The climate conference will witness a new maturity for the movement that ignited a decade ago. But that does not mean playing it safe
The other day I received a pre-publication copy of The Battle of the Story of the Battle of Seattle, by David and Rebecca Solnit. It’s set to come out 10 years after a historic coalition of activists shut down the World Trade Organisation summit in Seattle – the spark that ignited a global anti-corporate movement.
The book is a fascinating account of what really happened in Seattle; but when I spoke to David Solnit, the direct-action guru who helped engineer the shutdown, I found him less interested in reminiscing about 1999 than in talking about the upcoming United Nations climate change summit in Copenhagen and the “climate justice” actions he is helping to organise across the United States on 30 November. “This is definitely a Seattle-type moment,” Solnit told me. “People are ready to throw down.”
There is certainly a Seattle quality to the Copenhagen mobilisation: the range of groups that will be there; the diverse tactics that will be on display; and the developing-country governments ready to bring activist demands into the summit. But Copenhagen is not merely another Seattle. It feels, instead, as though the progressive tectonic plates are shifting, creating a movement that builds on the strengths of an earlier era but also learns from its mistakes.
The big criticism of the movement the media insisted on calling “anti- globalisation” was always that it had a laundry-list of grievances and few concrete alternatives. The movement converging on Copenhagen, in contrast, is about a single issue – climate change – but it weaves a coherent narrative about its causes, and its cures, that incorporates virtually every issue on the planet.
In this narrative, the climate is changing not only because of particular polluting practices but because of the underlying logic of capitalism, which values short-term profit and perpetual growth above all else. Our governments would have us believe the same logic can be harnessed to solve the climate crisis – by creating a tradable commodity called “carbon” and by transforming forests and farmland into “sinks” that will supposedly offset runaway emissions.
Activists in Copenhagen will argue that, far from solving the climate crisis, carbon trading represents an unprecedented privatisation of the atmosphere, and that offsets and sinks threaten to become a resource grab of colonial proportions. Not only will these “market-based solutions” fail to solve the climate crisis, but this failure will dramatically deepen poverty and inequality because the poorest and most vulnerable are the primary victims of climate change – as well as the primary guinea pigs for these emissions trading schemes.
But activists in Copenhagen won’t just say no to all this. They will aggressively advance solutions that simultaneously reduce emissions and narrow inequality. Unlike at previous summits, where alternatives seemed like an afterthought, in Copenhagen the alternatives will take centre stage.
For instance, the direct action coalition Climate Justice Action has called on activists to storm the conference centre on 16 December. Many will do this as part of the “bike bloc”, riding together on an as yet to be revealed “irresistible new machine of resistance”, made up of hundreds of old bicycles. The goal of the action is not to shut down the summit, Seattle-style, but to open it up, transforming it into “a space to talk about our agenda, an agenda from below, an agenda of climate justice, of real solutions against their false ones … This day will be ours”.
Some of the solutions on offer from the activist camp are the same ones the global justice movement has been championing for years: local, sustainable agriculture; smaller, decentralised power projects; respect for indigenous land rights; leaving fossil fuels in the ground; loosening protections on green technology; and paying for these transformations by taxing financial transactions and cancelling foreign debts. Some solutions are new, like the mounting demand that rich countries pay “climate debt” reparations to the poor. These are tall orders, but we have seen during the last year the kind of resources our governments can marshal when it comes to saving the elites. As one pre-Copenhagen slogan puts it: “If the climate were a bank, it would have been saved” – not abandoned to the brutality of the market.
In addition to the coherent narrative and the focus on alternatives, there are plenty of other changes too: a more thoughtful approach to direct action, one that recognises the urgency to do more than just talk but is determined not to play into the tired scripts of cops versus protesters. “Our action is one of civil disobedience,” say the organisers of the 16 December action. “We will overcome any physical barriers that stand in our way – but we will not respond with violence if the police [try] to escalate the situation.” (That said, there is no way the two-week summit will not include a few running battles between cops and kids in black; this is Europe, after all.)
A decade ago, in a New York Times comment piece published after Seattle was shut down, I wrote that a new movement advocating a radically different form of globalisation “just had its coming-out party”. What will be the significance of Copenhagen? I put that question to John Jordan, whose prediction of what eventually happened in Seattle I quoted in my book No Logo. He replied: “If Seattle was the movement of movements’ coming-out party then maybe Copenhagen will be a celebration of our coming of age.”
He cautions, however, that growing up doesn’t mean playing it safe, eschewing civil disobedience in favour of staid meetings. “I hope we have grown up to become much more disobedient,” Jordan said, “because life on this world of ours may well be terminated because of too many acts of obedience.”