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 Historical references as well as the current usage of the term will be outlined insofar as an understanding of the hegemonial conflicts can be based on them.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” (http://www.akweb.de/ak_s/ak549/30.htm) 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: http://www.buko.info/).

[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. http://www.ejnet.org/ej/index.html/).

[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.//www.corpwatch.org/article.php?id=997)

[viii] Cf. http://www.corpwatch.org/article.php?id=979

[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. http://www.indiaresource.org/issues/energycc/2003/baliprinciples.html#

[xi] Cf. http://www.durbanclimatejustice.org/

[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. www.climatnetwork.org/about-can/index_html/

[xiii] Cf. http://www.climate-justice-now.org/

[xiv] Cf. http://www.climate-justice-action.org/

[xv] Cf. http://www.timeforclimatejustice.org/

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