‘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 post–politics 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, de–politicisation, 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 neo–liberalism out of its current crisis of legitimation. Viewing the climate crisis through the lens of the dominant political ideology of hegemonic neo–liberalism, 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.
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 post–political 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 post–political 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 post–political consensus and find the emerging re–politicisation 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.
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)
(Neo-imperial land and resource appropriation, Green authoritarianism and Eco-fascism)
(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 post–political 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 post–political 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 fault–lines 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 People’s 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…
Cochabamba, Bolivia, April 2010
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-15 – Shift magazine issue 5 Pascal Steven
Climate change is not an environmental issue Zine