Photo: Alberto Ñiquén

COP 21: movements rally to Paris for climate justice

  • November 8, 2015

Environment & Ecology

The COP 21 summit in Paris is approaching, but while the situation is grim the planned social movement mobilizations offer hope and opportunities.

We know how it all started — colonialism was the original metabolic rift in our history, which has been profoundly extended and deepened by industrial capitalism. Yet as we enter the 6th mass extinction, there is an ambient sense that there is no alternative to this way of life.

We collectively hallucinate that the present order of things will persist indefinitely, silently abiding the comfort and enslavement this disposition provides, all the while waiting for the apocalypse we are living through to blossom fully.

Many have been waiting for the totalizing revolution that appears as a vanishing point on a receding horizon, a perpetually deferred future. The intersecting ecological and climate crises stand as a refutation of more than a hundred years of left-wing teleology that ‘in the end we will win.’ Instead they reinforce the need for constant molecular struggles to open and expand cracks for resistance and new forms of life to flourish.

World governments acknowledge that catastrophic climate change is the defining crisis of our times, and simultaneously fossil fuel corporations continue to benefit from subsidies of $5.3 trillion in 2015, according to the IMF. This is more than all governments spend on health care combined and amounts to an astonishing $10 million every minute.

We have reached a point where we need to keep 80% of fossil fuels in the ground, which would require emission reductions of at least 10% per year by 2025, even as Lord Stern counsels us that a mere 1% emissions reductions rate each year would be associated with economic recession and upheaval.

This requires radical global degrowth, which understandably is unacceptable to billions of people trying to lift themselves out of poverty wrought by colonial and neocolonial depredation and the enforced inequality of smoothly operating capitalism. Yet the overdeveloped states deny their historic responsibility, disregarding principles of equity by refusing to recognize their immeasurable ecological and social debts accrued through their ruinous development processes.

The landmark COP21 provides ecological justice struggles with an unparalleled opportunity to come together as a global movement to put into sharp relief the echoless chasm separating the minimal conditions for a just and livable planet and the political order’s capacity to secure these.

The system is exhausted. The UN COP process merely simulates its continued viability, thus performing the regeneration of its legitimacy. Its collapse is inevitable, in its orbit looms only the question whether it will take civilization with it in its violent, implosive heat death. Futurity dangles ridiculous.

Social Movements

Given the planetary scope of the climate crisis, climate justice is not an ‘issue’ amongst others, but a global frame that permeates the struggle for all forms of social justice. The call for ‘climate justice’ has become the rallying cry of the global movements connecting local struggles for survival across the world in blocking the extraction and flows of carbon and capital. It foregrounds those in the global South who bear virtually no responsibility for the crisis but disproportionately suffer its effects. This demands a forceful response, one cutting across movements in consonance with their interlinked nature.

Imagine the predicted 200 million climate refugees by 2050 as Europe’s Fortress walls (or common border) buckle under the weight of 600,000 refugees arriving across the Mediterranean so far this year. Austerity operates to socialize the risks and privatize the costs of the ‘natural’ disasters that will accelerate in magnitude and scale due to climate change. TPP and TTIP will eviscerate the already meager environmental regulations that could begin to rein in emissions because they also generate friction for accumulation.

The industrial food system is responsible for 44-57% of all global greenhouse gas emissions, making the fight for food sovereignty coextensive with the fight for climate justice. The destabilization and social upheaval attendant with climate disruptions and increasingly scarce resources will be met with merciless state violence that disparately impacts vulnerable and marginalized populations. Although necessary, a mere (just) transition to 100% renewable energy only partially responds to the radical transformations across interconnected dimensions social justice requires.

To maximize its effectiveness, the climate justice movement can endeavor to maintain a capillary nature circulating through the streams of other movements, overflowing the banks of their tributaries and connecting with them on the basis of their existing campaigns to become a roaring confluence of movement flows. Ecology and climate are the molecular integrals across these movements, a shared thread to link them that can be mutually and reflexively incorporated as common terrains for struggle.

The climate movement has matured and changed complexion dramatically since the debilitating failure of Copenhagen. The rhetoric from the movement’s center of gravity has begun to shift away from delegating its power to politicians to calling for system change.

Increasingly, the climate justice wing of the movement has assimilated the radical tactics and tools of movement building mainstreamed through the movements of the squares. It has learned from the experiences of the last six years, as the irruptions of Occupy and the Arab Spring show the potential for explosive social situations in the current context of the dissolution of the political order.

This is why the time is ripe and the climate movement is unique and crucial in its capacity to shine a particularly penetrating light, joining with those of other movements, to show the abyssal depth of these interrelated crises.

Welcome to Disneyland

Against this backdrop, the liberal democratic order holds out the UN COP process as the ideal framework for global governance of a global commons issue par excellence — climate. It is the prevailing order’s mechanism for addressing the existential crisis the climate catastrophe uniquely constitutes. However, the discourse and purported solutions have virtually no relationship to the reality of unraveling planetary ecosystems.

The COP and the political system do not even pretend to countenance the science. The UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christina Figueres confirmed that the Paris agreement is not expected to meet the 2°C target necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change, disavowing the authoritative conclusions of the (conservative) IPCC reports. The negotiations focus endlessly and exclusively on emissions reductions and degrees, never questioning the fundamentals of unending productivism and consumption underpinning the rapacity of the system.

As such, the COP process functions principally through simulating the system’s capacity to resolve the climate crisis with voluntary pledges and intended nationally determined contributions, ‘net zero’ or ‘negative’ emissions relying on geo-engineering, carbon capture and storage and other undeveloped technologies. These blend with the barrage of scientific warnings and swirling quotidian apocalyptic images breeding the sense that we are all in this together and that we can continue our lifestyles uninterrupted via green capitalism.

All these signs become detached from the underlying reality of disintegrating ecosystems all around us and simply exchange for one another in a vertigo-inducing vortex of self-referentiality. It becomes a Baudrillardian simulation, wherein signs (that is, images, symbols, anything interpreted as having meaning) efface the distinction between the imaginary and the real.

These signs do not refer to or represent anything real or authentic, but themselves precede and engender reality and refer to themselves as evidence of this reality: “Then the whole system becomes weightless, it is no longer itself anything but a gigantic simulacrum – not unreal, but a simulacrum, that is to say never exchanged for the real, but exchanged for itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference.”

To further illustrate: The complete set of 400 IPCC scenarios for a 50% or better chance of staying under 2°C assume either a global emissions peak around 2010 (i.e., time travel) or the successful and widespread adoption of speculative geo-engineering technologies to guarantee negative emissions — a substantial proportion of the scenarios rely on both “time travel and geo-engineering.”

Thus the IPCC’s emissions scenarios depend either on non-existent technology and/or the ability to go back in time to 2010 and make global emissions actually peak that year. By rendering indistinguishable the imaginary and the real, the IPCC’s scientific models weave flawlessly in to the simulation as the models themselves produce a real without origin or reality that forms the floating circuit in which the negotiations are conducted.

In this way, the scenario of the COP does not primarily function to falsely represent political reality (ideology) but to conceal that the real of the political has disappeared. The COP is a tool for the metastabilization of a fundamentally destabilized and unsustainable system. It functions to perform the “vitality and viability of politics itself,” the continued reality of the political in the face of the exhaustion of its capacity to resolve the civilizational catastrophe we are living.

Like Disneyland, the COP is neither true nor false; it is a deterrence machine set up to maintain the fiction of the real of the outside, of the extant political order.

We are, thus, no longer primarily in the domain of the ideological. This is a crucial distinction because critiquing the system as ideologically obfuscating is itself ideological, holding out hope for an authentic politics behind it if only we removed the corporate influence from the UN, from politics.

Ideology is a false representation of reality by signs, while simulation is a short circuit of the real and its doubling by signs. Ideological analysis always attempts to resurrect the objective, true underlying process; whereas “it is always a false problem to want to restore the truth beneath the simulacrum.” The COP is an instrument and vehicle of global capital, a key tool in maintaining its endemic unsustainability and enabling it to continue increasing emissions for 20 years of COPs.

Resistance in Paris

Hence, COP21 offers an exceptional global platform for movements, not to restore an illusory political process behind the simulation, but instead to pierce its fascinating surface to reveal the vacuum behind it. Power in the era of simulation does not operate primarily through ideology, but through producing desires and modulating affects. Our political challenge is to disabuse ourselves of viewing the world through an ideological lens, assuming that the provision of information to the masses will dissolve the supposed ideological grip of power.

Resistance needs to touch people at the level of affect and desire, through aesthetic, theatrical, performative actions that are effective and empowering. These can operate to intensify life by opening up micro-spaces to access more potentials, making one incrementally less enslaved to situations, less determined by accumulated tendencies and habits. The major actions planned for COP21 can be seen as responding to this challenge in varying ways, while integrating the ecological justice perspective as indispensable for social justice across struggles.

As those most vulnerable and affected by the already accumulating effects of the wrecked climate, communities at the frontlines of the interlocked struggle against ecological degradation and capitalism will descend on the COP. The summit will be ushered in by the convoys of the French ZADs (zones à défendre) and other territorial struggles converging on Paris on 27-28 November.

Even as this is being written, numerous autonomous spaces are in the process of being opened, drawing on lessons from the ZADs, to organically fertilize resistance and nurture new forms of life that will carry forward beyond the COP.

Then as the latest iteration of the simulation officially begins, Climate Games will launch its opening round on 30 November lasting through 12 December. It is a trans-media platform that merges online disobedience and street action to create a global framework for direct action against the root causes of climate change. It aims to provide a new tool for grassroots autonomous affinity groups to take action through creating a crowd-sourced cartography of creative resistance in real time and real space.

In addition to facilitating effective disruptions of carbon and capital, it works on an affective level to tap the fount of playfulness and imagination. This opens opportunities to augment capacities and enhance degrees of freedom to respond to the apparently irresolvable circumstances in new ways beyond rote mass mobilizations and leftist rhetoric.

Meanwhile, Solutions COP21 begins on 4 December and is the quintessential greenwashing event, where corporations’ relentless efforts to commodify the entire earth and atmosphere will overflow from the Grand Palais. It blends seamlessly into the mise en scène of the COP’s simulation sowing the conditions for the smooth march of green capitalism — a response to climate change ensuring the materialization of the shadows of geo-engineering, resource wars, genocide gathering on the horizon. It will be prevented from opening and perfecting the swirling sea of signs constituting the COP.

Finally, as the COP finalizes its genocidal deal, the “Red Lines” mass action has been called for December 12th (D12) to encircle the conference center. It is considered to be the first time such a wide coalition — over 150 organizations ranging from big NGOs to trade unions, faith groups to radical collectives — has supported a day of disobedience for climate justice.

As such, the action is patterned off the success of Ende Gelände (where more than 1000 people took direct action to shut down an open-pit lignite coal mine in Northern Germany this summer) in endeavoring to normalize direct action across a range of diverse actors, many of whom may not have done disobedient actions before.

The Red Lines will have aesthetic and performative dimensions seeking to fray the COP’s simulation, in part by creating a dilemma moment with the police, wherein they will have to decide whether to allow the disobedient action to flaunt their capacity for control or to brutalize peaceful protesters.

The action strives to seize this opportunity to maximally delegitimize the COP and its performance of the system’s continued legitimacy. It will launch the movement beyond the COP, leaving behind the discursive terrain to reengage in relations of forces through the continued cultivation of a culture of resistance in which direct action is a daily activity fully integrated into our lives. Our collective future demands this.

Last Word, First Steps

The effects of climate change have entered the mainstream psyche, prompting calls of alarm to ring out from liberal institutions like the Pope, the Guardian, and Dutch courts, all highlighting the gravity of the problem and the incapacity of the system to offer any meaningful response.

With the COP’s demonstrated inability to take action in accordance with even the clear dictates of science — the apotheosis of modern rationality — it signals the deeper and more profound malaise of liberal democratic late capitalism, the growing social recognition of an acute systemic impasse, the decomposition of a paradigm that has provided our cognitive coordinates for centuries.

This crisis of legitimacy can be seized transversally by movements. Although the system appears completely entrenched and intractable, its polymorphous crises attest to its precarious ephemerality as a surface without depth. The exhaustion of the Habermasian project of modernity is an index of the times, not just another critique of state and capitalism. The climate and ecological justice lens is the clearest issue to show how incapable the socio-political-economic order is of resolving this existential crisis.

Armed with the weapons and tactics newly generalized across movements from the experiences of Occupy, the Arab Spring, and their mutant offspring, the ecological justice movement can wage this transversal social war to accelerate the implosion of the state-capitalist machine. December in Paris can be a critical waypoint in the global struggle of nature defending itself.

Acknowledgments: The author would like to thank Selj for his invaluable comments and feedback on earlier drafts.

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Skye Bougsty-Marshall

Skye Bougsty-Marshall is a researcher, writer and activist working on mobilizations around COP21.

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