avatar
Gearing up for Copenhagen: The Necessity for Direct Action


The world’s leading politicians will meet between the 7th and 18th of December  for the next UN climate summit.  All indications are that the talks will result in insufficient measures to tackle global climate change, including more legislation along the lines of the "cap-and-trade" schemes now being implemented around the world.  Meanwhile, activists are organizing to fight back on an unprecedented scale.

Climate activists join economic protestors organising around the G20 meeting in London.

The problem

Brian Tokar, director of the Vermont-based Institute for Social Ecology, claims that "reductions in greenhouse gas emissions on the order of 20-40% are needed in the next decade or so to prevent a slide toward uncontrollable global climate chaos" 
1.  In the book "Heat" 2, George Monbiot sets the target of a 90% cut in countries like the UK by 2030, if global temperature increases of 2 °C  are to be avoided.  The consequences of failing to meet this target are, without doubt, far beyond any human costs of making the cuts. A 2.1 °C rise in temperature will expose between 2.3 and 3 billion people to risk of water shortage 3. A 2.3 degree increase will expose a further 180-230 million people to the danger of malaria 2. The number of people at risk from hunger is expected to increase by around 50 million by 2050 as a result of climate change 4.   A sea level rise of 1 metre or more, a likely outcome this century at present emission levels, will wipe out one third of the world’s croplands 5,in particular submerging 21% of Bangladesh and forcing 15 million people from their homes there 2.   A 2 degree warming would also expose a further 125 million to risk of salt-water flooding, and would mean the destruction of the water supplies of cites like Shanghai,  Jarkarta, Mumbai and Buenos Aires by sea water, probably leading to evacuation in some cases 2. Most worryingly, over 2 degrees of warming brings with it the prospect of runaway climate change due to positive feedback affects 6.  All rises in temperature increase the chances of the submersion of London, New York and Tokyo by the melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet 2. The governments of the world powers are literally gambling with the future of civilisation.
 
     This picture is supported by mounting piles of evidence and strong agreement amongst climate scientists.  In an article in Science, 928 papers on the subject of human-cased global warming were surveyed by database searching.  The result was that "none of the papers disagreed with the consensus position" on the issue 7.  Even in the face of this extraordinary level of scientific consensus, sections of the mass media still peddle the idea of controversy 8, and governments refuse to act decisively.
Cap-and-trade schemes are held up by many governments as a solution to the crisis. However, cap-and-trade legislation in the U.S., for example, will account for a measly 1% emissions reduction by 2020, according to the Center for Biological Diversity 1. The reasons for this failure have been known for some time 1910 . One is the "carbon credit loophole".  Supposedly , tradable credits represent cuts to emissions that have occurred, and companies can buy these credits to "offset" to their own pollution. However, many credits are issued when emissions would have been reduced anyway, even without the issuance of the valuable credit. This allows corporations to pollute more, simply by buying a meaningless credit on the cheap. "A German study of UN-approved carbon offset projects in 2007 reported that as many as 86 percent of offset-funded projects would likely have been carried out anyway" according to Tokar 1.
 
     What force besides evidence and public opinion could be acting here?  To find the culprit, we only have to identify those with the means and motive, and then examine the evidence against them.   Clearly, oil companies and other corporations stand to loose out as a result of the necessary measures on climate change.  Some might doubt the power, or will, of corporations to confuse cut-and-dry issues in the name of profit. To settle this, we need only remember the debate on the health risks of smoking and passive smoking. Even with piles of scientific evidence in hand, the truth took decades to win out against a concerted campaign waged by corporate "think-tanks", fake grassroots campaigns, and massive political contributions, all funded by the tobacco industry 1112. Far from a conspiracy theory, this was a predictable, run-of-the-mill case of profit-seeking behaviour in a market economy.
 
     And that was all pressure from a relatively minor part of the corporate world.  In the case of climate change, the opposition comes from the largest industries on the planet. The Global Climate Coalition is a consortium that includes ExxonMobil (the world’s most profitable corporation), Ford, Texaco, BP, and other oil and automotive giants. In their own words (according to a leaked memo), this group sets out to influence the public perception of climate change science and "reposition global warming as theory rather than fact" — not to gather data and test explanations as a scientist would 13Greenpeace reports that Exxon alone has spent over 22 million dollars funding climate-sceptical organisations since 1998 14.  Their tactics range from outright denial and claims of conspiracy, to nitpicking distortion of the science 15. The Competitive Enterprise Institute is also well funded by Exxon and others, to the extent that they are able to bring legal suits against the US government to limit climate change legislation there 14.
 
     Those who will meet in Copenhagen have been lobbied hard by these powerful interests; many owe their election and party funding to them.
 
The solutions
 
What would we choose to replace this situation with? Urgent action is needed in the shorter term. Cap and trade schemes must be replaced with a simple, blanket tax on greenhouse gas emissions, with the level set to reduce emissions by 40% in a decade. The target of 90% cuts by 2030 should be taken seriously. Suggestions made by Monbiot 2, and others, could make the cuts possible with minimal pain for living standards.
 
     These should be some of our demands as we approach Copenhagen. But, as with so many other types of legislation designed to protect the majority from the profiteering minority, such reforms are fragile. The problem is systemic. For one thing, the monetary system relies on the exploitation of ever more natural resources, whatever the social cost (as explained in accessible style on the radio show "wizards of money" 16).   Also, the social or environmental costs of production are ignored by the market system in the fight for profit. Costs of this sort, that are not borne by the buyer or seller of a product but rather by other people, do not affect market prices. These innocuously named "market externalities" are rife, from fly-tipping all the way up to the destruction of civilisation by climate change. While there are powerful corporations with strong incentives to degrade environmental protections, the climate will not be safe. The only way to win a lasting victory is to replace this chaotic system of competition with a democratic system of equitable co-operation: a system like participatory economics17. In his book "economic justice and democracy: from competition to cooperation", Robin Hahnel spells out how this alternative system could support a sustainable and efficient economy within a stable climate. The fight for reforms should not eclipse, but should only be seen as part of, the struggle for this goal.
 
Our actions in December
 
Having said a word on goals, how do we act this December as part of the larger effort to bring these goals about? The reason that the world’s prime ministers and presidents refuse to act is surely not from a lack of knowledge. It is not because they are waiting for the opinions of ordinary people to be revealed. On this issue, as on others, the idea that they are working mainly in the interests of the typical voter is a threadbare sham. Quite simply, they know which side their bread is buttered. No amount of evidence or appeals to reason will change that.
 
     Compare our experiences in fighting to prevent war in Iraq. Over a million people took to the streets of London "to tell Tony what we think of his war". This had many positive effects in media coverage and in other areas.  But those who hoped that a massive display of public sentiment would sway Blair were quickly disappointed. Downhearted by this, and seeing no way to impact the situation, few of that million became further involved in anti-war work. Protests after the start of the war dwindled.
In contrast to the anti-war protests, the Climate Camps have been smaller, but more sustained. The group has managed to generate local interest and media coverage, and provides a space for activists to swap knowledge and form networks. A policy of direct action has been advocated by many in the camps, making them more than a talking-shop. But popular mobilization, on the massive scale provoked by the attack on Iraq, has been difficult to muster.
 
     But if the point is not to simply to "tell Brown what we think", what is it? Right now, politicians are beholden to organisations explicitly founded on one overriding principle: profit. History and common sense tell us that reducing and threatening that profit is the best way to wring reforms from the system. The necessity for direct action stems from this. We must directly increase the costs of continuing environmental destruction, if we mean to win change.
 
     This time, we must keep concerned people involved in a growing movement. Activists must make sure that no protestors are under any illusions on how to win change. The message should be loud and clear at protests, in print and spoken word: victory will involve more than telling leaders what we think. It is a good idea to form alliances with sympathetic groups in the labour movement and other activist currents. It will also pay to reach out to people that do not identify with stereotypical activist culture, without in-group jargon or judgemental attitudes, giving an attractive picture of how to get involved to newcomers. Similar methods could be used to build sympathy and support for direct action. As well as all this, experienced activists must step up their own efforts at this crucial time.
 
     What does all this mean for December? All indications are that it means civil disobedience, and on a scale previously unseen in environmental campaigns. Climate Justice Action, a massive new network of radical environmental groups, has called for building occupations in Copenhagen, and their message has been endorsed by the Climate Camp. Hopefully, people will organize for such actions wherever they are, simultaneously to the conference, especially on the "day of action", Wednesday, December 16th. Groups are already organizing on their own, and in concert with the CJA and the Camp. If the direct action message has got though, they will come up with their own diverse, creative and unexpected ways to make the corporations and governments sit up and start worrying.
 
     Though the effect of each day of protest may not be visible, protest, organizing and direct actions represent a real influence on policy. Most crucial is the threat of increasing numbers, dedication and militancy. The powers that be will compromise if they see a major challenge to their power looming, even on the big issues. This message is borne out by previous struggles over working conditions, civil rights issues, and many other cases.
Let us join with the CJA and other organisations. Let us donate some time, and money, to the planning of protests. Let us advocate for direct actions in these groups. This December, let a negative column be added to the corporate ledgers.
 
Get involved at
http://www.climatecamp.org.uk/actions/copenhagen-2009 . For a group involved in environmental campaigns and also working towards a participatory society in Britain, see
 
 
[1] Brian Tokar, "Toward Climate Justice: Can we turn back from the abyss?" Z Magazine, September 2009,
[2] George Monbiot, "Heat: how to stop the planet from burning", South End Press 2008.
[3] Martin Perry et al., "Millions at risk: defining critical clmate change Threats and targets", Global Environmental Change, Vol. 11 (2001), pp. 181-3. On current projections, the IPCC reports that the number of people living in "water stressed" countries will rise by 3.3 billion as soon as 2025 :
[4] Martin Parry, UK meteorological office, quoted in [5].
[5] "The no-nonsense guide to climate change", Dinyar Godrej, New Internationalist Press.
[7] Naomi Oreskes, “The scientific consensus on climate change”,
Science, Vol 306 (3 December 204), p.1686
[8] George Monbiot, "This is a dazzling debunking of climate change science. It is also wildly wrong", the Guardian, 14th of November 2006,
[9] Oscar Reyes, "Carbon Trading: a brief introduction",
[10] Vandana Shiva, "The Injustice of Carbon Offsets",
http://www.zcomm.org/znet/viewArticle/22655
[11] See e.g. Helen Merl, memo to William I. Campbell, 17 Febuary 1993, Bates no. 2021183916-2021183925,
and other documents on this site. This memo is discussed in reference [2], chapter 2, where direct links to the climate change denial lobby are discussed.
[12] Kirsten B. Mitchell, "Tobacco Spends Over $100,000 Daily for Lobbying in DC"
[13] Memo quoted in Mark Hertsgaard, "While Washington Slept." Vanity Fair, May 2006.
[14] Exxon Secrets, a Greenpeace information project,
[15] See e.g. Indur Goklany , "How the IPCC Portrayed a Net Positive Impact of Climate Change as a Negative", for the Cato Institute,
One of the hard-hitting accusations is that, in an IPCC report, "Figure SPM.2 misidentifies one of the sources as Table 3.3 of the IPCC WG 2 report. It ought to be Table 3.2." Thus the world conspiracy is revealed. The rest of the article wrestles with the wording of the IPCC report, which is supposedly attempting to mislead the public, for unspecified reasons. For example, the claim of increased water stress is denied on the grounds that one table does not factor in the number of people for whom water stress decreases (even though the – still  massive – total figure is stated in black and white elsewhere by the IPCC, and is consistent with other figures [3]) . Other Cato reports claim to balance costs and benefits of climate legislation, deciding whether regulation is beneficial by estimating its likely effects on GDP (based on conservative climate change estimates, of course). When one stops to wonder what impact the death of a Bangladeshi would have on this measure, compared to, say, the failure to produce a car in Britain, the idea is revealed not just as mistaken, but as a morally abhorrent scam.
[16] Wizards of Money, part 7, "Money cycle, water cycle":
[17] Michael Albert, "Parecon: life after capitalism", Verso Press; see also

Leave a comment