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If COP27 is to deliver what our planet needs, the capitalist agenda must be disrupted

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Tetet Lauron,

Thousands of people marched in London on 6 November 2021 as part of the Global Day of Action for Climate Justice, while world leaders continued to gather in Glasgow for the COP26 climate conference. Photo: IMAGO / ZUMA Wire | xVukxValcicx

The twenty-sixth Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (COP26) held in Glasgow, Scotland in late 2021 brought countries together to coordinate their efforts to keep global warming under 1.5 °C vis-à-vis pre-industrial levels, reflecting the goal of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement to keep temperature rise “well below 2 degrees” and support communities on the front lines of the climate crisis. Expectations were high, especially given the latest scientific findings that the worst consequences of climate change can still be averted through far-reaching measures.

Tetet Lauron lives in the Philippines and works as a consultant to the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s New York Office.

But as COP26 drew to a close, climate justice activists and civil society advocates expressed deep frustration over the summit’s very weak outcomes, which missed the mark not only in terms of delivering the needed action and support, but also in holding to account the rich countries and corporations who have profited from destructive extractivist business practices for more than a century.

While the world leaders in attendance all acknowledged the necessity of ambitious climate action, they simultaneously continued to uphold the interests of the fossil fuel industry. The Glasgow Climate Pact contained the first-ever mention of fossil fuels, but rather than call for the rapid phasing-out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels, it simply mentioned the need to “phase down unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies”.

We saw both promises and compromises at COP26, with some concessions often made on the side-lines of the climate summit portrayed as great achievements. Stripped of the pomp and pageantry, however, many of these are neither far-reaching enough nor are they binding, and seemed more like a distraction from the actual multilateral negotiations. As a result, we aren’t anywhere close to where we need to be as global emissions continue to rise.

Four months after COP26, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the global climate target is now “on life support”, and that “we can kiss 1.5 °C goodbye, and even 2°C may be out of reach”. If we are going to turn things around before it’s too late, the climate justice movement needs a new approach.

Building Power Inside and Out

COP26 made it very clear that real transformative action will only be driven by the people. Civil society and social movements demonstrated this forcefully, demanding ambitious commitments and solutions for a just and sustainable future.

The link between advocacy and campaigning was very much pronounced during COP26. There was a strong effort to build “inside-outside” bridges to make sure that the voices and demands of frontline communities and movements often excluded from negotiations were heard and governments held accountable. Civil society advocates not only monitored the negotiations, but also sought to influence them with proposals that centred the rights of people and planet over profits.

For instance, at the opening plenary of COP26, Māori climate activist India Logan-Riley explained how “climate change is the final outcome of the colonial project, and in our response we must be decolonial, rooted in justice and care for communities like mine who have borne the burden of the Global North’s greed for far too long.”

In Glasgow, climate justice activists from trade unions, peasants, indigenous groups, faith-based organizations, women, LGBTQ, youth, and other social movements and organizations came together to build community through the efforts of the COP26 Coalition, which hosted the People’s Summit for Climate Justice that took place in venues across the city. With an international programme of over 150 events in at least 14 languages, the summit was a more democratic alternative space that sought to strengthen transnational movements and networks against the capitalist system.

Social movements that coalesced around specific economic, trade, tax, debt, food sovereignty, and other social justice issues “connected the dots” between the structural and systemic barriers in addressing the roots of the climate crisis as well as the local-global links of interconnected justice struggles. Globally coordinated mobilizations under the banner of the People’s Climate March saw more than 250,000 people worldwide coming out together in the streets to pressure governments, corporations, and other actors to heed the people’s call for climate just solutions.

Such powerful “inside-outside” bridging was also seen at the People’s Plenary as the negotiations drew to a close. Representatives from the different UNFCCC constituencies decried the climate summit asan illusion constructed to save the capitalist economy rooted in resource extraction and colonialism”. It marked an unprecedented moment of unity that was supported by over 700 civil society advocates who left the plenary, holding a red line to symbolize the lines that have been crossed by failing to deliver just and urgent outcomes at COP26. They then walked to the main gates where they were welcomed by a rally of climate justice movements hosted by Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion.

Connecting the Dots with Political Economy

With the escalating impacts of extreme weather events wreaking havoc on the lives of millions, it is hard to comprehend why reaching an agreement to avert full-on climate catastrophe is so complicated — that is, until you begin to understand that climate negotiations are ultimately about maintaining the economic and political status quo. They are about propping up a discredited neoliberal economic system and ensuring that banks, corporations, and elites preserve their power and control.

As “climate justice” has gone mainstream, its essence has also been watered down. Be that as it may, climate justice as an advocacy and campaigning standpoint understands how the interaction between politics and economics has led to rising exploitation of natural resources and dispossession and displacement. It recognizes the historical responsibilities of Northern countries and extractive multinational corporations as the biggest drivers of climate change and why they should therefore pay up.

From 6 to 16 June 2022, the Bonn Climate Change Conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will be held, like every year, in Bonn, Germany. This smaller and more technical pre-conference — officially the fifty-sixth session meeting of the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI) and the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) — is important for preparing and setting the path towards the better-known Conference of the parties (COP) at the end of the year. This year’s COP will take place in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, in November 2022. Important issues to be discussed will be financial support for adaptation and just transition and the issue of loss and damage, which denotes reparations for irreparable damages caused by global warming. 

Social movements are not calling for “climate action” that preserves the current world disorder. What is needed is for climate agreements and policies to end inequalities rather than reinforce them. That, in turn, would require them to incorporate a vision of climate justice that goes beyond technical efforts to cut emissions and moves towards a transformational approach. Tackling climate change means confronting the gross inequalities in wealth, power, and opportunities both historically and in the present — not just to save future generations, but to address the reality of how climate impacts already affect those where these multiple injustices fuse together.

With the climate crisis holding the existence of humanity by a thread, everyone who identifies with the climate justice movement needs to think about how better to connect the dots, and examine whole systems to build and grow people power to bring about much-needed transformational changes.

Nurturing Transnational Solidarity

The prevailing line of thinking posits that capitalism can be leveraged to solve the climate emergency. Capitalism is seen as having the power and capacity to stave off the climate crisis by pioneering new ways of organizing economic activity, innovation, and technological fixes. Capitalism can be “greened”, so the argument goes, making the global economy healthier, fairer, and environmentally sustainable without sacrificing its essence.

This narrative, which ignores the structural and historical roots of the climate crisis, is unfortunately not limited to international climate diplomacy forums — the “North-South” divide also exists within civil society, social movements, and the broader general public. Take, for instance, some proposals for changing lifestyle and consumption patterns that appear immediately doable at the individual household or even community level. Initiatives to mitigate are important, but they fall short of the kind of systemic solution needed to address the gravity of the ecological, economic, social, and political crisis. Mere cosmetic initiatives do not address the structural and intersecting crises that the capitalist system foments.

Transnational solidarity means those in the Global North are accountable to the Global South. Climate justice is an arena where the Global South is fighting for the right to life, against inequality and injustice, and an end to an exploitative system. Activists in the Global North have a responsibility to act in solidarity with those on the frontlines by speaking out against a system that has devastating impacts for the poor around the world.

This means calling out and campaigning to hold their governments, banks, and corporations accountable for their large and destructive “development footprints”. Civil society and social movements in the South and North should work together to expose, oppose, and counter the capitalist agenda, and mobilize the general public to build alternative, caring systems that centre human rights, decent jobs, social protection, and universal public services.

The communities who are most impacted need to be at the forefront of any struggle for justice. We should learn from the Indigenous women water protectors of Standing Rock Sacred Stone Camp and their victory against the XL Dakota Access Pipeline, which became emblematic of the countless localized fights against extractive mining projects led by Indigenous women across the globe. We can also learn from how the food sovereignty and land rights movements, which are very strong in the Global South, work for a system that grows food to feed people and opposes the waste and exploitation of corporate industrial agriculture. The same is true of communities in the Global South who boldly fight back dirty energy projects, with many facing violent repression from the forces of authoritarianism.

From Incremental to Disruptive Changes

The climate justice movement needs a more compelling way of talking about the multiple crises of injustice, and offer not just a critique and an abstract “system change, not climate change” solution. While recognizing that climate change is a systemic issue, to say that this can only be stopped with the overthrow of capitalism undermines the need for immediate- and medium-term gains that would bring much-needed support to those already bearing the worst impacts of the climate crisis. This rigid view also runs the risk of missing the connection that, as we win transformational fights with concrete alternative solutions, we build people power and ultimately weaken the capitalist system and the forces that prop it up.

Global solidarity is much needed, but sorely missing in a crisis-ridden world exacerbated by the pandemic. Time and again, social movements find themselves waging a defensive fight — to push back against the forces behind the capitalist agenda, the capture of multilateral institutions, of nationalism gaining the upper hand, and others. Sometimes, perhaps out of frustration at the seeming impossibility of working for macro-solutions, we get distracted. How many times have we been side-tracked into thinking that corporate solutions could work, or that “pocket-sized solutions” only need to be replicated and scaled-up, or that having more women and youth in negotiating spaces make it inclusive and democratic?

Social movements and civil society need to give the general public the opportunity to understand how the dominant system works, who benefits, and what can be done to realize solutions that create a positive vision for the future. We need to be able to connect with people’s realities to be able to win local fights and weave these together to build the strength and power for real transformations across the world. We need to reclaim many spaces where we used to engage in solidarity, political education, organizing, and action. Social media is a very useful tool, but we must not allow our activism to be reduced to clicktivism.

At COP27, world leaders can no longer afford to speculate on what needs to be done. The science is clear: the window to fend off runaway climate change has nearly closed. We need “rapid, deep, and immediate” emissions reductions across all sectors.

Rich countries and other large economies will have to come to Egypt with stronger national climate plans to really deliver on mitigation. It is equally important that COP27 comes out with concrete agreements on climate finance and a dedicated plan for loss and damage. These seem to resonate well with the Egyptian COP27 Presidency’s pronouncement of the annual summit’s focus on climate finance, resilience, and mitigation.

Still, power concedes nothing without a demand. The People’s Declaration clearly outlined social movements’ demands to world leaders, including the call that Global North countries pay their climate debt and deliver their fair share of climate action. This provides us with a foundation on which COP27 can and should build. But ultimately, the only way to hold world leaders accountable is to grow our movements and build power outside the negotiation halls. This is how we move from incremental to disruptive changes to the capitalist agenda.