Towards radical critique and action on climate change politics and Copenhagen 2009

Towards radical critique and action on climate change politics and Copenhagen 2009

This September activists from 21 countries came together in Copenhagen to plan for direct action during the 2009 UN Climate talks that will be held in that city. Activists in North America are beginning to organize for what will be a historic day. To read the call to action go to click here. The following essay explores the many reasons we should be skeptical of the UN Climate talks. Hopefully this essay from the UK will spark some debate within the US climate movement on the role of corporations, market based mechanisms, and large NGO’s in fighting for climate justice.

Another world is possible only without a global resource management shaped by structures of domination

U. Brand
September 2008

In the last twenty years, climate change and its potential and real impacts have become more and more obvious. This is due to the results of scientific research but also to environmental movements, media, critical intellectuals, progressive state officials and alternative energy producers who have focussed social and political attention on the implications of the problem. With the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) and its Kyoto Protocol, an international political mechanism was developed in the 1990s.

More recently, i.e. in the last two years, the issue of climate change has climbed to the top of the political agenda: This has to do with the publications of the Fourth Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Stern Report, the latter with its simple and economistic message , with sky rocking energy prices and the argument that ‘peakoil’ has been reached, which refers to the fact that from now on less new oil resources are found than are consumed. The IPCC and Al Gore won the Peace Nobel Price, the G8 summits in 2007 in Germany and 2008 in Japan had energy and climate change questions high on the agenda. The Conferences of the Parties of the FCCC in Bali in December 2007 became a gathering with global mass media coverage.

Nonetheless, we can observe that not much has changed in the last twenty years. Oil and gas consumption have increased enormously, production and consumption patterns are still the same and, moreover, these processes have rapidly been globalised through transnational capital, state policies and the way of life of a global middle class.

This has one major reason: Environmental policies in general and climate change policies in particular are formulated in line with dominant politics and related interests. Today, the dominant politics are neoliberal and neoimperial, orientated towards competitiveness and maintaining and enhancing the power of Northern governments, corporations and societies. Policies are in the interest of the owners of assets and of the global middle classes including the middle classes of economically emerging countries such as China, India or Brazil. The Western lifestyle still promotes its attractiveness worldwide. Human wellbeing and social security are still equated with economic growth and this means resource intensive growth of car production, of airports, of industrialised farming etc.

The role of the FCCC
It is important to recognise that the issue of climate change was politicised through scientific knowledge, especially through the IPCC. However, the danger is to frame the problem of climate change exclusively or predominantly as a global problem which has to be dealt with globally, i.e. from above, with Western knowledge and through management techniques.

The many local conflicts around scarce resources and land use are thus overshadowed. The many alternatives that exist are downplayed against a “global problem”. Moreover, many local forms of producing and living have actually been put under pressure because of globalised capitalism and also because of a type of climate politics that is shaped by structures of domination. The development within the agricultural sector to produce crops for agrofuels for the world market is merely the most visible trend.

What has emerged in the last twenty years is a type of global resource management wherein government officials, business, scientists, some NGOs and media act together to control the destruction of the environment. Sometimes, the content of policies is criticised as insufficient. A critique of the form of politics, however, is not formulated. This form of intergovernmental politics, i.e. diplomacy under the pressure of lobby groups searching for consensus, which systematically leads to weak compromises, is not criticised. Furthermore, there is a downplaying of the necessity to challenge corporate power and the forms of living of the global upper and middle classes if climate change is to be addressed seriously.

The instruments of global environmental politics are mostly market based because “the market” is considered by powerful actors as the superior means to deal with far reaching problems like climate change. Not by chance, the main instrument of the FCCC is emission trading. Moreover, this justifies weak policies “at home” because profound transformations cannot be promoted if other countries do not participate. It is a question of competitiveness.

The current division of labour (along the lines of class, gender, race, age, and international stratification), which is determined by structures of domination, is hardly problematised in the debates about socio-ecological transformations. Therefore, environmental policies have become a moral and efficiency based strategy aimed at the middle classes.

The generalisation of the Western way of life is cynical because billions of people are poor and lack access even to basic means of subsistence. However, capitalist dynamics promote these kinds of production and consumption patterns yet also have attractive dimensions, such as individuality and certain forms of freedom.

To counter the developments of a global resource management shaped by structures of domination, we need a broad public debate as well as practical steps for the necessary transformation of production and consumption patterns, changes in orientations towards nature, and the power of states and capital.

The FCCC is not the responsible institution for the growth of CO2 emissions and the fossilistic mode of development, i.e. for further climate change. This is a much broader process involving many more powerful economic and political actors as well as being linked to the forms of living of the global upper and middle classes. At the institutional level, the WTO, IMF and the World Bank who promote trade liberalisation and structural adjustment policies are the central driving forces currently damaging relationships between societies and nature.

Crucially and problematically, the FCCC holds out that it is the most central and most adequate mechanism to stop climate change. But in the last 15 years it has became evident that through technocratic approaches very little changes with respect to the problem, on the contrary, the current ways of life and the dominant policy orientations are being re-legitimized. The FCCC embodies the fact that there has been a politicised awareness of climate change. This awareness is framed in specific ways and in line with dominant interests and social forces. It is not independent from neoliberal and neoimperial developments. Not by chance, the modified domination of nature through ecological modernisation strategies, Western knowledge, the prominent role of experts and hopefully “enlightened leaders”, along with market based instruments determine environmental policies. This is a disaster for billions of people on a daily basis.

The political mode of crisis management that exists on this terrain is diplomacy and behind this is the pursuit of “national interests” under the conditions of globalised capitalism and competitiveness. When governments return from major conferences at which yet again, the notion of “being at a crossroads” was evoked, they continue to obey powerful actors such as the automobile industry, seed companies, industrial farming, meat producers etc. Additionally, we can see that the environment ministries of the respective governments are relatively weak as energy issues are usually dealt with by other, stronger apparatuses.

This is an observable fact in the field of agrofuels: When it comes to energy security and profits, critical questions and disastrous experiences are put aside. The agrofuel issue is presented by Southern governments like Brazil or Indonesia as a “growth & development opportunity”. Agricultural restructurings are determined by the huge demand in the EU where specific norms are implemented to mix gasoline and ethanol. But for whom and at what price? The global middle class consumers support these policy developments because they fear high energy prices. Alternatives are left aside or are reduced to a minor field in the “energy mix”.

Finally, what we experience in the field of environmental politics is the attempt to restabilise the crisis driven neoliberal imperial globalisation project through the portrayal of a progressive image in environmental policy making. “World leaders have understood the problem,” this is what we hear around G8 or FCCC summits. But in reality the current forms of environmental and resource politics remain shaped by power and do not question existing relationships of domination. Irresponsible policies like the development of nuclear power plants are formulated in other forums like the G8 and will penetrate the FCCC discussion and policies.

Beyond global resource management
In order to reorientate political and societal actions towards real alternatives to the dominant forms and contents of climate, environmental and resource policies, these need to be criticised and changed.
From an emancipatory perspective, it is of utmost importance to stop climate change, which means stopping fossilistic productions and consumption patterns. They affect mostly vulnerable social groups who are not able to defend themselves against water scarcity or drought, against string rainfalls or flood waters. Such occurrences have increased because profit is sought in this way and because such approaches are considered part of “progress” and a comfortable lifestyle for many people. These became dominant because of a “modern” and patriarchal understanding of the domination of nature, which makes its exploitation, commodification and destruction possible.

Radical social movements and critical NGOs as well as critical intellectuals and media increasingly recognise that the FCCC is not an adequate mechanism to deal with one of the most severe crisis we are facing. Like other international political institutions, in the environmental field or in others, the FCCC is part of a capitalist, Western, white and masculine global resource management. It should no longer be legitimised through the participation of critical NGOs, social movements and other critical actors. We do not need “sustainable globalisation”, which basically means neoliberalism and imperialism.

After 15 years of the coming into force of the FCCC in 1994 we can clearly see that we need more fundamentally different political and societal action. States are still important but they and their officials are not the driving forces. On the contrary, they are mainly an obstacle for serious policies. Changing production and consumption patterns, lifestyles and meanings of a “good life”, corporate power and the politics of resource management is a broad process. Several elements need to be considered.

One major element is to put at the forefront a practically rooted critique of the dogma of competitiveness, linked to technological developments. There are few governments and social actors who have understood the dangers of existing trends. What is needed is a repoliticisation of the “market”. It is not just the assumed effective mechanism to allocate resources but a highly effective instrument to produce a more or less opaque domination of some people over others. The market means power and exploitation along the lines of class, gender, race and North-South divisions. Therefore, to restrict the power of industrial and financial corporations is a crucial effort to be undertaken. But, if massively successful, this might mean less economic growth with all its implications for profits, the power of private capital, the tax basis for the state and employment in the traditional sectors.

An emancipatory politics has to be careful not to be moralistic about environmental politics. Of course we need less consumption of meat, cars / auto-mobility and electronic apparatuses etc. But this cannot be a simple moral claim leaving aside social structures rooted in power relations. Alternative and attractive forms of living and producing, of exchange and of social divisions of labour and alternative identities are necessary, and they are possible: The protection of the natural commons (water, biodiversity, air etc.) against their commodification is in many cases a very concrete struggle. Collective consumption, the accompanying infrastructures, more energy efficiency and sustainable goods are not only linked to learning processes but might also question the power of certain producers and of the speed of “waste-off-things” globalisation. We need the conversion of many existing industries, taking advantage of the enormous knowledge of the producers that exists therein.

Environmental issues are profoundly linked to the social. Decent work versus over-exploitation, especially of illegalised migrants and many workers in the global South obey the same logic of profit and accumulation which precipitates the destruction of nature. It is necessary to politicise the immediate interests of workers in cheap food, energy and other goods which are produced under unsustainable and unsocial conditions. However, here is also a problem which needs to be solved. This is because the short term interests of many people are linked to unsustainable production and consumption patterns. Emancipatory socio-ecological orientations and practices need to be linked to other aspects of life and to a redistribution of social wealth.

Radical emancipatory demands and conflicts

Many alternatives are thinkable, possible and already exist. We should ask if the highly politicized topic of climate change opens a way for more transformative thinking and action. Possibly through socio-ecological conflicts it can be made clear that much more is at stake than symbolic policies against climate change through global resource management: questions of democracy and decision making, power over social knowledge and the means of production, the necessary reduction of working hours, the valorising of reproductive activities concerning caring, health, food, etc.

Therefore, we propose an international campaign to radically transform climate change politics. For that, we need to develop radical demands and proposals through debates and the exchange of views and experiences. These should be articulated within actual debates and problems and alter the interpretation of them, thus offering possibilities for action.

With our critique of dominant climate change and environmental policies we are not cynical about climate change and we do not intend to strengthen the lobby which defends the fossilistic path of development. However, we do not see the solution to the problem in Western scientific knowledge, in intergovernmental processes and in ecological modernisation for the Western middle classes at the expense of many others, especially the poor and the material living conditions on earth.

Politics in times of deep socio-ecological crises has to be designed differently, i.e. as a democratic and informed transformative process, taking into consideration the many ambiguities but with a view to a more just world based on solidarity, beyond the dogma of competitiveness and profitability. We want to reorientate debates and policies towards fundamental socio-ecological and emancipatory transformations in conjunction with an acknowledgement of alternative practices.

First Draft (U.Brand, September 2008 – ulrich.brand( at )


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