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Reclaiming Power: On Copenhagen and Climate Justice

Doyle Canning
Date Published: 
April 1, 2010

The fifteenth Conference of Parties (COP 15) in Copenhagen in December 2009 was hotly anticipated as one of the most important meetings in the history of the world. One hundred ninety-two countries gathered in Denmark’s capitol city to hash out the next iteration of climate policy before the 2012 expiration date of the Kyoto Protocol, the primary mechanism for mandating cuts in greenhouse gas emissions and establishing a global carbon market. The tense negotiations inside the Bella Center unfolded amidst a blizzard of hype, media attention, and intense pressure from all corners of civil society. 

The Copenhagen Accord

Unfortunately (but not unexpectedly) the Copenhagen climate talks were a bright green spectacle that ultimately moved global climate policy backwards. In the final hours of the talks, the White House executed a surgical strike on the Bella Center, maneuvering a handful of countries into a powerful bloc that dropped a rogue document (skillfully branded as “The Copenhagen Accord”). Much like the bank bailout bill of 2008, this five-page document offers sketchy details on finance mechanisms and no plan for binding commitments or accountability. This US-authored agenda opens the floodgates to institutions like the World Bank, and to private capital firms seeking new markets for investment and speculation. The Copenhagen Accord favors forest and agriculture policies known as REDDs (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation), which are bitterly opposed by global movements of peasants and Indigenous Peoples whose lands will be appropriated by corporate-driven carbon offset schemes.

The Copenhagen Accord also explicitly mentions allowing a two-degree Celsius global temperature rise, permitting carbon pollution levels far beyond the 350 parts-per-million threshold that could maintain the ecological integrity of our planet. The UN’s latest science says that a two-degree rise globally means a rise of 3.5 degrees in Africa, threatening the survival of that entire continent, while flooding out island states and low-lying areas worldwide. (This revelation lead to the Copenhagen rallying cry of Africa and the island states: “Two Degrees is Suicide.”)

After giving a fairly flat speech and circulating the text of the Accord to a few select countries, Obama declared Copenhagen a victorious “first step,” and—ironically—jetted back to Washington early because of “shifting weather conditions.”

In the chaos of the late night plenaries that followed, the rest of the world struggled to make sense of this aggressive manipulation of the COP process, which operates as a consensus of the United Nations. With morale fading and outrage brewing, youth protestors gathered with candles in the cold outside the Bella Center at 1:00 am. Bolivia, Venezuela, and some island nations pushed back hard, and eventually Nicaragua proposed that the COP “take note of the Copenhagen Accord”—a maneuver to close out the conference without consensus.

Climate justice: system change not climate change!

An impressive myriad of movements converged in Copenhagen with a diversity of political viewpoints on display. Messages ranged from vague demands for “climate leadership” to clarion calls against capitalism and “carbon colonialism.” The North American delegation of the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) was a powerful contingent that led the December 12 march of 100,000 people as part of the Indigenous Peoples Caucus. This historic demonstration also included a 40,000-strong bloc that marched under the banner of “System Change Not Climate Change,” signifying the confluence of two global networks—Climate Justice Action (CJA) and Climate Justice Now! (CJN)—into a strong left flank of the climate movement.

Reclaim Power was the flagship action for the CJA-CJN networks, and called for a “confrontational mass nonviolent civil disobedience,” culminating in a Peoples’ Assembly to discuss real solutions to the climate crisis. The action was led by members of Via Campesina, and there was participation from the “South-Within-The-North” delegation organized by the Movement Generation Justice and Ecology Project, which included representation from alliances like Right to the City and the Environmental Justice & Climate Change Initiative (EJCC). The “Yellow (Badge) Bloc” emerged from NGOs who were banned from the Bella Center, who marched wearing their COP credentials (and a few of whom burned their badges in protest).

European activists, organized through Climate Justice Action, brought a creative militancy into the streets, with tactics like the bike bloc that was meant to morph into some sort of fence climbing apparatus, and the bold attempt to fashion a string of blue inflatable rafts into a bridge over the moat that surrounded the Bella Center. The Danish police maintained the upper hand and largely crushed these efforts, mass arresting more confrontational elements.

The march out of the Bella Center, organized by Climate Justice Now!, included the Indigenous Caucus and delegates of Bolivia. This peaceful procession was met by a line of riot police who beat down these delegates and shredded their banner that read, “Join the Peoples’ Assembly!” It was a powerful image that unfolded live on Danish TV, and showed clearly how the state will use violence try to halt the union of these North-South/Inside-Outside coalitions.

Despite the police violence and pepper spray in the “climate cages” where 968 protestors were held, Reclaim Power achieved its aims, and was celebrated as an historic formative moment for the emerging global climate justice movement. Two Reclaim Power protestors even made it into the COP 15 plenary session and took the stage chanting, “System change not climate change!” The Peoples’ Assembly denounced the COP 15 and the carbon market, and unleashed visions of a grassroots ecological movement rooted in food sovereignty, social justice, indigenous rights, and payback of ecological debt.

Beyond COP 15—resistance, resilience, and re-imagining

As climate activists set their sights on COP 16 and beyond, it must be clearly understood that the COP process is entirely focused on managing the impacts of climate change, rather than dealing with the root causes. This management will be left to a chimera called the carbon market—a development that marks a fundamental phase shift for capital, and signals a renegotiation of global capitalism to colonize the constraints of ecology itself.

In a news conference after Reclaim Power, Bettina Cruz, an indigenous activist from Oaxaca, Mexico put it this way: “COP 15 is a false meeting—What’s going on in there is politicians and businesses dividing up their cake. It is not about saving the environment. It is about privatization of nature, and privatization of the environment. That is what it is actually about.”

The Copenhagen Accord is essentially meaningless to the COP process, but is designed to make the COP process irrelevant and unbridle the carbon market. Powerful countries are now pushing the message that “The UN has failed and we need a different model…such as the G8, G20 and bilateral agreements.”

This presents a sticky messaging challenge for the global movements that have been critiquing the COP process and demanding new models. We must address fundamental strategic and political questions: What is the role of the UN in addressing climate change, and what is our relationship to the UN?

Closer to home, climate justice forces must continue to resist on the front lines of the fossil fuel economy. The sit-ins on the coal fields of Appalachia, the calls to shut down Chevron’s refinery in Richmond, CA, and the Indigenous resistance to the cancerous Tar Sands oil development in Alberta can offer us inspirational models of grassroots, direct action for climate justice.

As movements, we must also come to recognize the critical role of organizing more resilient, self-determined communities that can lead the just transition off of fossil fuels. As Movement Generation explains, “The chief arenas of struggle for the implementation of climate justice will increasingly be local and regional zoning boards and land-use policies, regional transportation policies, and regional water boards…Understanding and managing regional foodsheds and watersheds…are key to implementing a vision for urban racial justice that is rooted in ecological place.”

The third plank for climate justice strategy is the task of re-imagining. As the climate forecast gets worse, we need a vision of ecological liberation now more than ever. As Frederic Jameson famously observed, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” With the devastating realities of climate chaos breathing down our necks, re-imagining our world now takes the most courageous kind of hope.

Doyle Canning is co-director of the strategy organization smartMeme, and co-author (with Patrick Reinsborough) of Re:Imagining Change – How to Use Story-based Strategies to Win Campaigns, Build Movements, and Change the World (PM Press, 2010). SmartMeme was in Copenhagen to support Climate Justice movements, working with groups like the Indigenous Environmental Network, EJCC, and Movement Generation. Video at: