Airbrushing in Just Transition

Dónal O’Driscoll,


The idea of a ‘Just Transition’ is an attempt to bridge differences between environmental and labour movements by seeking to address how workers can be protected as society tries to move away from ecologically destructive industries. As a concept it has been around for close to fifteen years. Despite having clear foundations, in that time the phrase ‘Just Transition’ has taken on a life of its own, in particular among those seeking to avoid antagonizing the labour movement. In this essay  Dónal O’Driscoll examines the origins of ‘Just Transition’ and asks whether it can fulfill those aspirations, or whether it is simply a ‘nice sounding’ phrase allowing campaigners to paper over divisive issues.


The term Just Transition was coined by Californian activists seeking to improve relations with workers in industries affected by environmental campaigns. The original organisation behind the call is the Just Transition Alliance, founded in 1997[i]. However, as a concept, its break-through moment came when the Canadian Labour Congress [CLC] released their 2000 report “Just Transition for workers during Environmental Change”[ii]. This report gave the term ‘Just Transition’ a solid basis within the labour movement.

The strength of the CLC report lies in its strong focus on the needs of workers and its setting out of a blueprint for the process of transition, taking it beyond simple principles. The report prompted the adoption of ‘Just Transition’ as a principle for dealing with climate change by other labour organizations, in particular the International Trade Union Confederation.

At the time the term ‘Just Transition’ was emerging, climate change did not hold the singular position with regards to ecological campaigns as it currently. Just Transition was developed to deal with situations where the needs of the environment and of workers had to be balanced, for example, where regulations ordering the phasing out of production of a particular chemical would result in factory closures, or say, stopping logging would cause job losses.

Since then, climate change has become the dominant issue for ecological activism and, just as significantly, a factor in mainstream political considerations. Given the absence of other formulations, Just Transition has thus been adopted as the de facto method to introducing the needs of labour, a voice not much heard in climate change debates. In the process it has also become tied in with calls for Green New Deals[iii] which, to some degree, address concerns coming from trade unions.

Environmentalists have taken up its cry as a way of dealing with their own fears over the potential clashes of demands with the labour movement. This was particularly true of the Camp for Climate Action and Workers Climate Action (in part a working group within the CfCA)[iv].

The phrase itself has continued on a steady trajectory into the political mainstream, being picked up by NGOs and now being used by governments – most noticeably by Ed Miliband, then UK Minister for Energy, in his speech to the UK Trade Union Congress conference in September 2009[v]. In November 2009, then Business Minister Pat McFadden launched a “Forum for a Just Transition[vi] that would include representatives of business, unions and the government[vii].

Just Transition is also to be found as a core demand in documents from the International Trade Union Congress during the COP15 climate change negotiations in Copenhagen in December 2009 and in other important texts at this conference[viii]. In particular, Argentina and Norway both included a call for a just transition as part of the mandate given to their representatives[ix]. Though not adopted at the COP15 ‘agreement’, it remains a demand on the table.[x]


So what is Just Transition?

Just Transition does have clear definitions, which are set out in some of the early documents – in particular the Canadian Labour Congress report. These are discussed later. However, in most mentions of it (from governments to grassroots organizations) it is principally formulated though the phrase:

a just transition to a sustainable, low-carbon economy

Sometimes “sustainable” is left out. Next to no detail or reference is provided other than this vague sentiment of good intentions. The problem with this amorphous formulation is that it leaves considerable leeway for individuals and groups to interpret it in line with their own narrow desires without having to reference other demands. Every stakeholder in the process can use it for their own purposes without actually challenging themselves to change their behaviour, or anyone else’s for that matter.

Such emptiness means it is being adapted by those seeking to boost green credentials without having to commit to anything. This is probably why it has become so popular with liberal and capitalist organisations. Reducing Just Transition to a slogan that appeals to everyone and anyone is setting the ground for its inevitable co-option.

This tendency is to be found in grassroots campaigns around Just Transition such as the Just Transition Alliance (US), Transition Tour (AU)[xi] or Workers Climate Action (UK).  Transnational networks such as Climate Justice Now! and Climate Justice Action[xii] also use this vague formulation without going into any further detail.

In particular, at the 2008 UK Camp for Climate Action at Kingsnorth a statement was drawn up around the concept of Just Transition[xiii]. The purpose of this was to point out that there was a way forward to unite workers and environmental campaigners, that the relationship between the two did not need to be antagonistic but one of mutual support. This was in response to negative reactions to the Camp from unions both at Kingsnorth and the 2007 camp at Heathrow. While it sought to calm troubled waters by expressing solidarity, there was still little expression of or reference to what Just Transition actually means.

That the idea of a Just Transition has been established seems to be sufficient enough for almost everyone. It gives the impression that governments and grassroots are discussing the same thing. If anything, the real meaning of Just Transition appears to be simply to signify that bridges can be built between environmental campaigners and the labour movement without having to face up to the challenges implicit in this.

While Just Transition has been subsumed into wider calls for Climate Justice, it remains a important part of that general call. Deeper analysis of what it means in practice for all these stakeholders is still needed.


The Demands of Just Transition

There is more to Just Transition than a phrase. There does exist a more substantial set of demands. The sources for these are Wikipedia’s short article on the subject and also the key formulation set out in the CLC 2000 report. The relevant sections are given below. To the best of my knowledge none of these definitions (or ones provided from elsewhere) have been set out in the published documents or cited by grassroots climate change groups, though I am open to correction on this.


There is a concern that significant periods of economic restructuring in the past have often happened in a chaotic fashion leaving ordinary workers, their families and communities to bear the brunt of the transition to new ways of producing wealth. Indeed in the UK, many individuals and communities are still paying the price for the rapid shift away from industrial production over the last 30 years.

Just Transition seeks to prevent such injustice becoming a feature of environmental transition, suggesting that it would not only be morally wrong and socially damaging, but would undermine the credibility of the transition itself and could slow or even halt the changes that must be made. Just Transition recognises that support for environmental policies are conditional on a fair distribution of the costs and benefits of those policies across the economy, and on the creation of opportunities for active engagement by those affected in determining the future wellbeing of themselves and their families.


Just Transition principles

For trade unions, the three core issues involved in a just transition are:

  • Voice – the importance of consultation – between Government, industry, trade unions and others on the economic and industrial changes involved.
  • Green and decent jobs – investment in low carbon technologies, from electric vehicles and wind turbines to carbon capture & storage.
  • New green skills – equipping working people with the skills for a low carbon, resource-efficient economy.


The Just Transition framework makes the case for:

1.   Meaningful environmental transition and sustainable development: Environmental transition is both inevitable and desirable. Environmental degradation is one of the most serious threats facing humankind; all sections of society need to work together to prevent further damage to the planet’s natural ecosystems.


2.   Representation and employee involvement: It is essential that all sections of society have their perspectives voiced, considered and defended in decision-making bodies dealing with environmental transition. This includes representation at a variety of levels, from seats on national policy-making to involvement in more specific local negotiations, such as those surrounding environmentally-triggered plant closures.


3.   Stable employment and long-term planning: A key element in ensuring a Just Transition is the long-term planning necessary to achieve stable employment. This does not just involve keeping individuals in work: it also includes preserving job equity, and ensuring that pay, conditions and health and safety do not suffer as a result of the changes that occur.


4.   Social justice and a fair distribution of costs: Just as support for environmental change is needed from all sections of society, so the costs of that change must fall proportionately on all sections.

5.   Government backing and a united purpose: Achieving Just Transition relies on a high level of commitment from all relevant stakeholders – not least the Government, trade unions and employer federations.

Just Transition for Workers During Environmental Change, Canadian Labor Congress[xv]


  • Just Transition is the flip side of Green Job Creation: when we create Green Jobs, there will be an industrial transition – this means that workers in traditional industries must be protected.


  • Just Transition programs must apply to public and service sector work, as well as resource and manufacturing industries affected by changes in industrial structures and environmental standards


  • While the whole society is responsible for industrial change, the key role rests with workers and their communities, who are the most affected, from one-industry towns to a whole region.


  • Some social groups can be disproportionately affected by industrial and environmental change: for instance, major sources of pollution are often located in poor, minority communities, a case of environmental racism – which gives rise to Just transition.



Just Transition is about many things. It is about fairness and environmental justice. It is about quality employment in an economy based on sustainable production and infrastructure. It is about communities as the focus of Just Transition programs – communities as centres of diverse, labour-intensive industries, with a strong public sector to support them. It is, above all, about alternative employment in a sustainable economy.



Responsibilities for all

  • Society is responsible for change and must share the burden of transition with the workers and communities most affected by change.


  • We owe it to ourselves as workers to create a sustainable economy for our children and future generations.


  • Governments are responsible for sustainable economic policy and the labour market which results from it.


  • Business has a responsibility towards the communities in which it invests – a responsibility to move to sustainable production methods wherever possible and to address the human consequences of unsustainable production – and of closing down or moving on.


  • Environmentalists and communities can join the campaign for Just Transition.


Just Transition is:

  • Fairness:

Just Transition is the fair treatment of workers and their communities when employers close facilities for whatever reason. It is a moral and political imperative.


  • Re-employment or alternative employment :

The prime aim of Just Transition is the continuation of employment without loss of pay, benefits or seniority. Job equity is at least as deserving of preservation as the equity of corporations.


  • Compensation:

Where continuation of employment is not possible, just compensation is the next alternative.


  • Sustainable Production:

Just Transition is essential to the move to more sustainable production methods and the service sector which supports it.


  • Programs:

Just Transition will express itself in a variety of ways, according to the issue, but there must always be a program, suitable to address the environmental change that is about to take place.

An Anarchist critique of Just Transition

The programmes for Just Transition laid out by the Canadian Labour Congress, etc. have the potential to serve as a powerful tool for bridging divides between labour and grassroots environmental movements. These are divisions that demand to be addressed, because capital will inevitably seek to exploit them against the interests of both parties. However, from an anarchist perspective there are pitfalls inherent in Just Transition as it currently stands, which need critiquing. This article complements critiques which have already emerged around  the Transition Town movement[xvi],  the community food movement[xvii] and the climate justice movement itself[xviii] where I have developed my own perspective.

A useful starting point for analysis is that the political background of Just Transition is one of social liberalism[xix]. The environmental NGOs and trade unions which have adopted it work in the confines of this political understanding. The politics of liberalism, socialism and anarchism have overlapping roots so it is not surprising that there are aspects which make it appealing to all three ideologies and give it the illusion of being able to cross political divides.

However, on closer inspection the differences between these ideologies remain stumbling blocks for the unifying potential of Just Transition. Once the liberal origins are recognized, these become far more obvious and explain why liberal institutions such as the UN, governments and NGOs alike have been able to take up Just Transition as a concept, molding it to their needs.

Note, by liberalism, I do not mean the politics of particular parties that incorporate that name or of centrist politics. Rather, I mean the programme of the Age of Enlightenment, which gave rise to a concept of politics free from absolute control and a high degree of primacy to the rights of individuals, and thus to modern institutions such as representative parliaments and welfare states. This is important because the other side of the same coin is the free market which has morphed into capitalism. The entire dominant political paradigm of the West, of the market place and globalization cannot be separated out from liberalism.

Liberalism makes broad claims about emphasizing individual freedoms and holds up representative democracies and systems of laws with the rights they guarantee. However,  anarchism points out that they are underlined by the State’s monopoly on coercive power and the liberal legal biases in favour of property and corporations over individuals. Thus we argue that these freedoms and rights are often illusary and that the liberal system is inherently a system for maintaining a network of privileges in society as a whole.

The toolbox that anarchism brings to the table is one of dissecting relations of power. Starting with this perspective the following sets of problems become apparent in Just Transition.

1) Analysis of Relationships of Power

In Just Transition there is no analysis of power. There is no challenge to the existing hegemony of the capitalist market place, transnational corporations and governments. If anything, there is a requirement in the formulations adopted by the labour movement to engage actively with them. Where Just Transition has been more fully articulated, what is actually being demanded is co-operation from governments – something that is brushed over in the trivial statement about ‘a just transition to a low carbon economy’ noted above. This issue should be particularly important for anti-capitalists and anarchists – as far as the labour movement is concerned, calling for Just Transition amounts to little more than lobbying for government participation or consultation.

2) Technology as a Tool of Capitalism

Coupled with a lack of analysis of power is a lack of analysis of technology. When the politics of ecological protection is reduced to the simplistic narrative of ‘low carbon economies’ there is little scope to reject solutions based on techno-fixes that have, more often than not, negative environmental consequences of their own[xx]. This plays into the hands of the nuclear, agrofuel and mining lobbies whose activities have their own knock-on effects on resource consumption and resource sovereignty. For example, the displacement of populations in the Global South (conveniently geographically distant from Western decision-makers) as their land is turned over to crops for producing agrofuels on behalf of western corporations[xxi]. Furthermore, social reliance on technology is the solution favoured by corporations as it provides another opportunity for them to amass resources and capital at the expense of the lower classes.

3) Greenwash in the name of Sustainability

In the Just Transition model as it stands, it is left to governments and corporations to decide what is ecologically sustainable. This is not something any grassroots environmental movement should accept. The dangers of greenwash are well known; for instance, nuclear power is now being promoted as being a ‘green alternative’ to fossil fuels; genetically modified crops which place farmers in hock to corporations are re-marketed as solutions to famines caused by climate chaos. As it stands Just Transition permits the continuation of corporate agendas in which ecological manipulation is normalised as a solution to climate change rather than a focus on what the planet actually needs. The concept of ‘sustainable development’, being in the hands of western democracies, is itself open to considerable criticism on the grounds of its elusiveness and meaninglessness, and for ignoring the ecological imperatives that underly the need for a Just Transition in the first place – see for example the work of John Foster and others[xxii].

4) Disempowering the Worker

Just Transition in its current formulation is ultimately disempowering as it keeps the worker from a position of control over their future. They are offered a ‘voice’, without necessarily giving power to it. Simply consulting with the workers does not mean that their needs will be served if it is not convenient for the corporation employing them.

Reading between the lines, one imagines the workers resisting the necessary change and then having to bow to pressure. Thus a union is needed to mediate their desires. However, experience has shown, and existing texts corroborate this[xxiii], that unions communicate only their own desires around employment, not any ecological message that might come from the workers, or from their families for that matter.

There is nothing in the principles of Just Transition as currently laid out that steps outside this framework to give the power for change to the worker. For instance, there is no explicit mention of workers being allowed to take over a factory and turn it over to a new form of production which does have an ecological framework. The tools of capital remain in the hands of the bosses.

There is a further irony here, that given how much subsidies factory owners get from governments in the first place they expect yet more pay-out from the public purse to cover the costs of retraining.

5) Prevarication

There is no notion of time or finance in the demands of Just Transition. This puts it in the same category as all the various targets set for cutting greenhouse gases and such like – and leaves it just as useless. It allows for vague demands and responses to be made which give all the right sound-bites, yet offer no real commitment. This will clearly lead to problems as workers in key industries put their job security first in the face of the need for urgent change. While urgency should not be an excuse to increase exploitation or precarity among the workforce, the lack of a transition mechanism should not be an excuse for prevaricating either.

6) Factoring in Resistance from Affected Industries

There are no mechanisms to take into account those who do not wish to change, for example, the demands being made by mining unions to open up more coal mines (citing capitalist inspired messages around future technological developments) or of fishermen refusing to acknowledge the reality of collapsing fish stocks. If this is not acknowledged, it is likely to drive deep wedges between the labour and environmental movements as one or another party has their needs and demands over-ridden by the other (who will no doubt be using the government to back them up).

As it stands, the model is based on the assumption of a process in which environmentalists make a demand, the government passes the necessary regulation and then the environmentalists step back from the entire process while the Just Transition is implemented on the workers, whether they like it or not. At each stage there is only a dialogue between any two of the stakeholders – there is no explicit process for multiple stakeholders to put forward their (possibly conflicting) demands at the same time, encouraging cooperation and understanding. Thus, where there is resistance and antagonism, this particular model has the potential to make these conflicts worse rather than resolving them. To work, there must be multiple points of dialogue among all parties right from the beginning of implementing the process of a Just Transition.

7) Financing Just Transition

All of this may be illusary. Green New Deal programmes present the idea that such transitions are not just desirable, but affordable and possible. This is entirely speculative. It is easy to see why the desire to believe all this is possible is there, but realists must ask if it is actually possible within the current system – one in the middle of a huge financial crisis that still has several years to run (assuming ‘normal conditions’!).

The existing model of Just Transition has all these flaws because it has no inherent criticism of the politico-economic system that created the problems in the first place. The way it is conceived is that transitions will occur because of political pressure on government and corporations,  and governmental power will create the necessary regulations. These in turn force will industries out of business, taking with them the jobs, while in all probability leaving the governments the responsibility to clean up. It will be governments, not corporations who will effectively be responsible for implementing the details of any Just Transition programme on the ground, regardless of how nicely the principles of Just Transition are worded. It is not realistic to expect companies to show this level of ‘corporate social responsibility’ – experience is against us on that one.[xxiv]

Inevitably, for this approach to work it will require increased regulation, in turn allowing the capitalist class to open up divisive avenues of accusation against both labour and environmentalists in relation to job losses, etc., something which will undermine the very links that Just Transition is aiming to build. These pitfalls are opened up in the way that Just Transition is currently worded and invoked. A strategy for social change which relies on those causing the problems seeing the errors of their ways is naïve at best. There is no acknowledgment that capital will resist, a lesson that surely should have been learned by now.

All of this goes to the core problem of Just Transition – it is simply not demanding anything radical. It is effectively business as usual, just waiting to be co-opted by proponents of green capitalism. There is nothing that demands the creation of a radically new world from the ground up or a re-evaluation of society and what is actually sustainable. Just Transition leaves the bosses and capitalism right where they are. In demanding a Just Transition we are in danger of demanding a compensation culture for workers, not change.

Finally, there is a danger of reversing positions here; no longer are grassroots environmentalists seeking to bring their message to the labour movement; rather it opens the door to the environmental movement being co-opted by vested interests within the labour movement at the cost of ecological concerns. As it stands, this is not a mutual dialogue, nor is it a way forward. The challenge for those seeking radical social change as a solution to ecological issues is to define their own concept of a Just Transition. There is a lot of potential for a more coherent articulation of demands that do not betray core beliefs, but can allow incorporation of a wider range of issues than simply maintaining the lifestyles of industrial workers. The challenge now is for grassroots campaigners to formulate this so that effective bridges can be built between labour and environmental movements, rather than the airbrushed versions we currently have.

Conclusions & Future Demands

For Just Transition to work as a concept that genuinely addresses the concerns of both ecological campaigners and workers, it must incorporate two key ideas:

1.    An acknowledgment that social change is part and parcel of Just Transition; and this necessitates a grass-roots / bottom-up set of solutions, not solutions driven by governments, corporations or hierarchical unions. This bottom-up approach needs to include the affected workers and also the communities around them.

2.    Business as usual around resource consumption cannot be part of the solution,  particularly if the Just Transition programme simply sends problems elsewhere. A global ecological sustainability must inform any solutions for it to be meaningful.

These points are too often ignored by the narrow interests of the bosses and unions. What is needed is not sustainability in the narrow terms of capitalism, but for

just transition, led by those affected, to create resilient communities

which care for the ecology that sustains them.

Though I have been very critical of the way the concept of a Just Transition has been used and abused as it currently stands, this does not mean I am against it as a notion. It comes from honest intentions to deal with a very important set of issues we cannot ignore. It is vital that the labour and environmental movements unite if climate chaos is to be tackled without leading to greater inequality and repression.

What has been created to date is an important first step, but as it stands it is incomplete. The current definition should not be allowed to become the de facto standard, because it is not a model that is up to the job. Rather, what is needed is not a rejection, but the development of a new model, one that reflects all joint interests of the grassroots and the radical change that is needed to take place.

[i]       Just Transition Alliance:

[ii]    Canadian Labour Congress, April 2000.

[iii]       See for example the UN Environmental Program call for a “Global Green New Deal”,

[iv]       Workers Climate Action:

[vii]       A briefing regarding the working and progress of the forum by the TUC is available online at though it is clear it has very little to do with climate justice or meeting the needs of workers in a transitioning society, rather securing the future of heavy industry and discussing energy security.

[viii]       Some of these texts are referenced at

[xiii]       Archived at Bristol Indymedia:

[xiv]   ibid. note viii

[xv]       ibid. note ii

[xvi]              The Rocky Road to Transition, Chatterton, P. & Cutler, A. / TRAPESE, 2009,


[xvii]              Ru Litherland, to be published by Reclaim the Fields, June 2011.

[xviii]       The Climate Crisis or the Crisis of Climate Politics, Pusey, A. & Russell, B. 2010;  Climate Justice and its Anti-Capitalist Consequences, “Apocalypse Anonymous”, 2010.  Both available at

[xix]              Political Ideologies, an introduction, 4th Edn., Heywood, A, 2007, Palgrave Macmillan.

[xx]              Technofixes: a critical guide to climate change technologies, Corporate Watch, 2008.

[xxi]       BioFuel Watch, various reports at

[xxii]              The Sustainability Mirage, John Foster, 2008, Earthscan Publications.

[xxiii]       A Green and Fair Future: For a Just Transition to a Low Carbon Economy, Trade Union Congress (UK), 2008,, for example.

[xxiv]       What’s Wrong With Corporate Social Responsibility, Fauset, C., Corporate Watch, 2006

Space for movement?

New Book Out!

Space for Movement? Reflections from Bolivia on climate justice, social movements and the state.

In the wake of the failed COP-15 in Copenhagen last December, Bolivia’s first indigenous president called for a World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth (CMPCC). Was this the necessary space for social movements to respond where governments and the UN have failed? Was it an attempt to co-opt radical demands? Following the CMPCC in Cochabamba, April 2010, this booklet reflects on the lessons from Bolivia and the role of movements in the fight for climate justice.

You can download the book here:

CLIMATE JUSTICE – Point of Reference for a counter hegemony or nebulous empty phrase?

In this essay Martina Austen and Philip Bedall ask about about the real substance of the term “Climate Justice” which has come to be used as a stock phrase in controversies about climate politics. Is it a counter-hegemonial term for the political arena or just a plastic word comprising all or nothing at all? ([i])

Martina Austen and Philip Bedall are active in the BUKO Working Group on Social Ecology ([ii]). Both have been involved in climate activism including the Hamburg Climate Camp 2008, local initiatives and the global Climate Justice Action Network.

In what follows, Climate Justice is seen as an “empty signifier”, i.e. how the term should be filled is highly controversial in ongoing discussions. Historical references as well as the current usage of the term will be outlined insofar as an understanding of the hegemonial conflicts can be based on them. Drawing on discourse and hegemonial theory, this understanding will help to ask questions that should be discussed within social movements: Does it make sense or is it even necessary for emancipatory movements to take part in a discursive struggle over the term? Is Climate Justice a suitable reference point for criticism of and demands on the present climate policy?

The article makes public a discussion taking place at present in the BUKO Working Group on Social Ecology.

The debates about Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), about nuclear energy as a climate-neutral form of energy and last but not least the climate conference in Copenhagen have made it clear: Although the present crisis – i.e. the climate change – is common knowledge and although what should be done about it is a universally asked question, actors in the civil society that deal with the climate issue offer a wide range of answers when it comes to analysing the causes of the climate change or to express their demands. The political sphere is characterised by heterogeneous interpretations and heterogeneous activities.

This, then, is the context in which a globally linked-up internationalistic movement has appeared that, under the heading of “Climate Justice” (CJ), unites several social struggles and its demands. And there are other groups that also take resort to the notion of CJ, such as the international NGO campaign “tcktcktck – time for climate justice” in their mobilization programme after Copenhagen. Is this a (mis-)appropriation of the term? Or, to put it differently, why does a certain understanding of CJ prevail over others, why do certain demands become particularly visible and effective in the discourse while others don´t? Questions like these make it worthwhile to have a closer look at the dynamics of social and discoursive struggles.

We will outline the civil society – as Antonio Gramsci understands it – as the battlefield of the struggle for hegemony, and in doing so we will specify what is to be understood by hegemony. We will show that CJ can be seen as an “empty signifier”, i.e. as a comprehensive set of demands representing a great variety of demands whose precise (hegemonial) filling is always a matter of dispute. We will show how CJ continues a debate that originated in conflicts about social, environmental or global justice. Some knowledge of this historical background and of the current usage of the term is a prerequisite for an understanding of the hegemonial conflicts about CJ. Finally we will point out the prospects resulting from our understanding of hegemonial conflicts.

Expression of hegemonial conflicts

No matter what is discussed in the media as a cause of the climate change, no matter which solutions are seen as possible to be implemented or which understanding of the term CJ will prevail in the long run – there is one thing all these have in common: They all are based on hegemonial conflicts.

According to Antonio Gramsci, government can be seen as an expression of social powers and their relative strength. The civil society plays a specific role in this process. Together with the political society, i.e. the state in the strict sense, it forms the integral state. In the civil society a balance of compromises results from social conflicts: a hegemonial consensus. Gramsci speaks of hegemony if it is possible for one group to create some consent to their particular interests among members of other groups. An unequal distribution of powers is characteristic of hegemony.

If one sees the civil society as the place for political conflicts it cannot be imagined as something that is progressive in itself: actors in the civil society do not automatically pursue altruistic aims that are compatible with public welfare, and they are not necessarily democratic or critical of the state. In an arena of competing ways to analyse causes, to put forward one´s demands and to take action a hegemonial consensus emerges, e.g. a consensus on what is considered adequate or legitimate. This applies to the national state that Gramsci had in mind when he advanced his social theory, but – based on the approach of neo-Gramscian  International Political Economy – it can also be transferred to an international sphere. So, whatever is meant by the demand for CJ or which interpretation of the term will prevail either in the media or in the political objectives of a transnational network of social movements or of NGOs – it must be considered as a result of hegemonial conflicts.

Climate Justice: an empty signifier

The civil society is the place where hegemonial consensus is reached, but this does not yet explain in what manner consensus itself is brought about. Consensus can be seen as an expression of what is said, written and done. The focus of attention thus shifts towards discourse, a problem which Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (L&M) have examined. Their discourse-analytic theory of hegemony ([iii]) can serve as a kind of heuristic device to reconstruct the meaning of the term CJ as well as to derive strategies for hegemonial struggles.

According to L&M, it is a characteristic feature of hegemonial projects that they aim at a universal acceptance of a particular symbolic order. L&M try to explain the mechanism as follows: Following Ferdinand de Saussure´s linguistic theory, in the social field meaning is established by drawing a dividing line between certain discursive elements and others – in other words by a relational difference. By their concept of antagonism, L&M can show how discourses come into being: Individual discursive elements on the one hand draw a demarcation line between themselves and a shared exterior – something that is completely different, the antagonism – and on the other hand they unite against the exterior to form a shared ensemble.

The Zapatistas´ slogan “One No, Many Yeses” shows that antagonism: it combines the variety of separate struggles (the “many yeses”) ([iv]). The “one no” can be identified with the joint opposition to the system, the “yes” represents the many demands originating in specific social struggles. What all the demands have in common is the call for a “different world”. So it is an absence, a deficit that creates unity, an “absent totality” L&M call it.

Thus, the call for a “different world” or for “liberation” or “revolution” ties together a set of demands. For L&M they are empty signifiers. What these terms share and where all the individual demands are equivalent to one another cannot be an innate meaning. They have “to borrow the latter from some entity constituted within the equivalential space […]. […] various political forces can compete in their efforts to present their particular objectives as those which carry out the filling of that lack. To hegemonize something is exactly to carry out this filling function.” ([v])

CJ is such an empty signifier whose filling with a specific meaning is controversial. The following is an outline of the demands that are tied up with CJ and compete to gain a hegemonial position – in other words: to gain acceptance. In this outline we will look back at the history of the term as well as deal with its present usage.

Climate Justice: Historic reference points

In past debates about Social, Environmental and Global Justice demands were put forward that nowadays are repeated under the heading of CJ. SJ, EJ or GJ can also be seen as “empty signifiers” uniting different social struggles. What they have in common is the fact that they denounce social grievances such as racial discrimination, sexism and homophobia, poverty and exploitation etc. on a local and later on a global level and that they oppose them fighting for justice and equality. The demand for CJ, which was put forward for the first time at the end of the 20th century, is a direct continuation of the demands for SJ, EJ or GJ.

Roughly speaking, the demand for Social Justice arose in the USA at the end of the 1960s together with the so-called New Social Movements. These movements were started by people who suffered from discrimination. Their view, based on analysis, said that discrimination and injustice were a structural part of the present circumstances. The demand for social justice in this sense is connected with the idea of a society of recognition and equal participation. The demands were advanced by the Black Power Movement, the Women´s Liberation Movement or the Gay and the Lesbian Movement.

The demand for Environmental Justice is another reference point for Climate Justice. In the 60s an environmental movement developed in the USA whose members mainly came from the white middle class. It opposed polluting industries in their vicinity. As a result those industries frequently moved to poorer communities and to communities of colour, which was seen as Environmental Racism by the inhabitants of those communities. Their demand for Environmental Justice emphasizes the right to live in unpolluted and healthy surroundings  (which includes air, water, soil, but also residential area and place of work) for all ([vi]).

Meanwhile the altermondialist movement has raised the demand for SJ to a global level – the slogan here is “Global Justice”. The movement was born one could say in the jungle of Chiapas in 1992 and had its coming-out at the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999, which were followed by those in Prague, Genua and Heiligendamm. The movement ties together various social struggles. A common goal is the defence against a world-wide neo-liberalism. Global Justice exposes the unjust consequences, especially for the global South, of free trade agreements, of the privatization of and patents for common property, or of genetic engineering. Global Justice calls for a radical democratization and localization of all social decisions.

The exposure of social injustices (like discrimination, poverty, exploitation etc.) and the fight for justice and equal rights are common features of the demands for Social, Environmental and Global Justice. The demand for CJ, which was put forward for the first time in the 1990s, is a direct continuation of those claims.

Climate Justice: How to fill the “empty signifier”

In 1999, the American NGO CorpWatch ([vii]) defines CJ as the elimination of all causes of global warming ([viii]). CorpWatch and their demand for CJ turn against what they see as “corporate-led fossil fuel-based globalization”. For them, CJ means pleading for a moratorium on any new oil production and for an extension of public transport and of renewable energy. Trans-national companies should lose their power in favour of a democratic reorganization on all social levels.

The “Delhi Climate Justice Declaration” ([ix]) passed on the occasion of the “India Climate Justice Summit” (parallel with COP8) in 2002 has extended the term CJ to comprise a North-South view, criticism of the market and technology orientation and the demand for a participation in the negotiations of those that are affected. The fossil-based production and consumption of the global North are seen as the essential causes of global warming. At the same time the declaration underlines the increasing effect of the climate change on the global South and a growing social inequality.

The “Bali Principles of Climate Justice” ([x]) of the same year do not totally reject market-based and technological solutions, but solutions should be governed by principles of “democratic responsibility, ecological sustainability and social justice”. The Bali Principles point at corporations and industrial countries of the North as mainly responsible for the emission of greenhouse gases. The concept of ecological debt expresses the victims´ claims for reparations, compensation and restoration.

Criticism of market-based solutions is harsher in the “Durban Declaration on Carbon Trading” (2004) ([xi]). The declaration makes it clear that the trade with CO2 certificates has made for a new commodity that can be traded profitably but does not reduce CO2 emission.

All that – the summits, debates, platforms – has contributed to an increasing international networking among those NGOs that are making justice a subject of discussion. It is against that backdrop, that during COP13 at Bali in 2007, a shift has taken place in the field of actors of climate-politically involved NGOs whose concern are international negotiations: Some NGOs have left the Climate Action Network (CAN) ([xii]), and the Climate Justice Now! (CJN!) network ([xiii]) was founded. CJN! rejects any market-based solution; instead, they call for a solution where fossil sources of energy are left in the soil and consumption in the North is drastically reduced. Money transfers from the global North to the global South are to make up for the climate debt and to reduce the dependence of the global South. In particular, indigenous land rights and the demand for sovereignty over food, energy and resources are advocated as the “real solutions” to the climate change.

Late in 2008 one more global network was established: Climate Justice Action (CJA) ([xiv]), which mobilized on the occasion of COP 15 at Copenhagen. CJA activists, mainly from Europe, speak up for the rights of the indigenous population and for those in the global South that are affected by the climate change. CJA rejects market-based solutions; for them the only real solution is a radical social transformation.

As the Copenhagen conference was approaching, other actors appeared who took up the term CJ, but they favour a strengthening of market-based mechanisms and theirs certainly is not a critical view of economic growth or of capitalism. “tcktcktck –Time for Climate Justice Campaign “([xv]) – to name but this group –  under Kofi Annan´s patronage does not criticize market-based solutions or the representative system applied by UN climate governance. For them, the admission of a historical debt and an understanding of the fact that people have been affected in very different ways play a crucial role even if they suggest payments to compensate for damages and technological transfer to be laid down in UN climate agreements as solutions.

To sum up one may say that quite a number of actors refer to CJ, with varying interpretations competing with each other. They cover a span stretching from criticism of the system or of capitalism as far as politically conformist approaches. And then, the fact must not be overlooked that actors are differently funded, that they have not the same access to the media and that the social positions they hold vary greatly – all of which has an influence on how visible their causes are.

Chances of social movements

Taking the term CJ, as has been shown, as an empty signifier and referring to its historical use, i.e. to the demands that have been put forward under its heading and the actors supporting those demands, we now can specify the question whether CJ is a suitable reference point for emancipatory movements as follows:

  • Which of the demands that are at present made in the name of CJ and which of the social struggles are shared demands and shared struggles? Which of them are criticized?
  • What can be done to promote CJ in the sense of emancipatory movements, i.e. to make their filling of the term visible and to advance a counter-hegemonial project?
  • Or are alternative terms like global justice, global solidarity or even climate communism a more convincing reading of the absence of socio-ecological justice?

Even if these questions no more than aim at providing some rough ideas for discussion, one possible prospect can already be sketched out:

Advancing the criticism and the demands of emancipatory movements might mean connecting them with CJ on a local level. In that way, CJ could become more specific – specific aims could be named (e.g. public local traffic for free or food and energy sovereignty), and so could specific things that are rejected (e.g. CCS or market mechanisms). The aim should be to promote certain views: Unlimited growth or CCS may have their assets, but climate justice certainly is not among them.

Philip Bedall & Martina Austen

[i] An earlier and in some ways abbreviated version of this text was previously published in the German journal “analyse & kritik” ( which is perceiving itself as a platform for discussions about social movements’ strategies.

[ii] Because of its pluralistic character and its open form of organisation BUKO is a common forum of social movements and international solidarity movements today, located at Germany. It is less of an umbrella organisation of member groups, more of a network of initiatives, groups and persons within the critical branch of the international protest movement. They use BUKO and its annual congress to discuss the ambivalances of the movement. The issues are mostly criticism and reflection of international relations, debates and political concepts that ignore criticism of domination. A world of humiliating living conditions, racism, sexism, poverty, destruction of livelihoods and many more consequences of structural violence shall be contrasted by the search for emancipatory alternatives (for further information see:

[iii] Laclau, Ernesto & Chantal Mouffe (1985): Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. London, Verso.

[iv] Kaufmann, Stephan & Tadzio Müller (2009): Grüner Kapitalismus. Krise, Klimawandel und kein Ende des Wachstums. Berlin, Dietz: 14.

[v] Laclau, Ernesto (1996): Emancipation(s). London, Verso: 42 et seqq.

[vi] The “Principles of Environmental Justice” of 1991 considered EJ as a more complex issue as, among other things, it criticised the influence of companies on social decisions and spoke out against any form of war and military suppression. In addition, they ask for reparations for victims of ecological injustice and the right for self-determination and social participation (cf.

[vii] CorpWatch was a central force in later years as well when it helped organize Climate Justice Summits. In 2000 CorpWatch was among the organizers of the first “Climate Justice Summit” in Den Haag when COP6 was taking place. (Cf. http.//

[viii] Cf.

[ix] The declaration is supported by various Indian NGOs and by CorpWatch India, National Fishworkers Forum, Third World Network, Friends of the Earth Int., Natinal Alliance of People´s Movements etc.

[x] Cf.

[xi] Cf.

[xii] CAN is a worldwide network of more than 500 NGOs that take part in the UN climate negotiations. Their aim is to protect the earth´s atmosphere in a way that does not infringe upon an equal and sustainable development. CAN does not use the term climate justice. Cf.

[xiii] Cf.

[xiv] Cf.

[xv] Cf.

From Copenhagen to Cochabamba: caminamos preguntando 2.0?

In this essay Tadzio Mueller (Political scientist and contributing editor of Turbulence) reviews the outcomes of both the Copenhagen and Cochabamba conferences, addressing the political and organisational space these differing ‘climate focused’ events open for the social movements for Climate Justice.

From Copenhagen to Cochabamba: Walking We Ask Questions, 2.0?[1]

Tadzio Mueller, 5/2010

The Run-Up

Copenhagen, Denmark, December 2009. The climate summit’s failure manages to underwhelm even the already low expectations of the emerging global climate justice movement. Once it becomes obvious that none of the major emitters, neither the US nor the EU, Japan or Australia, has committed to the necessary dramatic emissions reductions, the so-called “Copenhagen Accord” is being negotiated outside the official processes under the leadership of the United States. (And why should the major emitters reduce their emissions? In a fossil-fuel based capitalist economy, reducing emissions implies a politically unpalatable reduction of economic growth.) The Accord claims it wants to limit global warming to 2° Celsius, but in pursuit of this ambitious goal it proposes only voluntary emissions reductions, without any mechanisms for enforcing these commitments, or for penalising those countries that fail to meet their commitments.[2] It is the resistance of governments from Venezuela, Sudan and Bolivia that ultimately stops the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) from officially adopting the Accord. Instead, the text it is merely “taken note of” – as is the quality of the catering at the summit. The worst-case scenario feared by many in the movements and in critical NGOs, that a bad deal might be greenwashed, thus does not come to pass. Only the politically colour-blind could see the Accord as being genuinely green. The supposedly “last, best chance to save the planet” thus passes, after a two-week summit during which the prospect of the disappearance of entire island states under water and the evacuation of their populations had become a new normality that people accepted without flinching.

Yet not only to those who would prefer no climate deal at all to even a weak one, the two-week summit is far from a complete disaster. Many in the emerging global climate justice movement, especially those who from the beginning took the hope for a “fair, ambitious and binding deal”[3] as pie-in-the-sky, can point to successes of their own: the demonstration on Saturday 12.12. was probably the single largest explicit ‘climate change’ demonstration ever (though its political intentions were fuzzy at best, ranging from the ‘do something about climate change, please’, to the traditionally anticapitalist ‘shut down capitalism, now!’); over a two-week period, more than 50,000 people attended Klimaforum09, the countersummit in Copenhagen, which produced a widely disseminated final declaration that effectively brought together the various political positions in the movement; while the last major action, Reclaim Power, expressed a new relationship between movements on the streets, NGOs and governments, between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, in a way that augured in a new phase of global movement politics.[4] In that sense it mattered that Hugo Chavez, in his address to the UNFCCC, quoted the slogan that the movements had been articulating for weeks in their workshops and chanting in the streets: Change the system, not the climate!

Given the obvious failure of official climate change politics on the one hand, and the possible emergence of a new social force on the other, Bolivia’s president Evo Morales lays an interesting wager. He calls for an alternative climate summit – more precisely: a “Global Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth”[5] – to gather all those progressive forces that want to develop an explicitly anticapitalist climate politics. The meeting is to take place in Cochabamba, a city made famous ten years ago in the global movements by the Guerra del Agua, the ‘water war’ that brought together rural irrigators and campesinos, urban factory workers, unemployed miners, and cocaleros (coca leaf growers), who successfully overturned the contract that had privatised the municipal water system and threw the US-based multinational Bechtel out of Bolivia. Much is at stake: so far, the left’s response to the failure of official climate change politics consists of little more than the usual moralising appeals and demands, but lacking sufficient social force to implement them. Put differently: it may be technically correct to say that ‘capitalism’ is to blame for climate change, but it doesn’t help us much in light of the continued expansion of the fossil-fuel system – despite attempts to institute a kind of ‘green capitalism’.[6] What might an anticapitalist climate politics look like? How can it be implemented? And maybe most importantly: by whom?

The Actors

In Cochabamba, these and other questions were to be discussed by an almost unprecedented constellation of actors: not since the days of the 3rd International had progressive governments and movements been brought together on such an equal footing, outside the often stifling UN-framework and in the context of such an explicitly anticapitalist discourse.

On the one side, we get the progressive Latin American governments, some of them organised in the ALBA-bloc (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of our America: Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador). Of these, the Bolivian is by far the one closest to social movements,[7] being itself the result of an intense cycle of largely indigenous social struggles over the course of the last decade. The relevance of this lies in the fact that the movements for climate justice, even more so than other radical left movements, rely strongly on the agenda-setting, the political leadership of often indigenous ‘frontline communities’ (that is, of those groups who are most directly affected by climate change as well as by the so-called ‘false solutions’ like emissions trading or agrofuels).

But looking beyond discourse to the ‘material basis’ of the Bolivian economy, things suddenly look somewhat different. While there is much talk of Pachamama, of Mother Earth and its rights in the run-up to and during the summit, the left-wing Latin American project is in fact grounded in a political economy that the Uruguayan intellectual Eduardo Gudynas has dubbed the “New Extractivism”.[8] To be sure, progressive governments have made significant progress in poverty reduction, and have accompanied (that is, have been produced by and have furthered) genuine transformation in social force relations. What is on display in Bolivia and elsewhere in the region is a sort of neo-Keynesian desarrollismo (developmentalism), with strongly redistributive policies. But these welcome policies are financed by the exploitation of the very Pachamama whose rights are on the agenda in Cochabamba: be it the exploitation of mines (coal, lithium, copper), the construction of dams, the pumping of oil, or the expansion of hyperintensive soy-monocultures. Gudynas argues that “the progressive governments [in Latin America] reduce economic development to economic growth, which in turn can be achieved primarily by way of the expansion of exports and increasing investments. The new extractivism is one of the central means for reaching these goals.”[9]

There are thus two tensions within the Bolivian as well as the broader Bolivarian project. First, a contradiction exists between discourse and material basis (a seemingly old-fashioned, but in this case definitely appropriate distinction): flowery talk notwithstanding, the Bolivian government’s capacity to effectively raise living standards within the country largely depends on high prices for natural gas and other raw materials, that is, on a fossil fuel-based, extractive economy. This hardly looks like one of the “real solutions” so often invoked by the climate justice movement, that would quickly deliver significant emissions reductions while at the same time beginning to overturn the social relations that produce the crisis in the first place. Second, social conflicts seem to arise almost necessarily around traditional resource extraction. Two quick examples: just days before the climate meeting in Cochabamba, the Bolivian town of San Cristobal saw the occupation of corporate offices and blockades of train lines during protests against a local silver mine. The protesters’ demands? End environmental devastation, and supply the local communities with water and electricity.[10] In addition, intense protests are taking place in southwest Bolivia against hydroelectric power plants that the Bolivian government plans to build together with Brazil.

This neo-extractivist model of development, as well as the need for sometimes repressively controlling the conflicts that arise around it, clearly doesn’t sit very well with a conference about the rights of Pachamama, where the global movements are supposed to get together with progressive governments to discuss socially just solutions to the climate crisis. What to do? The Bolivian government simply decided to exclude not only these kinds of local and national questions from the conference’s agenda – with the ludicrous justification that local questions had no place in an international conference – but also, as a result, those groups and movements critical of the government and its developmental model. Those for whom this move is eerily reminiscent of the cynical positions taken in Copenhagen by the likes of Angela Merkel, who likes to be feted internationally as the saviour of the climate, while continuing to build coal fired power plants at home at an alarming rate, may be forgiven. The exclusion of these questions and voices from the summit led groups critical of Evo Morales and his Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) to create the alternative mesa 18, the ‘18th working group’, where the Bolivian model as well as the new extractivism were openly criticised. To complicate things further, and to briefly jump ahead in the storytelling: the problem with criticising Evo and his MAS from the left is the political right, which has organised a strong separatist movement in the comparatively wealthy ‘Media Luna’ region in Bolivia’s lowlands, that constitutes a serious challenge to the stability of the country and the continuation of Morales’ government. Thus, when two right-wing members of parliament wanted to join the participants of the mesa 18, they were denounced as fascists, and expelled from the proceedings. Why? Because the anti-MAS left has at all costs to avoid the impression of joining forces with the right against Evo.[11]

On one side, then, the Bolivian government with all its contradictions – which are in turn a reflexion of the complexity of the ‘new left’ in Latin America. And on the other side? There we encounter a process that, with a certain dose of Gramscian optimism,[12] can be referred to as the emerging global climate justice movement.[13] This movement is itself the result of a fusion between parts of the alterglobalist summit protest- and social forum-milieus with radical environmental groups and activists (or those radicalised by the failure of the UNFCCC), at a time when, on the one hand, neoliberalism was rapidly losing its ideological and integrative power, and on the other hand, climate change had begun to force its way onto the political and economic agenda, both as a socio-environmental problem, and as a new opportunity for “green” development and growth.

What appears as a new movement from one vantage point, however, is at the same time simply the next phase of global social struggles in an age of what ten years ago was simply called ‘globalisation’. The first phase was characterised by the common rejection of neoliberalism (‘one no, many yeses’), the rejection of Thatcher’s dogma that there is no alternative (‘another world is possible’), and the widespread refusal to work with institutional left-wing actors, not to mention governments. The World Social Forum’s Charter, for example, explicitly prohibits the participation of parties, and one of the most popular leftist theory books of the last ten years was John Holloway’s Change the World Without Taking Power.[14]

In the second cycle, however, some things are shifting: due to, on the one hand, neoliberalism’s waning strength in institutions such as left-wing and Social Democratic parties, trade unions and some governments; and, on the other, because this waning has highlighted the weakness of the anti-neoliberal movement, its inability to institutionalise, i.e. render permanent, its gains and victories, there has lately been a change in the way that the relationship to institutions is being thought in the global movements. Where a crass anti-institutionalism used to reign – which, to be clear, was entirely appropriate to the situation – today we encounter openness, questions, and new connections.[15] One example of this is the Reclaim Power-action mentioned above, during the preparation of which (post-)autonomous activists collaborated, or at least negotiated, with governments and a whole range of actors that ‘back in the days’ would have been distrusted on account of their (ill-defined) status as ‘NGOs’ – another example is the movement’s unclear relationship to the UNFCCC. A third, obviously, is the conference in Cochabamba itself.

The second strategic difference we encounter in this second cycle refers to the ‘one no’ and the ‘many yeses’. After the end of neoliberalism’s hegemony, there is no longer a unifying ‘no’, while at the same time there is much more political space within which radical, even anticapitalist, positions can be articulated. All this, coupled with the growing urgency of the climate crisis, has produced a situation where there is greater pressure on the emerging climate justice movements to produce ‘positive’ proposals that can be implemented at a global scale than there was on the alterglobalisation movement.

Building on the work of the environmental justice movement, and networks like the “Durban Group for Climate Justice”,[16] the idea of ‘climate justice’ has thus quickly established itself as an important new discursive common ground for the movement, a discourse that in fact contains a number of “directions demands”:[17] that fossil fuels be left in the ground; that industrial agriculture be replaced with local systems of food sovereignty; that the ecological debt owed by the global North to the South be recognised, among others.[18] Obviously, these demands might sound different depending on where they are used, and they might be more appropriate for struggles in the South than in the urban regions of the North: does climate justice mean the same thing in Europe as it does in Latin America? The same thing in Bolivia as it does in Brazil? In this sense, even if there is today greater pressure, and space, for positive proposals, one thing has not changed much from one phase to another: then, inspired by the poetry of the Zapatistas, the idea was to “walk while asking questions” (caminamos preguntando). While the conference thus gave very few answers, it raised many questions, and gave space for problematics to emerge, without being solved – little else was, is, possible at this point. Problematics wouldn’t be problematic if they were amenable to easy solutions…

The Conference

More than 30,000 participants, almost 10,000 of them from abroad – mostly Latin American, a surprising number of North Americans. Europe and Asia are badly represented, thanks to the Icelandic volcano; representation from Africa is even worse, probably thanks to the absence of funds. Nonetheless: now we are in Cochabamba to talk about the structural changes that we know to be necessary. Government delegations from countries all over the world, summithopping autonomists, UN-bureaucrats, Andean coca farmers. In the run-up to the summit, 17 working groups had been created to deal with a multiplicity of topics, ranging from strategies for action to forests, from indigenous rights to migration, long discussions were conducted via email-lists. Imagine the difficulties of translation: not just linguistically, also culturally. How do autonomous movement activists and UN-bureaucrats talk to each other? In this regard it was especially the central working structures of the conference, the mesas (working groups) that were interesting attempts to bring together the different languages, methods and goals of the various actors. In this sense, the mesas were certainly problematic: not (necessarily) because they were badly organised, but rather, because they were an expression of problematics, of open questions marking this new phase of struggles.

Many stories could now be told of this conflictual cooperation. Of the working group on forests, where the movements managed to defeat an attempt by the Bolivian government to get them to support the UN-programme REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation), unpopular with many indigenous groups for threatening to take control of their ancestral forests out of their hands. Of Via Campesina’s ultimately successful last-minute move to, together with some international allies, prevent the conference from adopting a document that proposed the creation of a new ‘Global Alliance of Peoples and Movements’, a kind of new ‘International from Above’ that would tie up movements’ scarce resources while adding little to the already existing concert of international fora and networks. Of the many working groups where these kinds of conflicts did not arise, where either the government’s agenda (e.g. to push for an international referendum on climate change), or the movements’ agenda dominated (e.g. in the working group on climate financing). But these stories, interesting as they may be, might lead us a bit too far into the event’s nitty-gritty details. For more of an overview of the conference’s outcomes, it is probably most interesting to take a look at the final declaration. This long text definitely packs some political punch, and unites within itself a sometimes confusing multiplicity of demands, many of which come directly from the movements, others emerge straight from the Bolivian government’s strategic considerations (which, incidentally, raises the question of what happens to movements’ demands that are taken up by governments?).

The “Cochabamba People’s Accord” opens with some choice bits of anticapitalist and anti-growth rhetoric: “The capitalist system has imposed on us a logic of competition, progress and limitless growth… In order for there to be balance with nature, there must first be equity among human beings… The model we support is not a model of limitless and destructive development.”[19] This definitely sounds good, and is almost certainly useful in the debate about the possibility and desirability of ‘infinite growth on a finite planet’ that seems to be slowly taking off in parts of the global North. But what are the concrete strategic steps that are being proposed – and where do their problems lie?

The two suggestions emanating from the conference that received the most coverage were the plans to hold a “global” referendum on climate change, and the idea of setting up an international environmental/climate crimes court. On the first proposal: over the course of rather controversial discussions it became clear that the referendum is a project that would make a lot of sense in a Latin American context: there is a long history here of using referenda and consultas as tools of conscientización, of consciousness-raising, for example in the resistance to the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Many activists from the North and from Asia, however, viewed it more critically. How would Europeans respond to questions about climate change and the necessary changes to patterns of production and consumption that dealing with it would entail? How about North Americans? And finally: how do you hold a referendum in China?

The international climate court is a similarly vexed project. On the one hand, the legal institutionalisation of social movements’ demands and successes is certainly an important part of ‘winning’. On the other hand, the creation of such an institution would demand an amazing amount of work from all parts of the climate justice movement – and do we really, after 15 years of pointlessly working away inside the UNFCCC, direct all our constituent power into this kind of international institutional process?

One central demand of the climate justice movement, which was taken up and further amplified in Cochabamba, has always been that the global North recognise and start making reparations for its ecological/climate debt to the global South. Now the conference has put a figure to this demand: Northern governments are to spend some 6% of their annual GDP on this debt. In principle, this call is a good thing, no doubt. In practice, the demand runs up against some problems – not insurmountable ones, but problems nonetheless. First, by way of which institutional mechanism are these funds going to flow? Not, we hope, through the World Bank, an institution that has excelled at rebranding itself the new ‘Green Bank’ while at the same time continuing to pour significant funds into fossil-fuel projects. And indeed, here the proposals of the financing working group are clear: “a new financial mechanism shall be established under the authority of the UNFCCC, replacing the Global Environment Facility and its intermediaries such as the World Bank and the Regional Development Banks.” Second, to whom will these funds be paid? (Here, both the question and the answer need to be formulated carefully.) To Southern governments? Here, the term ‘global South’ might be covering up one too many conflicts between governments and sectors of society. Third, and from a European perspective most pressingly: given that the payment of climate debt could be framed as yet another reason for draconian austerity measures in Europe, and that people, as a discussion at UK-climate camp once pointed out, are unlikely to riot for austerity, how can we turn this into a demand that won’t leave us even more marginalised in the political battles raging on the continent right now? One way out of this would be for the movements to demand that payment of this ecological debt be tied to restrictions on where the money might come from. It would have to come from taxes on polluters that do not involve these costs being passed on to those who, say, need to consume energy to heat their homes. To be clear: this is not to reject the demand as such, it is merely to point out some of the practical challenges that the struggle for it faces, especially because this one has been so central in the movement.

In general, the “global North” comes in for much criticism in the conference’s final declaration: it is being urged to take responsibility for the many so-called ‘climate refugees’ (use of this category, by the way, is also contested by those who argue that it illegitimately constructs and then privileges one ‘type’ of migrant – ecological – over others – ‘economic’), and to open its borders to them; and to reduce its emissions by 50% from 2013 to 2017, against a 1990 baseline. The text also repeatedly refers to “indigenous peoples”, their economies and their ways of life: on the one hand as a source of legitimacy and moral anchor, and on the other hand, as a rhetorical anti-growth device. We can only hope that these ways of life and economies not only continue to survive their confrontation with the global North but also with the new Extractivism of the Latin American New Left. In this regard it is interesting, although hardly surprising, to note that one central movement demand does not appear in the final document: to leave fossil fuels in the ground. Comrades Evo and Hugo would not have appreciated that one.

Concluding this review of the summit’s outcomes, there are the positive things that always happen beyond the ‘official’ statements when global and normally dispersed movements come together: the networking, the strategising, the planning – and the collective fun. For example: a call for action initially articulated in Latin America, for a “day of action in defence of mother earth” (on the 12th of October, on what used to be known as ‘Columbus Day’), was picked up in Europe by Climate Justice Action and turned into a call for “direct action for climate justice”. In Cochabamba, this day of action may have become a week of action where a variety of networks, ranging from the radical (Via Campesina: on the 16th of October, there will be a day of action against Monsanto) to the moderate ( is organising a day of action, called ‘get to work’, on the 10th of October) are currently discussing the possibility of coordinating their days of action. While there are significant political differences between some of these networks, and the week of action remains thus far merely a possibility, the potential for the various parts of the movements to cooperate in taking some form of direct action definitely marks an exciting outcome of Cochabamba.

The Crystal Ball: the Good, the Bad, and the Unclear

Events like the alternative climate summit in Bolivia always raise one question: what effects do they have? The impacts, let alone the ‘successes’ of social movements are notoriously hard to judge or measure, especially with the conference being such a recent event. Will the final declaration become the ‘new programme’ of the movements? Probably not, but some things are already becoming a bit clearer: first, only a few days after the conference, the Bolivian government submitted a document based on the results of the conference to the UNFCCC. In other words, the demands of the global climate justice movement are now official discussion materials within a UN-process, in a way that is probably quite unprecedented. Of course, it’s also possible that the UNFCCC as an institution has lost all political relevance, but that’s another matter. The document is also likely to have an internally unifying effect (with all the ambivalence that this term might carry): for example, the network Climate Justice Now! has announced that it will support the positions taken in the “Cochabamba Accord” both inside and outside the UN-process. But whether this means that positions that did not end up in the accord will be marginalised remains to be seen – the potential for this to happen definitely exists.

Beyond the text it is likely that Cochabamba will contribute to a strengthening of anticapitalist and ‘movementist’ discourses within the climate debate: that a president would use his institutional position to explicitly link capitalism and its need for rapacious growth to the climate crisis is, in the current situation, certainly a very positive development; as is the highlighting of the role of movements in the struggle for climate justice. Discussions within the global movements will also be affected: the process, begun some years ago, whereby global struggles are increasingly (also) orienting themselves around the question of climate justice will have been sped up in Cochabamba.

As time passes, more questions will undoubtedly continue to] arise as a result of the Bolivian summit. Should we focus on Cancún? And in the meantime? What of those who argue that a climate justice movement strategy needs to start looking beyond the UNFCCC? More questions. More walking.

But hopefully, we’ll start to answer some of these questions soon …

[1] An earlier version of this text was previously published, in German, by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. Thanks to Rosa for funding my trip to Bolivia, much appreciated. Many thanks also to Corinna Genschel, Tina Gerhardt, Julian Mueller, Bertie Russel and Ben Trott for suggestions that vastly improved the text – with all the usual disclaimers applying.

[2] Even the 2-degrees target has attracted criticism: whose survival is being prioritised?

[3] Greenpeace, Avaaz and the tck,tck,tck-campaign pushed for this goal until the bitter end.

[4] De Marcellus, Olivier, 2010: Failure and Victory in Copenhagen,


[6] Müller, Tadzio and Passadakis, Alexis, forthcoming 2010: Another Capitalism Is Possible? From World Economic Crisis to Green Capitalism. In: Abramsky, Kolya, ed., 2009 Sparking a World-wide Energy Revolution: Social Struggles in the Transition to a Post-Petrol World. Oakland: AK Press.

[7] Evo Morales himself hails from the, by now relatively parti-fied, Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) a movement that emerged from the coca-growing communities of the Bolivian highlands. He has been in power since 2006.

[8] Gudynas, Eduardo, 2010: The New Extractivism in South America.

[9] Gudynas, Eduardo, April 2010: “El Modelo de Desarrollo en Debate”, Le Monde Diplomatique, Edición Boliviana. S. 7.


[11] I can only refer here to the complexity of ‘internal’ indigenous politics and their manifold divisions (for example between ‘indigenism’, and the less ethnically connoted ‘katarismo’), but for lack of space and knowledge, cannot go into them.

[12] Sitting in a fascist prison, the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci spoke of the need for a “pessimism of the intellect”, coupled with an “optimism of the will”.

[13] To be sure, there is also a wider ‘climate movement’, on the right of which we find actors such as Oxfam and others who, some five years ago, organised the rather revolting “Make Poverty History” campaign.

[14] Holloway, John, 2002: Change the World Without Taking Power. London: Pluto Press.

[15] Turbulence Collective, 2009, “Life in Limbo?”, Turbulence 5, But see the resurgence of a poetic, anti-institutional insurrectionism in, e.g., the Invisible Committee, 2009: The Coming Insurrection. New York: Semiotexte/Intervention.


[17] Trott, Ben, 2007: „Walking in the right direction?“, Turbulence 1.

[18] See


Climate Justice and its Anti-Capitalist consequences

‘Apocalypse Anoymous’ has had a long involvement in UK environmental and Anarchist movements. In this essay he addresses the ‘movement for Climate Justice’ and it’s Consequences to anti-capitalists.

Climate Justice and its Anti-Capitalist consequences

by Apocalypse Anonymous

The whole political landscape of the climate ‘debate’ has changed immensely in the past year particularly in the wake of the UN climate negotiations in Copenhagen. This article attempts to stake out some of the new terrain and present some of the ideas that are now appearing at the level of grassroots social movements for climate justice.

Capitalism is crisis

The governments of the world have been unable to act to avert climate disaster; this failure reveals the contradictions inherent in a system which is responsible for causing this crisis. Many people are now seeing the climate crisis as one of the symptoms of the general catastrophe we call capitalism. Climate change stands alongside the current political-economic crisis and the impending energy, food and water crises as problems caused and exacerbated by the capitalist system of social relations. Ruling elites are consequently seeking to legitimise a system which is the root cause of these socio-ecological crises; using “crisis management” as an opportunity for capitalism to re-assert itself, creating a new round of accumulation and enhanced social control.

The green capitalist project of ‘ecological modernisation’, through false solutions such as; carbon trading, agro-fuels, nuclear power and carbon capture and storage, will continue to concentrate political and economic power to the hands of the ruling class. These elites have a vested interest in maintaining economic growth and business as usual, despite ever increasing destruction of our planets ecosystems and widening inequality between rich and poor. Climate change is evidence of the limits faced by a system of infinite growth on a finite planet. However our political systems are institutionally unable to respond to the scale of this challenge due to their commitment to serving the neoliberal agenda. Solutions must come from people themselves through an emancipatory transformation of social relations, in order not just to save the world, but to create a better one.

The postpolitics of carbon reductionism

“…the issue of climate change is often perceived as a question of science rather than politics […] the problem […] is exclusively or predominantly framed as a problem that has to be dealt with globally, that is from above, with Western knowledge and through the techniques of scientific and economic management rather than through social or political transformation. Such an approach obscures the many local conflicts over scarce resources and land use that are as constitutive of ‘climate change’ as any abstract figure expressing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere…[The] invocation of urgency, its basis in scientific discourses notwithstanding, narrows the room for a critique of existing global climate change policies and politics; goes hand in hand with a ‘technocratisation’, that is, depoliticisation, of climate change politics; and places our hopes in the discovery of some as yet unknown silver bullet-technological solution that would simply ‘fix’ the anthropogenic greenhouse effect.” (Contours of climate justice 2009)

Implicit in this “post-political climate consensus” is a climate politics that seeks to re-establish neoliberalism out of its current crisis of legitimation. Viewing the climate crisis through the lens of the dominant political ideology of hegemonic neoliberalism, it can be seen that the solutions offered by corporations and governments serve simply to promote the reproduction of capitalist social relations; which are the very structural cause of the climate crisis and of course the driver behind a multitude of social injustice.

“What is climate justice?”

There are 3 main ways in which climate injustice occurs. Each of these can be analyzed with respect to the conditions of capitalist and colonialist domination that give rise to them. This is instructive in understanding exactly why the struggle for climate justice is consequently a struggle against these forms of political and economic domination.

Climate change is a problem for all life on earth that has been caused by the historical emissions of the rich industrialised nations. Climate injustice results from one class of people having benefited from industry despite it harming everyone to some extent.  There is a differentiated responsibility for having caused this the problem; climate change is not “human induced” but capitalist produced. Rich nations have the greatest responsibility in mitigating climate disaster by bringing down emissions.

Climate change will affect the poorest the most, exacerbating pre-existing conditions of poverty. This inequality in the ability to adapt is one of the reasons why climate change affects people to different extents. Given that this inequality was created by that very same exploitation that caused climate change there are now demands for this climate debt to be repaid in the form of reparations for adaptation.

Many of the false solutions advocated by governments and corporations cause even greater injustices, through for example;  the land grabs of carbon colonialism, the introduction of GMOS,  agro-fuels exacerbating food scarcity, austerity measures, population control etc. Many of these injustices have greater impacts for people currently than the impending climate disaster.

Climate Justice seeks to unite multiple emerging perspectives towards a new political approach which sees climate change as a social justice issue. This can be viewed as more than environmentalism and social justice coming together finally but as a new cycle of discourse that sees the relationships between the causes of multiple impending social and ecological crises and seeks to forge new forms of political encounter in order to respond adequately.

Social movements are currently in a process of articulating a climate justice agenda which is antagonistic enough to challenge the hegemonic agenda of the G20 governments and the institutions of transnational capital. As the system again attempts to assert its control over the discourse the fledgling concept of climate justice must be defended from recuperation and discover how it can inform a new consensus on climate change. It is important to understand just how antagonistic climate justice is and how its emergence represents a significant development for the anti-capitalist project.

Cop 15

The COP15 was an encounter where these political forces were played out. With the rejection of the G20’s neoliberal agenda at the climate talks, the movements that mobilised began to manifest an alternative climate politics to this postpolitical consensus. An emancipatory climate justice agenda is emerging in the space created by this fracture.

Many people who took action demanding climate justice also displayed an outright rejection of Green capitalism and social control. It was difficult to differentiate these protests from the myopic cheerleading for leaders to get a deal, in this way the fracture was not entirely perceivable to the outside world.

Prior to cop 15 it was difficult for the rejection of the G20 agenda to be heard over the noise of the re-legitimisation exercise undertaken by capital and the international institutions to promote Capitalism 2.0 and rejuvenate multilateralism. The UN climate negotiations are one of the arenas where the G20 is asserting its global hegemony. “Tackling climate change” has been used as a front to promote a whole range of policies linked to trade, development, energy security, land and resource control, militarisation and social control. The urgency to deal with this “threat” is a crisis narrative that plays into the hands of institutional power. Climate change was often not quite seen in relation to other struggles but as an extra-ordinary priority that came to eclipse all else. Demands for action have played into the rhetoric of those in power, merely reinforcing the postpolitical consensus while lacking any serious confrontation against the domination of capital.

The G20 power block hijacked the UN negotiations by agreeing its own terms then holding held the rest of the world to ransom. (In a move that indicates its willingness to flex its muscle the US has now dropped its aid commitments to Bolivia and Ecuador because it refused to endorse the Copenhagen accord.) However with the failure to get a legally binding agreement the public faith in its leaders has evaporated, the G20 has damaged the UNFCCC and the COP15 failed to re-legitimise governments, the UN or trans-national capital.

Most importantly we began to see that there is an emerging movement for climate justice which re-articulates the climate issue at the interface with a multitude of related struggles. People are beginning to reject the postpolitical consensus and find the emerging repoliticisation of the climate issue as the common ground for a new cross-fertilisation of global social movements which has been viewed as the maturation of 10 years of alter-globalisation struggle.

With climate justice alter-globalisation comes of age!

Climate Justice represents a confluence of a multitude of different struggles which are discovering their interrelatedness. Significantly there is an encounter between those from the anti-capitalist tradition who are articulating a confrontation with green capitalism and radical environmentalists who continue to develop an analysis of the political and economic causes of climate change. To separate them would be either ‘carbon reductionist’, neglecting of social issues, or court an anti-capitalism which neglects to consider the imperative to stop climate change.

Climate change has been problematic in its potential to become a totalising narrative, arguably this has in the past limited the extent to which other struggles can see themselves in relation to it. Now that the discussion has moved beyond the carbon reductionism that predominated, there is scope for more holistic analysis to be developed in our encounters.

This multitudinous confluence of struggles is still in the process of articulating the affinities and links between respective movements and has yet to cohere entirely as a unified agenda. Demands for climate justice have been around for several years and have mobilised considerable political force as such there is a contest over what it actually means. The argument of this paper is that for climate justice to have meaning as a uniting concept it must avoid recuperation by establishing a coherent theoretical foundation. If our conception of climate justice can sufficiently describe and integrate the multiplicity of demands that are now converging under its use, then we must defend this concept from attempts to would subvert it.

The climate justice agenda may be thought of as a coherent set of strategic objectives which have emancipatory implications. The practical manifestation of climate justice can be found in the solidarity between movements as they work together to achieve their strategic goals as part of a generalised struggle. What follows are some of the key strategic objectives of the climate justice agenda outlined by documents like the KlimaForum declaration and by networks like Climate Justice Action, Climate Justice Now!;

· Prevent catastrophic climatic destabilisation

· Confront the structural causes of emissions

· Rejection of market-orientated and techno-fix false solutions

· Promoting socially just and ecologically sound alternatives

· Democratic ownership and control of economy

· Resource sovereignty (energy, food, water, land etc)

· Leaving fossil fuels in the ground

· Reparations of ecological debt

· Protection of eco-systems eg forests

· End to militarisation and authoritarianism and social control

It is in the diversity of struggles uniting for climate justice that so called “single issue campaigns” are able to find increasing affinity towards a more developed conception of solidarity. This articulation of the increasing interrelatedness of struggle is what marks the maturation of 15 years of alter-globalisation. A greater elucidation of the links in our theoretical understanding of the issues informs, through an evolving praxis, a more integrated vision of global strategies for action.

Articulating antagonism

A key question for this movement is how can we maintain enough common ground and solidarity as the state attempts to split up our uniting struggles? If we are to struggle for transitional demands then we must question how their fulfilment might satisfy certain quarters thereby losing the solidarity of others. In this diverse political pact we see great potential for uniting struggles yet also still huge challenges in developing a mutual articulation of affinity in our antagonism.

The common ground of these movements is broad and within them there is still a discussion about the types of political engagement necessary to achieve the general and specific goals of these respective movements. The debate about how those within this new movement relate to institutional power is still ongoing and it is likely to continue to be a major problem for developing coherent social movement praxis.

The concept of justice itself has different interpretations which are culturally relative ranging from emancipation to judicial power. In the same way climate justice can mean anything from a most radical project for human emancipation to taxing pollution and using the money for building more infrastructure. At this stage it is useful to consider the political forces that render these interpretations. Brand (2009) identifies four approaches to environmental politics which correspond to distinctly different political strategies for contesting the means of social reproduction. These types of strategies are summarised here as;

Business as usual

(Green-Capitalism and ecological modernisation)

Openly coercive

(Neo-imperial land and resource appropriation, Green authoritarianism and Eco-fascism)

Roll back

(Regulation of system, institutional reform, union and civil society power)


(Participatory democracy, worker and community owned, social and ecological revolution)

The emergent climate justice agenda is most properly interpreted as a part of the constellation of emancipatory politics finding itself in antagonism with the other variants of contemporary social reproduction. It is evident all these variants are operating out their various repertoire of strategies in order to contest the political terrain of the climate discourse. It is evident they are all capable of using the climate change imperative to promote their own specific political strategies. Even an emancipatory climate politic seeks to use its climate change solutions as a rational for inaugurating its own vision of social change.

The postpolitical consensus around climate change attempts to conflate the first three of these variants of social reproduction by setting the frame of debate within those terms where the role of the state and corporations is not questioned. Emancipatory strategies are dialectically formed in the confrontation with these and so cannot be tolerated in mainstream discourse. In this way climate justice strategies that promote emancipatory social transformation are marginalised.

The increasing poverty of liberal environmentalism

It is fair to say that Climate justice is for the most part an anti-capitalist project; however there are demands supporting reformist strategies that present themselves alongside the more emancipatory agenda but that would be satisfied with partial reforms. What is at stake, is the extent to which an emancipatory climate justice agenda is able to avoid recuperation by the various forces of the postpolitical consensus. As anti-capitalists who struggle for climate justice how can we claim its definition and maintain its usefulness as a uniting concept given that there are others who would consider a climate justice that could be delivered through dealings with the state and capital? For our emancipatory vision of climate justice not to be conflated with these calls for reform, we must extend the faultlines of our antagonism into the specific demands of what we are fighting for.

NGOs can talk about climate justice to policy makers yet there is not a fundamental antagonism with capitalism. How can we avoid our slogans and rhetoric being co-opted by business, authoritarians and liberal reformists? A good example of this problem at COP15 was the sheer diversity of political sentiments encapsulated by the banner “system change not climate change”, such a broad church is arguably too simplistic to articulate and communicate the multitude of perspectives.

Reformist approaches to tackling emissions support strategies for; strong regulations of corporations, a strengthened UN, “green” jobs and a tax on carbon. For each of these reformist approaches we can envisage alternative strategies that achieve better results without contradicting the rest of our emancipatory vision of climate justice. Addressing these departures is instructive of the challenges inherent in articulating broad political pacts where there are underlying strategic tensions.

Strategies for strong regulation of corporations fail to question: the fundamental crime of private property, the exploitation inherent in the capitalist system or the social value of that activity. Regulation simply serves to sanction this activity making profit under ‘business as usual’ slightly more sustainable. Only through democratising the economy can we achieve the necessary shift in productive relations towards a sustainable future.

The UN is a corrupt institution that is committed to neo-liberalism and neo-imperialism; it serves to promote the interests of hegemonic states and the corporations they serve. From past experience it is inconceivable that the UN could provide a space where the interests of climate justice were put before governments and corporations. We may need to organise an alternative dual power which is capable of adequately responding to the crisis with its own “peoples’ protocol”.

The Green New Deal is a grand project to kick start Capitalism 2.0 and re-legitimise governments as the appropriate managers of the economic, energy and climate crisis. It is the social face of green capitalism and seeks to create a new social contract that has crisis management at the centre of a new political consensus. “Green jobs” are still a form of wage slavery; only through democratisation of the workplace and direct ownership of the concrete value produced by workers can work be useful and socially just, and only when this is embedded within principles of ecological stewardship can work become ecologically sustainable. Such a profound transformation of productive relations must come from workers organising themselves and cannot come from bankrupt politicians.

Finally taxing carbon is a highly problematic strategy with respect to climate justice. It fails to challenge the underlying rational for burning fossil fuels, (often unnecessary activities driven by profit). Taxation is not equitable and so will merely create austerity for the poor while the rich can continue contributing to emissions unhindered. It is also problematic in that as with all taxation it creates an income stream which can be used to back the investments of transnational capital, under the auspices of “mitigation and adaptation”- arguably the new paradigm economic development. The emissions reductions now necessary are so dramatic and structurally far reaching that aggressive taxation is woefully inadequate. What is needed is a planned complete phasing out of fossil fuel exploitation all together; in a way that is swift yet doesn’t entail intolerable austerity for the majority. For such an objective to work it is necessarily linked to a radical change in social relations.

Climate Justice vs. economic optimisation

The science suggests temperature rises be kept below 2C in order to prevent climatic destabilisation indefinitely. In order to achieve this we need to, for the large part, leave fossil fuels in the ground. Consequently an economic system which is dependent on burning fossil fuels on an industrial scale is clearly un-viable. Yet it is evident that elites are continuing to expand the world’s fossil fuel infrastructure in order to maintain growth in profit. Despite the rhetoric from politicians, it is in their view “politically unfeasible” to reform a system based on economic growth in such way that would harm profits.

Many of those in power do desire some form of emissions reduction but the scenarios on the table are divergent from those desired by many of the world’s people. The Stern report made the case for reducing emissions sooner rather than later because it would be cheaper overall than doing nothing. This rational of economic optimisation would merely extend the time before the 2C threshold is reached in order to maximise profit in the medium term. This mitigation strategy has its rational in economic optimisation which is entirely divergent, quantitatively and qualitatively, from a reduction path based on any concept of justice.

Climate justice reduction scenarios put the emphasis on industrialised countries making the deepest cuts and helping the rest of the world adapt to the climate changes which cannot be mitigated; while not leading even more injustices in the process. This reduction scenario would necessarily involve much more radical cuts than one based on economic optimisation.

Following the history of inaction we might rightly welcome any emissions reductions at all, yet it would be unwise to assume that action based on economic optimisation now will make the leap to more effective action later. Even if this could happen any further delay now means it will be much harder to stay below this 2C threshold. Both politically and materially an emissions reductions plan must be based on a sufficient rational of climate justice from the outset, it is inconceivable that anything else can prevent catastrophic climate change.

Anti-capitalist approaches to Climate Justice

The state and the corporate interests it protects are responsible for maintaining the structural causes of emissions. The climate justice project must go beyond the narrow focus on rejecting the takeover of climate solutions by these interests to attacking these interests as the very cause. Put simply, we must smash all capitalism; confronting green capitalism is just one part of that.

Overthrowing capitalism through a revolutionary process is the only way we can actually stop catastrophic climate change and ensure climate justice. This social revolution must also be an ecological revolution otherwise it is impossible to conceive of humans sustaining any quality of life into the long term.

What follows are a number of interrelated approaches uniting anti-capitalist struggles for climate justice. This illustrates that there is definitely enough common ground for movements coming together that we can be confident in confronting politicians and business as usual. The sooner this seismic shift occurs where the social and ecological meet the sooner this urgent revolutionary process can emerge.

Green Anti-capitalism

Capitalism directly generates emissions through; overproduction for overconsumption, the cost externalisation of pollution, the global transportation of goods, the unequal distribution of wealth and growth in unsustainable economic activity generally. Wage slavery and resource consumption may both be thought of as exploitation, this system which creates value through exploitation for short term profit is necessarily destructive. For these reasons environmentalists challenge capitalism as the root cause of climate change but there are of course other reasons to challenge capitalism…

Climate change is one of capitalism’s many symptoms.

Capitalism causes multiple crises which are mutually re-enforcing. The climate crisis is one of a number of immanent convergent crises, including energy, financial, economic, political, food, water crisis.  Significantly capitalism’s addiction to fossil fuels causes specifically; climate change, conflict, militarisation and imperialism. Crises are being used to maintain political dominance, crisis management is the systems raison d’être and must be confronted.


Green capitalism promotes false solutions that create profit but don’t solve the problem. Climate change is used as a rational for more capital accumulation but green capitalism not only fails to solve the problem but squanders investment that might have been useful elsewhere, and give people a sense that something is being done, while at the same time actually exacerbating a whole range of social and ecological problems and even creating new ones.

Anti-green authoritarianism/Eco-fascism

Climate change used as a rational for enhancing social control measures such as the border regime, ID cards, austerity and economic oppression, not to mention surveillance and repression of climate activists.

Social movements and direct democracy

The governments and corporations insist that climate change can only be solved by a technocracy of specialists, scientists and bureaucrats; that solutions will be top down and based on techno-fixes and market mechanisms. In this way capitalism attempts to prevent people from becoming empowered to solve the climate crisis as this would threaten their power.

Social war and dealing with the crisis

The conditions of capitalism and climate change will increasingly exacerbate each other. On the one hand capitalism will prevent people responding adequately to the problems faced, mitigation and adaptation cannot happen properly while capital has a hold on human and natural resources. On the other side of this climate change will magnify the social conflict between rich and poor as life for the majority becomes harder.

Climate Debt

The historical responsibility that the industrialised nations have for causing climate change is an ecological debt the north owes the south. Compensation and reparations can only come around if the north recognises that it has historically exploited the south and is responsible for the climate crisis. Such a revelation cannot come about without the simultaneous alleviation of the current system of political and economic exploitation.

Community and worker solidarity

Huge emitting industries are usually sited near marginalised communities; Environmental justice seeks to empower the resistance of these communities. Climate change is being used as a rational to undermine worker solidarity; Workers Climate Action seeks to put workers and communities at the heart of a just and sustainable transition.

Ways forward

Climate Justice represents a significant development to both the climate debate and the anti-capitalist discourse; here are some of the potential ways forward.

Peoples Global Action

The Climate Justice movement must defend against cooption by “NGOs” and vertical leftist organisations and parties.  What is desperately needed is trust and unity between the movements that are coming together as they manifest solidarity; a useful model for establishing normative approaches to solidarity was achieved with the Peoples’ Global Action encounters. A number of climate movements are in the process of considering, or have recently signed up to, the PGA hallmarks as a way of expressing this newfound solidarity with generalised struggle. While this is useful, it might be that some new form of encounter is needed to articulate these hallmarks with respect to climate justice specifically.


As social movements converge on Bolivia to take part in the World Peoples Conference on Climate Change, Evo Morales’s initiative to respond to what happened in Copenhagen, there are still issues outstanding. There is concern that with all the best intentions of a “new politics”, that sees civil society and government working together; there is a great danger that the crisis of climate politics” (Pusey & Russell 2009) has yet to be resolved as action is still centred around the UN and new commitments to the Kyoto Protocol. The questions below, offered by an open letter from Climate Justice Action Europe to participants in Cochabamba are instructive of a movement trying to learn from the difficulties it found in confronting the post-political climate consensus in Copenhagen.

· Do you think that the UNFCC and the COP process can be effectively
used to bring about climate justice? If so, how?

· Is climate justice possible without moving beyond capitalist relations?

· What are the possibilities and dangers of social movements cooperating with governments and the state?

· What does solidarity mean, and how can we work together more
effectively to build the transnational struggle for climate justice?

· What are your views on the ‘global south’ and ‘global north’ and their
relationships to struggle?

Despite these challenges Cochabamba promises to be a historic encounter where a number of interesting initiatives will be developed including; producing a report analyzing structural and systemic causes of climate change, a Universal Declaration of Mother Earth Rights, a World Peoples Referendum on Climate Change and the establishment of a Climate Justice Tribunal.


Experiences from Europe suggest there is great potential for Anti-Militarist, Anti-fascist, No Borders and Climate Action networks to work together more closely and find new forms of convergence that support general leftist anti-authoritarian struggle. There doesn’t seem to be much of a problem with the capacity for resource mobilisation, the question is more one of finding common points of contestation where collective strategic affinities can be more effectively articulated. The document “What does climate justice mean in Europe?” is a useful discussion paper in terms of exploring this terrain.


Through the attainment of transitional demands we can transform climate politics such that it is “politically unfeasible” for politicians not to make concessions.  As a confrontational climate politics manifests with increasing confidence, the inaction that has so dominated the climate politics of the past must surely give way to the urgency that is desperately needed. It is almost as though the emergence of an emancipatory climate justice agenda is the beginning of a climate politics that is fit for purpose.

There is now no time left to repeat the failed strategies of the past. Maintaining unity is very important yet this must not come at the expense of effective strategic action against capitalist domination. However unless these forms of action are forthcoming then this discussion is largely academic. A revolutionary praxis that includes Climate Justice is desirable but until there are more manifestations it will remain difficult to envisage the viability of such a project in having substantial resonance with people.

In the past the climate movement had to focus on movement building in order to grow. It seems that its development must now be more qualitative than quantitative in order to keep pace with the radicalisation of those who already take part. What is desperately needed is for people to take forward the concept of radical direct action and push the envelope outside of anything that can be mistaken for militant lobbying. There is now a global movement that can manifest a significant amount of material action yet this potential will remain latent until people begin to see what they are doing within the context of collectivised strategies. As this movement coheres further we can better see our actions as part of the bigger picture. What is not needed is just more people telling us we need to act, only by taking personal responsibility to act immediately can we really hope to inspire others.

Climate Justice seems to inform a movement praxis that implies a level of militancy and radicalism few who rhetorically endorse it seem to recognise or act upon. When we talk about climate injustice, we are really talking about the burning of the Amazon, the desertification of sub-Saharan Africa, the collapse of human society around the world, the eventual extinction of all vertebrate life. When we talk about climate injustice we are really talking about planetary ecological genocide perpetrated by the rich against all life on earth. It is of benefit to all life for those of us who burden ourselves with the responsibility of confronting this to reconsider our level of commitment in attacking climate injustice. When urgency is viewed in the context of this confrontation, it no longer leads to paralysis but to a profound immediacy that could just spark the revolution we desire. We have 10 years left at the most, there is now no margin of error, so let’s get on with the hard work implementing strategies for planetary survival. Another world is still possible but only just…

Apocalypse anon

Cochabamba, Bolivia, April 2010

Further reading

What does climate change mean in Europe? – a discussion paper Climate Justice Action

Environmental crisis and the ambiguous postneoliberalising of nature Ulrich Brand Development dialogue no.51

Peoples Declaration from KlimaForum09

The climate crisis or the crisis of climate politics Andre Pusey & Bertie Russell

The crisis of crisis Parts 1& 2 Dysophia Publications

Dealing with distractions – Cop15 Zine

UK Camp for Climate Action political statements

Contours of climate justice Critical current no6

Open letter to from CJA Europe to Cochabamba Climate Justice Action

Are We Anywhere? Carbon, Capital and COP-15Shift magazine issue 5 Pascal Steven

Climate change is not an environmental issue Zine

BETWEEN “tck tck tck” AND “fck fck fck”

In this Essay David Heller and Jeroen Robbe address progressive NGOs engaged in the UNFCCC process and ask them to critically appraise both their relationships to that process as well as to horizontal movements also involved in the struggle for Climate and social Justice.

David Heller works with Friends of the Earth Europe and Friends of the Earth Flanders & Brussels. He has been active in direct action movements for even longer, particularly the anti-nuclear movement in the UK and Belgium. He is writing in a personal capacity.

Jeroen Robbe is writing a master’s thesis on the emerging climate justice movement, in which he has been involved himself for some years now. He took an active role in the Belgian CJA-mobilisation for Copenhagen, and was in Copenhagen as part of the delegation of Young Friends of the Earth Europe.

Prologue: a not so random conversation

Q: “I don’t know these people. I don’t trust them.”

A: “But I’m one of them.”

(As heard during a conversation about CJA, organising the “Reclaim Power!”-action between two Friends of the Earth activists)

Worlds colliding in Brokenhagen

Many worlds collided in Copenhagen: the institutional process of the UNFCCC, where hope for some was replaced by disillusionment as the negotiations went on; the scientific world, where climate experts found themselves dragged into the eye of the climategate storm; the corporate world, that tried to convince us that “Hope” and green capitalism was a replacement for real political action. All of these worlds were prominent in the negotiations, in the media, and in public spaces of Copenhagen during the summit.

And of course there was the world of “civil society”, that gathered en-masse to raise the stakes using a diversity of tactics: lobbying the official negotiators on the inside, organising an alternative “Klimaforum” to talk about the real solutions, and taking to the streets for both symbolic protest and direct action.

In Copenhagen, as with any social struggles, the term “civil society” covers a wide range of positions, not all of which are necessarily complimentary. This tension is played out in many ways and on many levels: the hierarchical and centralised organisational structure  of NGOs vs. the non-hierarchical and decentralised network structure of “horizontalists”; paid and professional staff vs. voluntary and non-professional activists; prioritising the spaces of the official UNFCCC negotiations inside the Bella Center vs. prioritising activities on the streets and in convergence centres ; the instrumental use of demonstrations and protest to support lobbying demands, typified by the conservative GCCA vs. the use of direct action and other forms of resistance to directly confront environmental and social destruction typified by CJA; an openness to work with governments and business to achieve pragmatic goals vs. the rejection of state and capital as the origin of the climate and social crises; “tck tck tck: The World is Ready” vs. “fck fck fck the system”.

Of course this is an over simplistic distinction, and it has never been possible to draw a clear dividing line between these tendencies. The fact is that some of us have worked for years in both horizontal movements, and more or less vertical NGOs. But this is about more than the position of a few individuals. This was not the first time that NGOs and horizontal activist movements, and their different and common roles, aspirations and strategies have met. It will not be the last. As always, moments of respect and collaboration alternated with moments of tension and a lack of mutual understanding. Yet something strange seems to be happening when radical anti-authoritarians start playing with the word “diagonalism” to describe the possibility of reaching out to progressive national governments and other hierarchical structures. And what about the parts of civil society that are moving from a more “vertical” NGO position to work with horizontalists in a way that is not instrumentalising, but looking to build new solidarities and alliances?

A radical inside-outside strategy?

Over the last few years, an increasing number of the more progressive environmental NGOs and social movements have broken away from Climate Action Network International (CAN-I), the mainstream NGO coalition working on climate issues. This is a rather ironic name, as it has been said that Climate Action Network International is not International, not really a network, not into action, and more interested in defending business as usual than protecting the climate, let alone people or the planet more generally. Dissatisfaction with the uncritical analysis of CAN-I, and the massive under representation of southern voices, led to the establishment of the more progressive Climate Justice Now! network in Bali at the end of 2007, during COP13.

CJN! has been successful in rephrasing what’s really at stake within the climate debate. Putting an emphasis on global and social justice calls into the question the dominant framing of the climate debate as scientific, technical and distant. It implies that we must change systems of power and privilege, and that some “false solutions” might not only actually increase climate change, but that they could be perpetuating other social or environmental problems. This is not just a call to states and corporations, but also a challenge to civil society groups to criticise their past efforts and search for new ways of working. Addressing this critique is uncomfortable for those NGOs who are used to working within “the system” that needs to be fundamentally changed.

When talking about the differences between horizontal social movements and NGOs, Friends of the Earth International (FoEI) finds itself caught somewhere in the middle. FoEI is a very diverse federation of 77 national member groups with different views, and backgrounds. The International federation is one of the most active members of CJN!, and has alliances with La Via Campesina and World March for Women. FoEI withdrew from CAN-I following a vote amongst member groups, however, many of the autonomous national Friends of the Earth groups remain active in CAN at a national or European level. Internally there are tensions too, as FoEI keeps one foot in the world of NGOs, with its expertise and highly skilled and acknowledged experts working inside the UNFCCC structure, and the other foot planted somewhere in the grassroots movement, with our strong local ties and a commitment to organising from the local level, on all continents. Some groups, and individuals, prefer the first road of negotiation and pressure from the inside. Others have an affinity for the more antagonistic and community-based work on the outside.

In the run-up to Copenhagen, FoEI attempted to develop a structure that would allow both tendencies within the federation to support and reinforce each other. This “inside-outside” strategy was based around translating expert knowledge on the progress inside the negotiations to develop actions in Copenhagen and around the world; and bringing the voices of people from all continents (including communities on the front-line of struggles against climate change and false solutions) to Copenhagen in order to confront decision makers. The activities on the streets, in the Klimaforum, online, and in the Bella Center were very diverse, but united under the same commitment to “demand climate justice”.

While the tension between NGO and movement structure can be creative, it is not always an easy position to negotiate. A delegation member of FoEI, coming from the South explained the difficulties that the federation was facing as the growing pains of a network which no longer fits in the body of a NGO, but is not yet a movement. More conservative positions, reminding us of our status as NGO, are confronted with elements that want to move faster and try to merge within a broader and more radical movement. For many of us involved in the planning for Copenhagen, it felt like we were constantly stuck between two ways of working in which we were not entirely comfortable. Copenhagen itself forced us to make decisions as to which way we would jump…

December 16th, FoEI: staying out, walking out and locked out

Before and during the Copenhagen summit, an interesting dialogue developed between CJA and FoEI. Despite some initial obstacles and tensions the dialogue was largely constructive. Many of the discussions during the COP itself revolved around FoEI endorsement of, and participation in, the Reclaim Power action. A FoEI delegation meeting held 4 days before the action attempted to find a common position. A few of us raised our voices in favour of joining the action. The fact that La Via Campesina (strategic allies of FoEI) seemed willing to participate was also a strong argument in favour of participation. Yet many people questioned whether this was wise. Concerns were raised by the Danish FoE member group (NOAH) about the possibility of violence on the action, and many of the more lobby-focused groups spoke about the risk of losing accreditation for subsequent UNFCCC meetings.

Despite many meetings between CJA and FoEI, there was also no clarity about the type of disruption actions that would take place inside the Bella Center. A FoE delegate from latin America said: “We are not afraid of violence on the action. We lived and struggled under military dictatorship for years, so don’t think we are cowards. But how can we go into this action if we don’t know what will happen. If it is my birthday and my comrades organise a surprise for me, that is nice. But I don’t want my comrades to start surprising me on an action, that is dangerous.”

Whether this lack of clarity was due to unwillingness on the part of people within CJA and CJN! to reveal existing plans, or because the plans had not yet been made, or simply because the structure proposed for the action meant that no-one was able to say definitively what those plans would be is rather unclear. In any case, it highlighted the difficulty of bringing a relatively centralised NGO structure, which is more familiar with forming coalitions based on open dialogue with partners, into an action made up of autonomous affinity groups.

The final decision, made by the Executive Committee of FoEI, was a compromise that would allow member groups to join the outside part of the action, provided no Friends of the Earth branded material was used; while the inside action would be off limits for anyone accredited with a FoEI badge. On the day itself, many of the Young Friends of the Earth (YFoE) activists and a few representatives from other FoE groups took part in the outside part of the action, joining the march to the Bella Center and joining the People’s Assembly alongside many thousands of others.

It was early in the morning when we took off for the meeting point of the blue bloc, that was going to start a militant but non-violent demo, heading towards the Bella Center. Disillusioned by the lack of progress on the inside, some of the young members of the FoEI delegation were attracted by the strength of the message of the “Reclaim Power” action. The name says it all. But it was not just the name, it wasn’t just about the idea of reclaiming power, it was the whole concept: starting from the act of civil disobedience, which only sounded right after so much of governmental unwill, to the idea of overcoming the fences that divided the masses outside from the officials inside. These dividing fences might as well symbolise other ‘invisible’ fences: the fences between the Global North, whose pollution is the main contributor to climate change, and the Global South, that is the least contributing, but the hardest affected by this climate crisis. And what about the fences of ‘the unknown’, that represented the lack of trust and understanding between the two positions, horizontal and vertical, that we both represented in that moment.

Some of us had gone all the way to try and convince our fellow FoEI delegates of the importance of taking part in this action, ultimately in vein. But our relentless efforts did have some good results: we kicked off a discussion that will continue far beyond Copenhagen. Nevertheless, we were determined right from the start to respect any decision taken by the FoEI delegation. And so we did. Remaining faithful to what we believed was the right thing to do and respecting the decisions of FoEI at the same time, we formed our own affinity group, without any FoE branding. Determined to do the most appropriate “civil” act we could think of in this circumstance: being disobedient.

The evening before we sat together for a small action training. We knew each other’s hopes, expectations and fears. We talked through different possible scenarios and found “buddies” for support during the action. By the morning we were ready for action, as we were welcomed by the masses who already gathered outside the metro station. It was an incredibly strong and empowering feeling. Being there with all these other people. Prepared to take action, prepared to face the police. Prepared to face the fences that were dividing inside from outside. The blue bloc proved to be disciplined and committed to its promise of non-violence. Crucial information, as well as inspiration and encouragement were shouted towards the crowd from the sound truck. When we came close to the Bella Center, the police suddenly announced that the legal demonstration would become illegal when we crossed a certain line. But for us there was no way back at that moment. A line had been crossed well before. And we weren’t the ones that had crossed it.

We too shouted “push!” at the Bella Center, joining in an act for which others are being persecuted as we speak. And we are proud to have shouted along them. To have pushed along them. Pushed, for climate justice. And no, we didn’t succeed in tearing down the fences that divided us, nor did we succeed in bringing the real solutions to the inside that day. But something did happen that day. Most of us did not stay long enough to join the peoples assembly. But we were glad to have heard that it did take place in the end. How many people stuck together that day and held strong? Enough to convince us of one thing to be sure: some fences might be hard to tear down today or tomorrow, but others are close to be torn down already today. We felt personally how differences between a horizontal and vertical approach can be bridged by drawing diagonals. And we feel eager to explore where this could lead us in the time to come.

A number of FoEI delegates, who had been accredited with other organisations, joined the walk out of the Bella Center, coming face to face with the riot police as they attempted to join the People’s Assembly.

A larger group of FoEI delegates had planned to enter the Bella Center and carry on working more or less as usual on the “inside”. Some were planning to continue their work of lobbying, and media work. A number of people from the actions group planned to use their access to the Bella Center to project images from the Reclaim Power action, and other examples of resistance to climate change and false solutions from around the world, onto the walls of the central atrium of the Bella Center to show delegates and officials what was going on outside. As it happened, all FoEI delegates found themselves locked out of the Bella Center for the day. The reasons for the lockout were unclear, but were almost certainly related to a number of disruptive actions that we had organised inside the Bella Center over the previous days, and the possible FoEI support for the Reclaim Power action. Even FoEI delegates with the “secondary badges” which should have allowed access when the numbers of delegates were restricted towards the end of the conference were denied access to the conference centre.

An occupation of the entrance hall allowed us to raise the issue of the silencing of dissent within the COP in the media- criticising not only the exclusion of the FoEI delegation and our allies from La Via Campesina and ASEED, but also the exclusion of the voices of the countries that are already facing the impacts of climate change and false solutions by the back-room deals being done by the Danish hosts of the meeting. Maybe we should have been braver at that moment, and changed our decision not to join the People’s Assembly. But having chosen an “inside-outside” strategy, FoEI was unwilling to simply walk away from the “inside” track, even symbolically as the Reclaim Power action took place and allies walked out.

After several hours of stand-off, and a confrontation with the head of the UNFCCC, FoEI was offered a small number of passes to enter the Bella Center for the day. Months of sitting on the fence between the “inside” and “outside” came to a head, and the whole delegation walked out, refusing the piecemeal representation inside the conference while business and more conservative NGOs continued to enjoy their full privileges.

In the debriefing meeting held that afternoon, it became clear that this was a turning point for many people in terms of belief in the UNFCCC, and the lockout and walk-out marked another milestone on the journey towards some kind of “diagonalism”. Rather than seeing the failure to unequivocally endorse the Reclaim Power as a missed opportunity, we should see this as a first step in an interesting process of finding common ground between different groups who recognise that their struggles are interconnected in many ways.

In fact there were many examples of cooperation between FoEI and CJA. There was a large and vocal FoEI contingent on the CJA agriculture action day, and towards the end of the conference, FoEI joined the solidarity demonstration for climate prisoners, and CJA speakers appeared at FoEI organised panel discussions in the Klimaforum.

Lessons for the future

Many fellow NGO activist we’ve encountered since Copenhagen seem to feel disempowered by the outcome. Some of us, however, knew that the probable result of Copenhagen was no deal or a very bad one. We were not hoping for anything good from the official negotiations. During our period in Copenhagen saw something else. Something which has made us hopeful, despite all the negative analysis. We saw, despite the police repression, beside the flawed media coverage and even besides the official “show”, a new movement having its coming out party.

After the failure of institutional processes in Copenhagen, it is clear that the way forward is in the new emerging social movement which is coalescing around the rather abstract notion of Climate Justice. Yet, if we are going to ensure that “climate justice” is a tool for social change, we need to make the term more than an empty slogan. One way of doing this is to work on defining the term, drawing links between climate justice and other issues, in order to forge alliances with existing groups or networks. The discussion text on Climate Justice in Europe produced by CJA (and a similar text being produced by Friends of the Earth Europe) is a valuable step in this direction. This is especially important as the term is being co-opted by business, government and conservative NGOs. But we also need to make sure that the term means something to our everyday lives, and the struggles we are engaged with. And that requires doing climate justice as much as defining climate justice.

And here it’s important to look at what each part of this movement (the NGOs and the more horizontal movements) could contribute to a new “diagonal” space for achieving climate justice.

The horizontal direct action networks are flexible, creative, able to speak a clear political language, to involve everyone, to create prefiguratively the alternatives they speak of and to empower people to take power into their own hands. The CJA philosophy is appealing, not just because it’s rebellious, provocative and straightforward, but also because it dares to call the problem by its true name. And that’s not climate change, which is only a symptom. That’s capitalism. If CJA is able to maintain its open process, and avoid isolating itself inside the sub-cultural activist ghetto, it will attract even more interested people to the movement.

NGOs, including Friends of the Earth International, can also bring something to the movement. This may be most evident while we continue to engage with the UNFCCC and other institutional spaces. If we are going to limit the damage done by the international climate regime then the experience and expertise of groups working inside the talks is vital. Without having a voice inside the negotiations, the movement will not be able to challenge the worst excesses of corporate power and dodgy dealings by rich and powerful nations. Without eyes and ears on the inside, the movement will rely on mass media and conservative NGOs for news and analysis.

Crucially, however, we also need to start finding each other outside of the spaces created by, or in the margins of, the UNFCCC process. The “summit hopping” days of the anti-globalisation movement should not return with a mass exodus to the winter sun of Cancún. But that doesn’t mean retreating to purely local struggles where climate justice ends at the borders of our town or at the fence of our organic allotment. The continuity and stability of international contacts within a federation like FoEI can also open up spaces for international dialogue outside the spaces of the UNFCCC negotiations.

There are already a number of exciting and important links that have been made between Northern and Southern FoEI groups. FoE Australia and FoE Indonesia have joined forces to oppose the offsetting provisions in Australian climate legislation, which would allow Australia to carry on polluting at the same rate as before, while funding projects in Indonesia that will cause social and environmental problems. FoE Nigeria has cooperated with FoE groups in the UK and Netherlands to mount legal challenge against British-Dutch oil giant Shell over its gas flaring and other environmental and human rights abuses in Nigeria. The FoE Latin American region has worked on many common international projects in support of The Movement of the Victims and Peoples Affected by Climate Change (MOVIAC). Rooted in local struggles, and informed by an agenda of resisting, mobilising and transforming, these projects have shown a way for us to do international climate justice work that is a million miles away from lobbying or demonstrating at the UNFCCC.

Bringing networks in the North who are committed to the use of direct action into the mix, and making links with the no borders movement, radical anti-militarists, and other horizontal movements would make these struggles, and the movement as a whole, much more powerful.

But if progressive NGOs are to really engage with the climate justice movement, we need to stop being so hung up on protecting our official status with the UNFCCC. We need to end the self-censorship which happens when we put the risks to brand identity and funding before speaking truth to power. And we could do a lot worse than climbing down from our ivory towers to enjoy the more precarious slopes of diagonalism.

SPRING (after COP-15)

As part of our ongoing series of reflections on Cop 15, Mel Evans critically reflects on her time mobilizing for and engaging in Cop 15. She points towards the possibility of new avenues of struggle, and new alliances developing in the wake of Copenhagen.

Mel Evans is part of Platform (, participates in UK Climate Camp, and is currently interviewing women involved in resistance in the occupied Palestinian territories.

SPRING (after COP-15)

Three months on from the COP-15 mobilisations at Copenhagen, I’m grateful that Notes from Below left this much time for us all to draw our thoughts together.

That was a lot of build-up for two weeks of life on earth passing like any other.  Amidst the race to put out fresh news-bits, final verdicts, surmising opinion pieces I heard again and again that ‘people have made their mind up about what happened’.  That is how we create meaning; we gather information, look at it, decide what we see and form a story from it to tell ourselves, and each other.  I just didn’t know we were doing this to so tight a deadline.

I decided to step back.  I wanted to lounge in the limbo where stories are not yet history, and look at what happened carefully.  Gather a little bit more information.  Spend a little bit more time seeing it, listening to different voices.  I suppose I wanted to try and learn as I went.  I didn’t want to join the hustle to package up a story that could shape some history that only I wanted to take forward into the future.  But instead let my story emerge, as my truth rather than supposing it on everybody else’s.  I’m not denying material reality or Ed Miliband’s slack pyjamas in this, just getting a feel for the meaning of events.

What follows below is a collection of my responses and reflections, as a twenty-something white woman from the UK who was involved in mobilising for the COP-15 protests, commenting on the impact and implication of COP-15 on UK climate activism.

In doing this, I found Stuart Hall’s movement analysis in Media Power and Class Power particularly useful:

“Yes there are breakthroughs and when they occur, they are real and important.  Because we are stuck with an over-monolithic account of how things work, we are driven in our sectarian and ultra-leftist way to talk as if NOTHING matters or makes any difference except the one, final Big Breakthrough, one which seldom comes, but meanwhile protects our revolutionary rectitude. It is much more difficult to engage in the back breaking job of pushing and supporting a whole range of openings, while at the same time criticizing their weakness and limitations.”

WONDER (a couple of choice moments of)

1. Evening Assemblies 1 and 2

There was almost nervousness in the air.   Or maybe it was just the extreme cold, 300 or so people huddled in a loose arc, most of us fresh off the buses from Germany, Turkey, France, Spain, Italy, Ireland, Russia, UK, US, China, Japan and of course Denmark.  Translators poised, the several hundred bleary but bright daggers of eyes hit the handful of facilitators who bounce from cultural diversity in meeting style to progressive listing, in which the order of speakers fights oppression.  As soon as action planning begins groups warm up and invigorate each other.  It’s a diverse group meeting without forming as such – climate justice activists from South and North, some autonomous, some from organisations and groups of very different sizes, coming together as a new direction in movement.

2. Reclaim Power planning session no. 1 with CJN and the Climate Caravan, who arrived the day before from WTO talks in Geneva.

It’s another large cold graffiti-decorated could-be sports hall.  This time it is HOT inside though.  Everyone in the room is holding their hearts out in their hands for words of wisdom to be inscribed upon them.  Seven women, indigenous from regions now known as Guatemala, Mexico, Columbia, the Phillipines speak and break through all the bullshit of Hopenhagen in the city, politicians spin from the Bella centre, consumerist streets back home, and centuries of ongoing colonialism.  Here together, we commune in our anger.  We enthuse about the Peoples’ Assembly being planned for the Reclaim Power action.  And the struggle beyond CPH feels tangible, perhaps together we feel more ready to fight, to defend our humanity.

BREAKTHROUGHS (tangible, lasting)

At the beginning of 2009 ‘climate justice’ was new vernacular to parts of the UK network for climate action.  Now it’s informing the activities of a spread of local and national groups, who are building on links made throughout the past year’s mobilising to take action on the root causes of climate change as part of a struggle for social justice.  The journey to Copenhagen provided an opportunity for people who came to direct action activism via anti-war marches and urgent-and-purely-scientific climate change to look at climate change politics within a broader historical frame of racism and imperialism, domination and exploitation.  A speaker at the Blackheath camp COP-15 plenary put it clearly: “You must understand that you are not starting, but joining a struggle, against colonialism, that has been going for hundreds of years”.  This perspective was not new, but reflection on it became more widespread, and has led to desires for strengthening of both local grassroots bases and of international solidarity and support.  Since Copenhagen more coal sites have been squatted across the UK, numerous tar sands actions have been organised, migrant support in the UK and at the Calais-Dover border has grown, various anti-airport expansion campaigns have linked with communities and trade unions, a team of people from UK networks have gone to participate in the Mother Earth Rights conference in Cochabamba, Columbia…a lot is happening, in different ways and directions, inspiring and learning from each other.

The COP-15 mobilisations also saw new allegiances, named in this collection of responses as an ‘emergent diagonalism’.  Ngos and revolutionaries were taking baton-hits and twittering about it alongside each other.  Traditionally the one knows their shit, the other knows their gut, the one accepts reforms, the other pushes for deeper change. The idea to have the two straining to reach each other across the UN military divide still inspires me – autonomous black block alongside Indigenous Peoples next to middle class white twenty-somethings moving steadily toward campaign officers ditching their Blackberrys, all intent on setting up a Peoples’ Assembly which could hear peoples’ response to climate change rather than corporations’ projects.  The groups weren’t so two-sided, but challenges were respectively set: to both drag the insiders away from corporate NGOs that have legitimised the COP process, while at the same time persuading some social justice activists that climate change is not just an environmental issue; that climate impacts will drastically undercut basic human rights along fault-lines of gender, race and class; that fighting for the rights of the earth and the people are one and the same.  Across interlocking spectrums, various groups take different actions in different moments and contexts.  It is important to recognise that there is no silver bullet – we should value difference in movement as in ourselves, in order to find the million seeds of resistance needed to open space for social justice.

LIMITATIONS (ways to move on)

When I arrived in Copenhagen I found it difficult to navigate the various peoples’ spaces.  I felt there was a lack of a big central space for a lot of different people to make use of for talking, planning and relaxing.  One thing I really valued in my initial experiences as part of UK climate camp was the job-shop – anyone can walk in and usefully participate.  Chopping vegetables was not only a time to sustain the camp, but also a time to talk about social politics, to plan an action with a close comrade, to meet new people and have discussions in the neighbourhood.  At Copenhagen there was a sharp separation between the people providing the all-valuable sustenance from sleeping space to three meals a day to information, and the people involved in mobilising and organising actions.  This dichotomy mirrors the male-female, mind-body binaries of old that I thought our movements were trying to move on from.  It is this dichotomy that capitalism uses – the dominion of (sic) man over nature – to privatise the planet from land to people to particles of air.  I would like to see more of the integration of sustenance and social politics, of vegetables and discussions in future mobilisations, for the full participation of all involved.

Along similar lines of misrepresentation, the ‘Climate change is not just an environmental issue’ zine failed to incorporate a thorough anarchafeminist analysis.  It’s section ‘Feminism and climate change’ looked at climate impacts on women portraying the ‘worst victims’.  I would have preferred to read a stirring account of patriarchy and white supremacy as integral structural components of global capitalism.  Without seeing these power structures as a key site of struggle, we will fail to take actions that can alter social injustice.  Capitalist domination of peoples and lands rests on the brutalising, intertwined logics of patriarchy and white supremacy; there are numerous stories of resistance from around the world that see this full picture.

My final query for us comes from the afternoon after Reclaim Power.  UK activists had built our narrative from gloriously tearing down fences at Ratcliffe-on-Soar coal power station, and amongst ourselves and others I felt acute disappointment that we hadn’t significantly invaded one of the most high-security locations on the planet on that particular day.  I sensed this both in somewhat defensive claims that ‘everybody had an amazing time’; in open expressions of feeling betrayed by the full body of the march not pushing towards the fences; and in claims that the Danish style of organising was fundamentally flawed.  Overall, I personally had a shit day, having gotten pepper sprayed directly into both eyes early on.  But I still thought the idea, and our collective intention, was wonder-ful.  I reflected on where we were placing value with paying so much attention to breaking a boundary, as I had also been keen to do, seeing it as a symbol of capitalist enclosures from time immemorial.  If we had placed more value on creating our own space, as many did that day, perhaps we would have revelled longer and fuller in coming together from around the world to struggle alongside each other and make spaces of our own.

INTO THE NEW (resilience)

In the face of the desolate domination of our world, it can be vital to celebrate our breakthroughs, as well as taking the time to carefully reflect on the limitations of our actions.  Within the coming years’ activities and strategies I hope we can both constructively build on each other’s ideas, with their limitations, and accept supportively the different ways we all choose to try and bring about change.  This requires a certain kind of resilience – to see the good and the bad in something at the same time, to hold close both anger and hope, to value breakthroughs without arrogantly blinding ourselves to their limitations, and equally to see limitations without cynically discounting genuine radical potential.