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Lithium-Mine in der Atacama-Wüste, Chile
Lithium-Mine in der Atacama-Wüste, Chile REUTERS / Ivan Alvarado

All over the world, social movements are taking a stand to stop powerful economic and political elites from subjugating people and the planet.

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From the fight against neoliberalism to the climate justice movement, from struggles for workers’ rights to protests against mining projects, from debates on the right to migrate to the defence of small-scale farming against agribusiness: there is a wide range of struggles for justice all over the world. Everywhere people saying “No!”, are setting limits to the powerful, who continue to cling to the illusion that they can go on curtailing basic human rights and subordinating people and the planet to the pursuit of profit and power.

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This also forms the broader backdrop to this year’s UN Climate Change Summit and its relocation from Santiago de Chile to Madrid: the simmering situation in Chile is emblematic of how closely intertwined the various crises of our time really are, and how deeply rooted they are in the logic of a system that is as disdainful of human rights as it is of ecological limits.

Chile: A Society on the Brink

The protests in Chile are being driven not by the major parties and organizations but by the general population. They are the legitimate reaction to fundamental social injustices and a lack of opportunities for participation, which have been curtailing the fundamental rights of Chileans for decades. The social crisis is a reaction to neoliberalism, austerity, and abuses of power, all of which are grounded in a constitution that was enacted during the Pinochet dictatorship under the destructive influence of the Chicago Boys and that safeguards the influence, profits and power of the country’s economic and political elites. The result: a wholly deregulated market and the complete sell-off of basic public goods like education, health, pensions and water—and a society that is on the brink of collapse thanks to intensely competitive labour markets, rampant private debt, the denial of fundamental rights and deep social and economic divisions.

Moreover, the Chilean economic model is based on a socially and ecologically devastating extractivism, where corporate profits and a small elite are the engines driving human rights abuses, natural devastation, the destruction of basic natural resources, and contempt for local communities’ right to self-determination. The escalating spiral that this system, in combination with climate change, has set in motion can be clearly seen in Chile’s water crisis. The causes of the crisis lie in the interaction between invasive industrial agriculture, mining that uses and contaminates massive amounts of water, droughts exacerbated by climate change, and handing the ownership of water resources over to multinational corporations. The present protests in Chile set clear limits to business continuing as usual. The movement has already achieved its first successes. In order to realize its core demands, the pressure coming from below must be maintained.

From Santiago de Chile to Madrid

After Chile had cancelled the UN climate summit and Madrid announced that it will host the event, we decided to split up our international delegation from Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. We will report from both cities, that is from the counter-summits „Cumbre de los Pueblos“ and “Cumbre Social por la Acción Climática” in Santiago as well as from the UN climate summit and the "Cumbre Social por el Clima" in Madrid.

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Systemic Constraints Hamper Real Solutions

The UN Climate Summit and the Asia Pacific Summit (APEC), both now cancelled, could have given the climate activists among the protesters the chance to link a critique of social injustices to the specific issues of climate, economy and power, and so to help the (global) public to connect the dots. The extent to which these intimately linked social and ecological crises are kept off the political  agenda as a kind of inevitable collateral damage of our capitalist economic system is also made obvious at such UN summits. There is one thing they never openly consider: namely, that so long as our forms of production, transport, and consumption are subject to systemic constraints, so long as post-colonial structures endure and the global North refuses to pay off its ecological debt, people’s fundamental rights will continue to be ignored, false solutions will predominate, and greenhouse gas emissions will not be reduced drastically enough.

We Need to Have a Debate About Limits

What we need is a vigorous debate on the natural and ethical limits to our economic system. This means that movements and communities must set these limits and fight to enforce them. And this must entail the right of each and every community to say “No” to being expelled from their land and to environmental damage caused by the exploitation of natural resources, even if they are to be used for (supposedly) clean technologies. This makes it clear for example that in the debate about the development of e-mobility as part of a Green New Deal, we need to make sure that the technologies being employed do not again violate the rights of communities and ultimately only end up reproducing old injustices in new green garb. To this also belongs the recognition of the limits of our visibly exhausted and finite planet and a refusal of the ideology of endless economic growth. And we need to question the emotionally deep-rooted, neoliberal promise of never-ending (consumer) freedom, and to replace it with values grounded in solidarity and human survival.

More on our critique on "green capitalism":
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Think piece by Alanah Torralba, Tadzio Müller & Elis Soldatelli
Rosa Luxemburg Foundation

The fact that COP25 will still take place despite its sudden relocation shows, especially in light of the USA’s official withdrawal, that large parts of the international community want to maintain the UNFCCC process and the Paris Agreement. We might also see in this a commitment to multilateralism. But this should not distract us from the fact that international climate change negotiations absolutely must continue, and be pursued more intensively. We need only consider how the leading industrial and developing countries in the G20 are responsible for 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, yet not one of these countries is currently on course to meet the 1.5 degree target. New, more ambitious targets in all areas (emissions reductions, adaptation mechanisms, and climate funds) must be passed as part of the Paris Agreement by 2020 at the latest.

Social Movements and Protests are Central to Successful Climate Change Politics

Social movements are extremely important for this whole process. In light of this, it is particularly worrying that the relocation of COP25 will have a serious impact on the spaces for civil society protest around this major UN event. The fact that Spain, one of the old European colonial powers, is now organizing the COP reflects the globally unequal distribution of financial resources. Activists from the Global South, in particular, face immense challenges in re-booking flights and hotels and applying for Schengen visas. Yet their presence at and around the summit is extremely important. For the COP summits increasingly serve to lend the host country (climate-)political legitimacy beyond any concrete progress, and this is also the case with Spain. But despite the short notice, the Spanish climate justice movement has managed to organize an alternative summit as a space to develop critical networks around the official one, and to create a collective counter-movement.

The Climate Crisis is Causing Massive Damage, and it is Displacing People.

The list of topics within the complex negotiation processes at UN Climate Summits that are urgently in need of critical public engagement—particularly from the Global South—is long: among other things, COP25 will involve discussions on the future of the Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM). There is no abstract technical topic hidden behind the WIM, but rather the question of how we are going to be able to safeguard the right of millions of people to a dignified, humane way of life in times of climatic crisis. Drought, extreme rainfall, storms and rising sea levels are already costing people their lives, destroying the environmental foundations and living spaces of communities, endangering food security, and exacerbating existing injustices.