Patrick Bond, July 7, 2021
The Paris Climate Agreement and subsequent United Nations follow-up conferences have not taken seriously the ecological crisis now unfolding. Not only does prominent scientist James Hansen describe its tokenistic measures in scathing terms (“bullshit”), but those seeking climate justice have long despaired of multilateral climate policy making dominated by imperial and sub-imperial elite negotiators from high-emitting economies.
Mid-2021 negotiations confirmed the lack of UN progress. Instead, there are two strategies worth considering: delegitimization of elites, and ‘Blockadia’ of high-carbon projects. Both are proceeding but both need more clarity in strategic approaches – as in the ‘Glasgow Agreement’ promoted by leading civil society activist groups – that apply to the 2021 climate summit and many other struggles beyond.
In June 2019, at the first Climate Justice Forum dedicated to scholars now embracing the field, I had the opportunity to speak following Mary Robinson’s opening plenary address to the Glasgow Caledonian University Centre for Climate Justice (2019). The former Irish president and UN Human Rights Commissioner was as eloquent as ever. Her most powerful advice to the group, with regard to a strategic advocacy agenda, was that since the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) 2015 Paris Climate Agreement was a useful start to decarbonizing the world economy, the critical next step was to relegitimize Paris by compelling national governments to shift its ‘non-binding’ provisions to binding.
Robinson’s approach would entail returning to an essential principle of UN treaties dealing with global ecological crises, e.g. the 1987 Montreal Protocol that banned CFCs to prevent catastrophic ozone hole growth, or the Kyoto Protocol’s 1997 binding conditions. She proposed transcending the sleazy back-room deal permitting “bottom-up” voluntary emissions commitments made in December 2009 by leaders of the United States, Brazil, China, India and South Africa – i.e., a “league of super-polluters and would-be super-polluters”, as Bill McKibben (2009) of 350.org put it – at the Copenhagen Conference of the Parties 15. (From then on, the nickname Conference of Polluters would often be used by critics to describe the UNFCCC’s annual gathering.) Nevertheless, insisted Robinson, such a reform to ensure binding not voluntary adherence to Paris should be the orientation we adopt as scholar-activists, so as to incrementally strengthen the case that the planet can be saved, top down.
Against this approach, I pointed out, were dilemmas associated with implementation mechanisms implied at Paris, such as ongoing emissions trading and offsets to maximize Northern emissions’ efficiency (no matter the speculative bubbles forever roiling their price), or sequestering CO2 through dubious “carbon neutrality” gambits. These strategies she has supported in the past under the rubric of climate justice, even though the CJ movement universally opposed carbon markets and so-called “false solutions” (Bond 2012a). She did not acknowledge that the mere act of signing the Paris Climate Agreement meant acknowledging no accountability mechanisms or penalties (such as “border adjustment taxes” on climate scofflaws), as Donald Trump showed in June 2017 when he dropped out. Robinson was not concerned that when countries signed the Paris deal, that meant they legally forgave the West and BRICS for what is their historic “climate debt” (i.e., ecological reparations to the victims of the correlated “loss and damage”). She did not grapple with the three missing sectors conveniently left out of the Paris Climate Agreement: military, shipping and air transport. Nor was the failure of Paris to include a Just Transition for workers in carbon-intensive sectors to find alternative employment in a greener economy worth mentioning. Nor did Paris mention the urgent need to force fossil fuel firms into accepting that there is vast “unburnable carbon” in their portfolios, that in a sane world would be adjusted radically downward in valuation accounts (as “stranded assets”).
The divestment pressures that were building up in civil society – removing funds from firms and financiers that refuse these logical capitalist self-correction mechanisms – were not considered, nor did Paris negotiators pay due respect to activists, especially those in grassroots, indigenous, anti-extractivist struggles and especially the youth.
To be sure, though the university’s Centre for Climate Justice has firmly defined its field on the progressive end of the spectrum, some of the gathered intellectuals seemed quite content with Robinson’s approach. It would allow them ongoing participation within the mainstream of global climate policy, and hence sustained potentials for receipt of research and education grants, more rapid academic publications and membership in the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. As a result, without properly interrogating the politics of Paris, some intellectuals proceeded to take debates into the standard explorations of justice applied to climate: procedural, recognition, distributive, compensatory, restitutive and corrective. To be fair, some scholars also acknowledge the dangers that “neoliberal justice” would become a potentially dangerous trajectory (see Khan et al 2020 for a review applied to climate finance). But there was a solid bloc of academics who were satisfied with the prevailing wisdom, that the Paris Climate Agreement is essentially sound, and if the ambition is ratcheted up in quintennial revisions of Nationally Determined Contributions, the central goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and maintaining temperatures below a rise of 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels during this century, is achievable.
Not everyone sees the framing in this way. If the Paris parameters instead offer a profoundly unsound basis for making climate policy – from global to local scales – then a very different set of principles, analyses, strategies, tactics and alliances (PASTA) should present themselves. And if the presumption that global climate policy does far more harm than good is correct, Greta Thunberg (2020) put her finger on the problem: “we are still in a state of complete denial, as we waste our time, creating new loopholes with empty words and creative accounting.” As she accused the United Nations in 2019, “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you.”
A change is needed. For if the flaws in global climate policy processes and content identified above (as well as others), then no matter how much debate proceeds on injecting various justice framings into the UNFCCC, it will be impossible to generate an outcome worthy of human endeavour, and planetary survival will be moot. That outcome appears, in mid-2021, far more likely than any other, so a Plan B is needed based on an entirely different strategy than Robinson’s: i.e., a strategy to delegitimize Paris and its elite negotiators, and instead turn to immediate direct actions, more flexible scales of international engagement, and more creative strategies for bottom-up activism. The challenge is simple: how to most rapidly overturn what can be considered climate-policy malgovernance. Is one of the approaches, to delegitimize the UNFCCC and especially the COPs? If so, what to put in its place?
The Case of the Glasgow Agreement
Climate Justice (CJ) is typically the alternative to “Climate Action” of the sort the UNFCCC promotes. Three of the most famous activist-based statements on CJ came from meetings of the Durban Group for Climate Justice (hosted in South Africa) in 2004, the Bali (Indonesia) COP in 2007, and the Cochabamba (Bolivia) alternative climate summit in 2010 (Bond 2012a). They were ambitious. The Cochabamba statement, for instance, made concrete demands for reparations, emissions-cutting targets and institutional mechanisms such as ecocide courts, amplifying Indigenous People’s power, and formal Rights of Mother Earth.
In subsequent years, less systematic approaches by the movement were taken at various conference of the parties (COP) and occasional meetings in between. There was a systemic failure in the CJ movement to generate the kind of global coordination achieved by, for example, La Via Campesina whose main force was the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement but which successfully moved the federated network’s global headquarters around affiliates. However, no matter CJ movement complaints that the UNFCCC should no longer be a central focus of global organizing initiatives, that was the terrain of struggle from Bali in 2007 until at least Warsaw COP in 2013. Then in September 2014, a march of 400,000 climate activists in New York coincided with the UN General Assembly heads of state meeting, and while the November-December period was invariably one of global days of action and critique, September 2019 became the most active month of global climate action yet, thanks to the campaigning of Fridays4Future. Unlike other CJ local actions which failed to generate global-scale coordination, the youth were successfully catalysed by Greta Thunberg’s weekly sit-in at the Swedish parliament from mid-2018.
In late 2020, as Covid-19 continued to disrupt the potential for widescale, coordinated and increasingly radical climate activism, a “Glasgow Agreement” was offered by leading forces driven especially from within Southern Europe’s CJ movement. It caught on internationally, with participation and Agreement sign-on from 170 mainly grassroots environmental movements across the world. Several of the Agreement’s features help to define what we can consider – following the French sociologist Andre Gorz (1967) – the distinct terrains of “reformist” and “non-reformist” reforms.
Glasgow Agreement Gaps
The Agreement is a profound, eloquent input into global climate politics, one that various strains of progressives and radicals right through to ecosocialists could warm to. However, the emphasis on leaving fossil fuels underground – absolutely essential as a first priority – means, like the Paris Climate Agreement, some critical areas (e.g. cutting emissions that emanate from militaries, air and maritime transport) are left out. Four central points are vital for future drafters: the balance of forces represented by Washington’s return to COP leadership; intergenerational equity; tactics; and the need for alignment with growing anti-extractivist movements. In taking up the latter four shortcomings, a broader concern arises, associated with a warning from the militant eco-feminist group Accion Ecologica from Quito, Ecuador. Its founder expressed frustration at the Agreement’s prioritization of an “emissions inventory” that distracted from root capitalist causes of climate crisis (Yanez 2021).
First, the Agreement could better alert readers to the current balance of forces – and how to change that array of power. After all, there is a dangerous new factor that became apparent in January 2021: the US corporate-neoliberal re-entry to the UNFCCC, led by Joe Biden and his climate envoy John Kerry (former Secretary of State in 2015 at Paris) (Bond 2021a). One result of the shift from Trump climate denialism to this new regime is renewed emphasis on market strategies and “net zero” accounting gimmickry. Such “green capitalism” and associated false solutions are noted in the Agreement’s final statement of principles – and flagged in much more detail by, among others, Corporate Accountability, Global Forest Coalition and Friends of the Earth International (2021).
Second, the Agreement doesn’t address rights of future generations, notwithstanding rising youth rage. This is an absolutely critical new factor in climate politics, so it represents a surprising gap given Fridays4Future’s potential and the clarity with which Thunberg and her allies continue to express exceptionally tough critique. Thunberg’s successful approach, based on speaking truth to power at elite events that gain her unprecedented publicity for the climate cause, has thus far focused on delegitimizing the corporate and multilateral establishment. To illustrate, when in mid-2021 Kerry was quoted endorsing mythical technofix strategies – “I am told by scientists, not by anybody in politics, but by scientists, that 50 percent of the reductions we have to make are going to come from technology that we don’t yet have” – she tweeted, “Great news! I spoke to Harry Potter and he said he will team up with Gandalf, Sherlock Holmes & The Avengers and get started right away!” The anger and sense of urgency that leading youth activists can generate stunned the world since her Stockholm sit-ins began mid-2018. No one can doubt how desperately we need a post-Covid revival of that spirit, especially given internal divisions in the US Sunrise movement on the one hand, but on the other, a rising network of Global South youth preparing to take greater leadership once Covid-19 threats to unified international actions recede.
Third, in relation to tactics, the Agreement’s framing is unsatisfyingly narrow. The authors don’t acknowledge that, unfortunately, there’s a long-standing style of tokenistic climate-related civil disobedience (CD): set-piece, pre-negotiated arrests that are mainly publicity enhancing. Such predictable, non-disruptive CD characterizes leading currents within climate-action politics and also some strains within Climate Justice. It needs rethinking since the approach is so readily assimilated, with accompanying platitudes, by those wielding power. Indeed CD as practiced in this way provides diminishing public-educational opportunity, much less the capability to actively threaten status quo polluting activities (Malm 2021).
So on the one hand, the Agreement certainly recognises that many activists in vulnerable situations can’t take steps toward CD for fear of extreme repression. But on the other, the Agreement isn’t quite brave enough to openly address a different, more militant approach: blocking and even sabotaging extraction, transport, refining, combustion and financing of fossil fuels and other sources of greenhouse gas emissions. This is not terribly unusual activism against fossil fuel corporations, as in the Global South, such uncivil disobedience was pioneered against oil extraction during the early 1990s by Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Movement for the Emancipation of the Ogoni People in the Niger Delta (before his execution in 1995). Disruptive CD is increasingly being practiced by many others, for example XR in countless sites of corporate power, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe against the Dakota Access Pipeline, or Ende Galaende in Germany’s coal fields. For Naomi Klein (2014), this spirit deserves the term “blockadia,” and the Environmental Justice Atlas documents hundreds of such cases.
When it comes to this contradiction, there is a need to rebalance the always-uncomfortable division of labour between rigorous tree-shakers – hard-core activists who are ready to disrupt power and face jail time in the process – and jam-makers on the inside of the COPs, doing more polite advocacy. Of the many civil society COP attendees, several prominent Glasgow Agreement signatories are typically leaders. Yet notwithstanding all their passion and strategic insight, they rarely attempt to actively empower the tree shakers by paying tribute to their most radical actions.
The COP17 People’s Space in Durban was a good case site to understand these flaws. Our comrades and I (as a university-based host of the People’s Space) (Bond 2012b) failed miserably along these lines. Although our South African and African CJ forces possessed powerful principles and sound analyses, the team was distracted when it came to establishing effective strategies, tactics and alliances. Counter-summitry and protests were impotent, in part because distinctions between tree shakers in the People’s Space, and jam-makers inside the Durban convention centre, were never clearly established by the C17 network, one that sought unity over clarity. Most subsequent COP outside-protest and inside-advocacy scenes reflected the same failure, leading in Paris to confusing stances within the “climate movement,” reflecting uncivil society militantly promoting CJ on the one hand, and on the other, civilized society groups begging for mere climate action (Bond 2018). The problem has persisted to this day, in Africa generally and South Africa specifically (Mwenda and Bond 2020).
Fourth, there is a profound challenge from Accion Ecologica, whose April 2021 resignation letter from Ivonne Yanez (2021) warns that by lacking clarity on broader ideology, the Agreement risks “colliding with the anti-extractivist movements in the world.” These include many Yanez herself supports across the Andes, especially Ecuador. The specific contradictions relate to how “minimally-necessary mining” might be defined, and whether some of the ingredients necessary for a decarbonized economy – lithium for batteries, titanium dioxide for reflective paint, palladium and rhodium for so-called green hydrogen fuel cells and other rare-earth minerals – themselves are being contested in sites like the Andes and several South Africa anti-mining conflicts. For Yanez (2021), “asking anti-extractivist social movements – mainly in the South – to ‘make inventories of emissions’ is like asking us to take inventories of future forms of dispossession and exploitation.”
Like many who soon tired of COP-oriented advocacy work, Yanez (2021) adopts – and amplifies – the tradition of delegitimization:
“As for the Paris Agreement, and its predecessors, they were designed precisely to confuse. And they succeeded. They were conceived so that organizations, instead of talking about how to confront extractivism, how to end injustices and inequalities, would be busy talking about degrees of temperature, and calculating tons of CO2. The Paris Agreement and the absurd and malevolent proposals it entails divert attention from what is important: confronting patriarchal, neo-colonial and racist capitalism. They have succeeded for almost 25 years in distracting attention. And so, we end up thinking that first come the IPCC numbers with an army of experts counting molecules and in second place come the anti-capitalist extractivist resistances.
“To confront climate change we have to confront the capitalist system that is institutionalized (for example, just as a button, through the Paris Agreement) and global. But who are the anti-capitalist movements? The main ones in the world today are anti-extractivist movements, anti-capitalist labor movements, territorial and community-based feminist movements, anti-white supremacist movements, anti-colonial movements, movements fighting for water, anti-debt movements, anti-agribusiness movements… A movement to reduce emissions falls short among this tide of struggles, and I doubt it will make much difference in the struggle against capitalism. And while the Glasgow Agreement takes up many ideas, the anti-capitalist, concrete and territorial struggles that are also global are more important. Learning and listening from these frontline climate movements is a task.”
As a final point, although Accion Ecologica does not advocate overly-technicist work such as the Agreement’s proposed census of emissions, there are nevertheless two rationales for doing so if conjoined with anti-extractivist struggles. The first is to identify whether a given country’s activists have been maximizing their potential to link up and challenge the most egregious polluters, in the form of an accompanying inventory of anti-emissions campaigning. This is something that the autonomist-style blockadia strategies require better networking to achieve: linkage of their organic struggles for maximum impact, including tackling various national state subsidies, regulatory fora, legislation, and more generally, politicians’ (and often police or even army) support for extractive industries. The second rationale is one that appeals to ecosocialists, namely the planned reduction of emissions – a process which would otherwise be accomplished erratically and unreliably through either protest (rarely) or market forces. The danger of relying on the latter was evident in April 2020 when there was great cheering by climate activists at the collapse in fossil fuel prices, but disillusionment when they very quickly recovered.
Conclusion: A Routing from Climate Injustice to Ecosocialism
A revealing French working-class strategic choice in earlier (mid-1960s) battles – as articulated by Gorz (1987) – was whether activists could identify opportunities for non-reformist, transformative reforms, or instead settle for reformist reforms that in turn strengthen the assimilationist power of the status quo. Most climate activists working at global scale have only achieved reformist reforms to date. But when it comes to the UNFCCC, or even micro-campaigning against specific emitters, “fix it or nix it” choices – and resulting openings for more radical reforms, i.e. to break not polish the chains of oppression – sometimes arise when least expected.
Typically there are two contrary directions for framing campaigns. First, reformist reforms
- strengthen the internal logic of the system, by smoothing rough edges,
- allow the system to relegitimise,
- give confidence to status quo ideas and forces,
- leave activists disempowered or coopted, and
- confirm society’s fear of power, apathy and cynicism about activism.
But second, in contrast, non-reformist reforms (or ‘transformative reforms’)
- counteract the internal logic of the system, by confronting core dynamics,
- continue to delegitimise the system of oppression,
- give confidence to critical ideas and social forces,
- leave activists empowered with momentum for next struggle, and
- replace social apathy with confidence in activist integrity and leadership.
We have seen this in South Africa on occasion, such as in the defeat of apartheid. In 1983, as economic crisis began to worry the country’s white leaders, several wide-ranging reformist reforms were offered by the apartheid regime to black voters: assimilationist seats offered in second-tier sites of representation (segregated parliamentary bodies, satellite municipalities and Bantustan pseudo-countries). Black liberation activists rejected these, for as Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it, these reforms represented “polishing the chains of apartheid,” when the chains needed to be broken. Principled activists campaigned for a non-reformist principle: one person, one vote in a unitary state. In 1994, with Nelson Mandela by then free from his 1963-90 jail term and leading the broad-based anti-apartheid movement, they changed the balance of forces sufficiently to win democracy. Since the early 2000s there have been similar battles and victories. When South African activists waged struggles against state and capital to gain free anti-retroviral AIDS medicines in the early 2000s or free tertiary education for the working class in 2015-17, these entailed successful national coordinations of localized grievances (Ngwane and Bond 2020).
With this in mind, my own sense is that the Glasgow Agreement principles are very appealing. Yet there is a vagueness when it comes to analysis, strategies, tactics and alliances, beginning with the very obvious question of whether the COP26 and future UNFCCC events will be sites of clarity – or instead confusion – over legitimation or delegitimation. This difficult choice is shared by virtually all the climate movements I’ve seen working towards some form of influence over the Glasgow COP26 in 2020-21. The groups involved in the Agreement are generally the most admirable from the perspective of CJ, but all remain unclear on whether and how to pursue the delegitimization strategy Thunberg has embodied so eloquently.
The alignments of this PASTA framework are vital in the cases I’ve seen in South Africa – against both apartheid and post-apartheid socio-economic oppression – and are parallel to what is now needed for global and local CJ movements, given the UNFCCC’s failures. No matter how much 2021 propaganda is offered about bandaging the Paris deal at Glasgow COP26 or subsequent COPS, the power relations remain terribly adverse. In this context, the PASTA framing for climate justice takes two forms, one based on past activist practice, including limitations; and the other based on the contradictions between CJ and “ecological modernization” strategies, in which a dialectical resolution in ecosocialism can be theorized (Bond 2021b).
Without the space here to address how difficult a process that is (e.g. in technological choices or use of ecological valuation techniques), it should nevertheless be obvious that a major problem confronts CJ and efforts like the Glasgow Agreement. The arguments above presume increasing clarity over the major differences between what CJ advocates historically insisted upon, by way of non-reformist reforms that can end the climate crisis in a manner that is just both globally and locally, and the UNFCCC COP26 agenda of reformist reforms based on market and techological strategies. But the latter, even when articulated by the most enlightened elites (like Mary Robinson), are “designed precisely to confuse,” to recall Yanez.
So to arrive at such far-reaching reforms – parallel to South Africans ending apartheid and then decommodifying essential state services using an anti-neoliberal, proto-socialist “commons” approach – the activists must first confront and defeat the reformist reforms put in their way. Delegitimation of the elites, as Thunberg and Glasgow Agreement authors agree, should both embrace and transcend the personal insults that, for instance, the South African cartoonist Zapiro has perfected when it comes to these Conferences of the Polluters, and from there, rapidly address the full set of divergent principles, analyses, strategies, tactics and alliances that distinguish CJ from the elites’ self-proclaimed climate action, which in reality is so passive that the future of humanity and all other species is, increasingly, in question.