Working-class environmentalism after Copenhagen and Bonn

Submitted by Matthew on 24 June, 2010 - 8:11 Author: Paul Vernadsky

If the Copenhagen climate gathering last year was an utter failure, then the talks in Bonn earlier this month were a complete irrelevance.

After two weeks of parleying, no text was agreed for the negotiations due to take place in Cancun in December. After a fortnight of wrangling, involving 5,000 officials from 185 governments, a 22-page text was produced by the UN, but was dismissed, on the grounds that it favoured developing countries.

The basic ambiguity remains from Copenhagen. The UN process, which involved at least the semblance of a commitment to reduce emissions, was sidelined by the Accord, parachuted in at the last minute by the big players, but with less ambition and far fewer real emissions reductions. Since Copenhagen, around 130 states have signed the Accord. In Bonn, a new text for negotiation, attempting to bring the Accord into the UN process was produced. It was rejected. Two more weeks of discussion, but the new text was still not acceptable.

The log-jam is geopolitical. The Chinese state will not sign up to external targets; the US will almost certainly be unable even to set its own internal targets. Without these two largest emitters, any global agreement will have no real impact. But with them, as presently constituted, any agreement will be so minimal as to barely slow the rise in emissions expected over the coming decades.

The climate movement in 2010

The answer to this paralysis is to build an international climate movement capable of challenging governments and ultimately, forcing them to make an agreement.

At Copenhagen, after a big demonstration of 100,000 people, many on the left consoled themselves that at least the beginnings of a movement had been born.

The truth is that there is no real climate movement yet. It is necessary to state what is, if we are to build such a movement to tackle climate change.

The mobilisations around climate change up until now have generally been small. The organisations involved are fragmented, often uncoordinated, and frequently politically incoherent. The NGO lobby has been completely outmanoeuvred by big business and finance in terms of their influence with states.

In Britain the momentum of the last few years has largely dissipated. The successes around Kingsnorth and Heathrow can’t disguise the weaknesses. The Wave demo in December last year was larger than previous efforts, but still tiny, even by comparison with the more recent anti-war demos. It was very middle class, sedate and unobtrusive, failing even to muster a final rally to send people home with a message.

And since then the main organiser, Stop Climate Chaos has shed most of its staff and wound down.

The Campaign against Climate Change (CCC) has had more life to it, at least in London, and has sustained some local groups. It has at least attempted to engage with unions, though in reality the main industrial unions have not engaged with it – mainly because it is hostile to all energy sources other than renewables. The main CCC also has a strong whiff of lifestylism about it – so its demands appear as prohibitions and instructions for living a chastened life.

Climate camp, though it is more participatory and more open, suffers from the same malaise, only worse. It came across as proposing a future of vegetarianism and composted toilets. Its direct action tactics have been high-profile, but are often disconnected, leaving little organisation in place for the long-term. There is a succulent temptation to turn inwards — to build an alternative community island away from the sea of modern capitalism. The problem is that by cutting off from the world, you also disconnect from the forces within it that have the power to affect a more radical change.

In short, the various climate campaigns lack the vision of what they are for, failing even to spell out what a low carbon society might look like, never mind how it might be brought about. They lack a coherent strategy for bringing about radical social change – not least because the role of workers is forgotten or bolted on, rather than at the centre of things.

And the climate campaigns have not worked out a positive, united, political basis for collaboration or the kind of democratic structures that would allow a climate collation to function, whilst acknowledging differences.

To break the impasse, a reassessment is needed. An international working class based climate movement is required if big business and its states are to be confronted. This means serious engagement with the labour movement, alongside efforts to take serious climate politics into workplaces and trade unions. It means linking climate issues to workers’ everyday life, including the fight for jobs, for public services, around working hours and control of the job, through to housing and urban life, to the fight for democracy.

To adapt Plekhanov, the climate movement will triumph only as a working-class movement, or else it will never triumph!

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