attention. That is where the real action lies, and that is where new connections – between peoples and ideas – are being made.

Mads Ryle is the communications director for the Democracy Center

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