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.