Publikation International / Transnational - Alternatives to Society - Socio-ecological Transformation - North Africa - COP 21 [en] - Climate Justice The coming revolution: the fight for Climate Justice & survival

Arabic edition by Hamza Hamouchene and Mika Minio-Paluello.



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Hamza Hamouchene, Mika Minio-Paluello,


April 2015


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Preface in English

Climate change will devastate North Africa. Many will die, and millions will be forced to migrate. The desert is spreading. Crops are failing and fisherfolk are losing their livelihoods. Rain will become more erratic, water supplies dwindle and storms more intense. Summers will be hotter and winters colder. Drought is forcing villagers to abandon their homes and rising sea levels are ruining fertile land. Falling food production and shrinking water will threaten even the megacities like Cairo, Casablanca and Algiers. The next twenty years will fundamentally transform the region.

This is not an act of nature. Climate change is class war - a war by the rich against the working classes, the small farmers, the poor. They carry the burden on behalf of the privileged. The violence of climate change is driven by the choice to keep burning fossil fuels - a choice made by corporations and Western governments, together with domestic elites and militaries. It is the outcome of a century of capitalism and colonialism.  But these decisions are constantly being remade in Brussels, DC and Dubai, and by more locally in Heliopolis, Lazoghly and Qattameya, Ben Aknoun, Hydra and El Marsa.

Survival relies on both leaving fossil fuels in the ground, and adapting to the already changing climate. Billions will be spent on trying to adapt - finding new water sources, restructuring agriculture and shifting the crops that are grown, building sea walls to keep the saltwater out, changing the shape and style of cities. But whose interest will this adaptation be in? The same authoritarian power structures that caused climate change are shaping the response to it - to protect themselves, and make greater profits. Neoliberal institutions are articulating a climate transition, while leftist and democratic movements are largely silent. Who will be locked out of the climate-proofed gated communities of the future?

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How will climate change transform North Africa?

Human-caused climate change is already a reality in North Africa. It is undermining the socioeconomic and ecological basis of life in the region, and will force change to political systems.

Recent extended droughts in Algeria and Syria were catastrophic climatic events that overwhelmed the ability of existing social and institutional structures to deal with them. Severe droughts in eastern Syria
destroyed the livelihoods of 800,000 people and killed 85 percent of livestock. 160 whole villages were abandoned before 2011. Changes in the hydrological cycle will reduce freshwater supply and agricultural productions. This means more food imports of staples and higher prices in countries that are already dependent, like Egypt. Many more people will face starvation and hunger.

The desert is growing, eating the land around it. There will be huge pressure on the already-scarce water supplies. Demand is already increasing faster than population growth. Supply will fall due to changes in rainfall and seawater intrusion into ground water reserves, both driven by climate change, as well as groundwater overuse. This will place most Arab countries under the absolute water-poverty level of 500 m³ per person.

Rising seas are forcing farmers off their land in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt. Saltwater is destroying once fertile fields in the Nile Delta in Egypt and Moulouya Delta in Morocco, threatening to flood and erode vast stretches of coastal settlements, including cities like Alexandria and Tripoli. The seas themselves are changing. As the ocean absorbs carbon dioxide, it becomes more acidic, killing coral reefs. This will wipe out much of the Red Sea’s biodiversity, destroying the tens of thousands of livelihoods in fishing and tourism.

Summer heat will intensify. Rising temperatures and heat stress kill thousands, especially rural workers who cannot avoid heavy labor and outdoor work. The frequency and strength of extreme weather events will increase. Dust storms and freezing floods threaten the poorest urban dwellers, especially the millions of migrants living in informal settlements on the edge of cities. Refugees will have the least protection, including the Sudanese in Egypt, Malians in Algeria, Libyans in Tunisia, and Syrians in Lebanon. Without major upgrades, existing traditions and urban infrastructure won’t be able to cope, including drainage systems, emergency services, and water-sharing practices.

Warmer weather means disease creep, as water and insect-borne pathogens spread from the tropics, reaching millions never exposed to them before. Malaria and other diseases will move northwards, threatening both humans and livestock. Parasites already present in North Africa will expand their range, for example Leishmaniasis will double its ‘favourable’ range in Morocco.

Climate chaos is already costing millions of lives and billions of dollars. The medical journal the Lancet argues that in the Arab world, “the survival of whole communities is at stake.”

The failure of political leadership

Climate change is driven by burning fossil fuels, deforestation and unsustainable agriculture encouraged by agro-business. The carbon dioxide and methane being pumped into the atmosphere are the by-product of industrial modernity. Oil, gas, coal and minerals are extracted and consumed to serve profit and state power - this is the extractivist capitalism that we live in.

When we burn fossil fuels - whether in a car, in the kitchen or in a factory - then carbon dioxide is released. The build-up of CO2 is heating up the planet. There is now a solid consensus in the scientific community that if the change in global mean temperature in the twenty-first century exceeds 2 degrees Celsius, changes in the planet's climate will be large-scale, irreversible, and disastrous. The window of opportunity to take action is very narrow.

According to climate science, if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, CO2 levels in the atmosphere need to be drastically reduced. Current CO2 levels of 400 parts per million (ppm) must come down to less than 350 ppm, although many experts argue that anything over 300 ppm is too dangerous. Any further increase risks triggering climatic tipping points, like the melting of permafrost or collapse of Greenland ice sheet. When we hit a tipping point, carbon emissions will accelerate and climate change could spin truly out of our control. Survival means leaving at least 80% of already proven fossil fuel reserves in the ground. And yet, we are extracting and burning fossil fuels so fast, that we pump a further 2 ppm of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every year.

Every year the world's political leaders, advisers and media gather for another UN climate Conference of the Parties (COP). But despite the global threat, the governments allow carbon emissions to rise and the crisis to escalate. Corporate power has hijacked the talks, promotes more profit-making “false solutions”. The industrialised nations (both the West and China) are unwilling to assume their responsibility, while fossil fuel powerhouses like Saudi Arabia further manipulate the process. Although a majority, developing countries of the Global South struggle to influence change, despite valiant attempts by the Small Island states and Bolivia.

The Paris COP in December 2015 will receive much attention, but we know that the political leaders won't deliver the necessary cuts to ensure survival. Power structures must change. Acting to prevent the climate crisis will take place in the context of other parallel social crises.

Crisis and pressure from below

The system we live under is in a deep crisis that creates more poverty, war and suffering. The economic crisis that started in 2008 illustrated how capitalism solves its own failures by further dispossessing and punishing the majority. Governments around the world bailed out the banks that had caused international havoc, and passed the burden onto the poorest. The food crisis of 2008 that caused famine and riots in the Global South showed how our food system is broken, monopolised by corporations that maximise their profits through export-led mono-crop agriculture, land grabbing, agro-fuel production and speculation on basic staple foods.

The enrichment of an elite that dictates its rules over the whole world repeatedly sparks revolt and rebellion. The 2011 wave of Arab uprisings inspired billions around the world, spreading from Tunisia and Egypt to the Indignados in Spain and Greece,to the student mobilisations in Chile, to the Occupy movement against the 1%, and the revolts in Turkey, Brazil and beyond. Each struggle is different and context-specific. But all were challenging the power of the elite and the violence of the neoliberal world.

This is the context of dealing with climate change. The climate crisis is the epitome of capitalist and imperialist exploitation of people and the planet. Leaving the response to climate change to the bankrupt elite means that we will not survive. The struggle for climate justice must be fiercely democratic. It must involve the communities most affected, and be geared towards providing for the needs of all. It means building a future in which everybody has enough energy, a clean and safe environment that remains for the future, and that sits in harmony with the revolutionary demands of national sovereignty, bread, freedom and social justice.

Climate politics in the Arabic-speaking world is controlled by the rich and powerful

Who is shaping the response to climate change in the Arabic-speaking world?

Institutions like the World Bank, the German GIZ, and European Union agencies are vocal, organising events and publishing reports in Arabic. They highlight some of the dangers of a warmer world, argue for urgent action, more renewable energy and adaptation plans. Given the shortage of alternatives, they seem to have comparatively radical positions when compared to the position of local governments, for example when they raise the impacts on the poor.

However, these institutions are politically aligned with the powerful. So their analysis of climate change doesn't include questions of class, justice, power or colonial history. The World Bank's solutions are market-based, neoliberal and take a top-down approach. They re-empower those who have wealth, without addressing the root causes of the climate crisis. Instead of promoting the necessary emissions reductions, they give polluting permits and subsidies to multinational and extractive industries.

The vision of the future pushed by the World Bank, GIZ and much of the EU is marked by economies subjugated to private profit and further privatisation of water, land – even the atmosphere. There is no reference to the historic responsibility of the industrialised West for causing climate change, of the crimes of oil companies like BP and Shell, or the climate debt owed to the Global South. North African societies where democracy is absent will suffer continued subjugation and authoritarian elites and multinationals can go on with their “business as usual”.

This limited discourse is profoundly disempowering. Neoliberal institutions dominate knowledge production around climate change in Arabic. Most writing on climate change in the Middle East and North Africa includes no references to oppression – or to resistance. There is no space in it for the people, only self-appointed experts and leaders. This status quo will continue displacing communities, polluting environments and endangering lives. To organise and win justice, we need to be able to describe both the present problem and the solutions.

Growing the vocabulary of justice in Arabic

Translating these articles into Arabic has been challenging, as many of the phrases and terms do not exist. How can we fight something, if we don't have a name for it and can't articulate what we want instead? While “environmental justice” is used in Arabic, “climate justice” isn't. The phrase is used widely in both Latin America and English-speaking countries. But it sounds very strange – almost silly – in Arabic. We need to change the energy systems around us – but can we talk about ‘Energy justice’ and ‘energy democracy’ in Arabic?

We need a vocabulary to talk about these issues in Arabic, to describe the vision of a safe and just future that we can fight for. Simply importing terms and concepts from other parts of the planet will not work – for ideas to resonate with people in North Africa, they must originate in North Africa. But it is still useful to interact with and learn from movements elsewhere.

This book tries to avoid demands framed around ‘security’, like climate security, food security or water security. A future framed around “security” subjugates our struggles to a conceptual and imaginative framework that ultimately re-empowers the state’s repressive power – rooted in امن. (See our excerpt from the Lancet’s article).

Many of the articles in this book demand climate justice, environmental justice and energy justice/energy democracy. There is no single definition for any of these concepts, but that doesn't undermine their value. In these articles:
- “Climate Justice” usually involves a recognition of the historic responsibility of the industrialised West in causing global warming and bears in mind the disproportionate vulnerabilities faced by some countries and communities. It recognises the role of power in shaping both how climate change is caused, and who carries the burden. This is shaped by class, race, gender, by colonial histories of exploitation and ongoing capitalist exploitation. Climate justice means breaking with “business as usual” that protects global political elites, multinational corporations and military regimes, and a radical social and ecological transformation and adaptation process.
- “Environmental Justice” is usually centred around community needs, making the fossil fuel industry and other large industries accountable and move towards a sustainable relationship to nature. It recognises that we cannot separate destructive impacts on the environment from impacts on people, and that poorer communities are exploited for the benefit of the powerful.
- “Energy democracy” and “Energy justice” mean creating a future in which energy is fairly distributed, democratically controlled and managed, and our energy sources and transmission systems are in balance with the environment and the needs of future generations.

Whether these concepts are relevant to North Africa is up to the reader. The above basic descriptions are by no means exhaustive and there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

What is this book trying to do?

The aim of this publication is to introduce fresh and liberating perspectives advanced by radical and progressive intellectuals, activists, politicians, organisations and grassroots groups from the Global South. We've selected essays, interviews and statements in which social movements describe what they are fighting against, how they are organising, and what they are demanding. They cover a broad geography – from Ecuador to India, South Africa to Philippines. We also included six essays from North Africa as well, on Morocco, Algeria, Egypt and the wider region. Hopefully, this book can contribute to the nascent political economy of climate change in North Africa that investigates the relationships between fossil fuel industries, regional elites, and international capital. 

Our objective is four-fold:
1) To highlight the urgency of the climate crisis in North Africa and emphasise the need for a holistic analysis and structural change.
2) To counteract the dominant neoliberal discourse on addressing climate change promoted by the World Bank and other neoliberal institutions and highlight the dangers of a narrow environmentalism.
3) To support the left in North Africa to articulate a localised, democratic response to climate change, incorporating political, economic, social, class and environmental analysis. Given the pressures of authoritarianism, mass repression and widespread poverty, it's understandable that limited attention has been paid by social movements or the left in North Africa to climate change in the past.
4) To offer hope and inspiration from movements and struggles in the Global South, and to debunk the claim that nothing can be done. This is a crisis rooted in human actions and decisions, which can be changed.

This book isn’t trying to provide all the answers, but to throw up questions and challenges. What does a just response to climate change look like in North Africa? Does it mean mass evacuation, and open borders to Europe? Does it mean payment of climate debt and redistribution – by European governments, by multinational corporations, or from rich local elites? What should happen to the fossil fuel resources in North Africa that are currently being extracted in large part by western corporations? Who should control and own renewable energy? What does adapting to a changing climate mean, and who will shape and benefit from it? We did not aim for consistency or one position - there are contradictions and differing perspectives, but all offer starting points for conversations.

The content

Section 1: The violence of climate change

The book opens with a section highlighting the scale of the threat posed by climate change. The extracts from “Health and ecological sustainability in the Arab world” argue that the survival of whole communities in the Arab world is at stake. The current discourse on health, population, and development in the Arab world has largely failed to convey the necessary sense of urgency. In Mika Minio-Paluello's essay on the violence of climate change, she reveals the brutal level of destruction facing Egypt. She argues that the classist violence of climate change is shaped so that the poor carry the burden on behalf of the rich. Survival will rely on adapting to the coming transformation. But adaptation is an intensely political process that can mean liberation or further oppression.

In “A million mutinies”, Sunita Narain shows that we are not all on the same side in the battle against climate change. While the rich want to maintain their lifestyles, we must see climate change in the faces of the millions who lost their homes in hurricanes and rising seas. We need to be clear that the thousands who died did so because the rich failed to contain their emissions in the pursuit of economic growth. The solutions lie not in elite conferences, but with small answers to big problems, and the environmentalism of movements of the dispossessed.

Pia Ranada, writing from the Philippines, describes the recent extreme weather and typhoons, and argues that the Global South faces the brunt of climate chaos. The developed countries that burnt most fossil fuels and emitted the carbon must compensate frontline communities and countries by paying back the “climate debt” they owe.

Section 2: ٍSystem change not climate change

The second section asks what the structural drivers are for climate change, and what a different system should looked like. Can our current political and economic systems be reformed and tweaked to adjust to climate change? Walden Bello writes from the Philippines in “Will capitalism survive climate change?” that the spread of capitalism has caused the accelerated burning of fossil fuels and rapid deforestation, driving global warming. To break this trajectory, we need a low-consumption, low-growth, high-equity development model that improves people's welfare and increases democratic control of production. Elites of the North and the South will oppose such a comprehensive response. Bello argues that we should see climate change as both a threat to survival and an opportunity to bring about long postponed social and economic reforms. Khadija Sharife examines in “Climate Change's secret weapon” how offshore tax havens benefit multinational oil companies, corrupt politicians and carbon trading schemes, even though islands like the Seychelles and the Maldives may completely disappear as the sea rises.

Alberto Acosta, an Ecuadorian economist and former Minister of Energy & Mines, focuses on the extractivist mode of accumulation as a mechanism of colonial and neo-colonial plunder. Rather than benefiting from natural resources, countries that seemed to be blessed ended up suffering from greater poverty, unemployment, pollution, weaker agriculture and repression. In “Soil not Oil”, Vandana Shiva challenges the assumption that industrialization is progress, and the value we place on productivity and efficiency. She argues that our dependence on fossil fuels has “fossilised our thinking”. Shiva calls for a cultural transition as part of an energy transition to an age beyond oil. In a carbon democracy grounded in biodiversity, all beings would have their just share of useful carbon, and no one burdened with an unjust share of climate impacts.

Despite decades of high-profile climate talks, the results are a failure – business as usual, regardless of the threat. Pablo Solon, once Bolivia's chief climate negotiator, describes in “Climate Change: Not Just Any Action Will Do” how the official UN climate negotiations have been hijacked by multinational corporations, preventing the necessary action by guaranteeing future profits. He summarises a 10 point plan supported by social movements, including creating climate jobs, leaving 80% of fossil fuels in the ground and taking energy into public and community control.

Section 3: Beware the “false solutions”

Section 3 examines how the powerful have attempted to use the climate crisis to profit and entrench inequality by pushing false solutions. In “Desertec: the renewable energy grab?”, Hamza Hamouchene argues against export-oriented solar projects that put the interest of European consumers and local repressive elites before local communities. He highlights the threat to local water supplies and puts Desertec in the context of pro-corporate trade deals and a scramble for influence and energy resources. Jawad's article on Morocco raises concerns about national sovereignty and control of renewable energy by multinational corporations. He critiques the discourse of “sustainable development”, which has been emptied of meaning and subjugated to the market, and argues against the use of public private partnerships for energy.

Writing from South Africa, Khadija Sharife and Patrick Bond reveal the failure of carbon trading and the Clean Development Mechanism to reduce emissions. They expose a reality of environmental racism and false solutions that allow wealthy companies to keep polluting while making ever greater profits. Carbon trading tricks many into thinking climate change could be dealt with without structural change; we must recognise that market mechanisms will not reduce global emissions sufficiently.  Pablo Solon in “At the Crossroads Between Green Economy and Rights of Nature” warns us not to rely on the green economy for salvation. By privatizing and commodifying nature, we will continue its destruction – and ours with it. Solon specifically critiques the REDD programme (Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) as another excuse for the rich to pollute the planet.

Section 4: Organising for survival

Our final section looks at how people are mobilising for a different future. Egyptian revolutionary Mahienour El-Massry describes how climate change is threatening her hometown Alexandria, her experiences in the Nile Delta and how she has worked with both frontline communities and workers facing corporate exploitation. Hamza Hamouchene's interview with Mehdi Bsikri explores why thousands of Algerians protested against plans to frack in the southern desert for shale gas, and how they have mobilised against government and corporate plans.

This section includes two more pieces by Latin American politicians. In a speech by Evo Morales, the President of Bolivia, he argues against neoliberal and colonial exploitation, and for a new world order for living well (Buen Vivir) and global solidarity between peoples. He talks about the rights of mother earth (Pachamama) and how we can live in harmony and balance with the planet. Another brief essay by Alberto Acosta titled “Ecuador's Challenge” expands on the Latin American concept of the “rights of mother earth” as a way to defend the rights of communities and future generations, challenge the privileges of the powerful and ensure survival.

Social movements around the world have recognised that the threat of climate change is transforming their struggle. The statement on “Climate Change and Class Struggle” by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa takes a strong position for a just transition to a low-carbon economy, grounded in worker-controlled, democratic social ownership. It opposed the ownership of nature, and sees climate change as a key unifying struggle for working classes across the world, and that “we cannot wait for governments” to take action. The Margarita Declaration signed by over a hundred social movements on Margarita Island in Venezuela in July 2014 commits to living in harmony with the ecosystems of the Earth, to the rights of future generations to inherit a survivable planet. It calls for movements to create cracks in the current unsustainable system, for direct action to eradicate dirty energy, fight privatisation and agribusiness. Such radicalism and progressive awareness about the importance of the environment for humans was already present in the 1970s. We have included an essay by Aurélien Bernier on the Cocoyoc UN declaration of 1974, which formulated a radical critique of “development”, free trade and north-south relations. It has since been buried and erased from history, but remains relevant and urgent.

The North Africans whose lives will be changed the most by climate change are the small farmers in the Nile Delta, the fisherfolk of Jerba, the inhabitants of In Salah in Algeria, the millions living in informal settlements in Cairo, Tunis and Algiers. But they are sidelined and prevented from shaping their future. Instead, energy and climate plans are shaped by military-controlled governments and their backers in Riyadh, Brussels and Washington DC. Rich local elites collaborate with multinational corporations, the World Bank and European Bank for Reconstruction & Development. For all the promises, the actions of these institutions show that they are all enemies of climate justice and survival.

Climate change is both a threat and an opportunity to bring about the long postponed social and economic reforms that had been derailed or sabotaged in previous eras by elites seeking to preserve or increase their privileges. The difference is that today the very existence of humanity and the planet depend on replacing economic systems based on feudal rent extraction or capital accumulation or class exploitation with a system grounded in justice and equality.

The scale of the crisis means that we need a radical departure from existing authoritarian and neoliberal power structures. The urgency makes it appear as if we do not have time to change the system – but relying on those that rule will take us two steps back with every step forward. Instead, we need to look to the social movements and frontline communities that are resisting, and build democratic pathways to survival in a warmer world.

This will be the defining global struggle of the 21st century.

The coming revolution in North Africa: the fight for Climate Justice & survival
Year: 2015
Published by: Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung (RLS), Platform London, Environmental Justice North Africa (EJNA)
Translated by: Ubab Murad
Edited by: Hamza Hamouchene & Mika Minio-Paluello

Download Arabic version

English version will be presented in summer 2105