Real action on climate, not false solutions – protest the COP in Copenhagen

This fall should see massive global protests to pressure government bureaucrats and their corporate opportunist masters to get serious about taking steps to decrease human emissions of global warming gasses. There are protests planned to precede and coincide with the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP) in Copenhagen, Denmark December 7-18 — a crucial world meeting under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that is struggling to negotiate a successor treaty to the expiring (and failed) Kyoto Protocol. There will also be a few scattered protests aimed at the hugely flawed greenhouse emissions / climate laws currently working their way through Congress.

But as I write this article, it seems fairly unlikely that there will be protests and resistance at a level anywhere close to the scale of the danger, although it doesn’t have to be like that. Right now, human society is on a path that goes over a cliff — consuming and developing thoughtlessly, competing instead of cooperating, and using up the earth’s finite resources and ability to absorb pollution at an alarming rate. Continuing greenhouse gas emissions at the present rate will cause a climate catastrophe. These emissions are already causing the largest species extinction in world history. And yet instead of building alternative energy infrastructure or learning to use less, the world is building new coal fired power plants every week.

There is a different path available. Many people are working on figuring out the social, cultural and technological details for a new direction in which humans don’t live our lives at the expense of our future and the rest of the environment’s health. Humans are part of the world’s ecosystem — we are not above it or separate from it. When our day-to-day lives depend on killing the earth, we’re really killing ourselves.

It is easy to figure “well, we’re fucked — there is no way to turn this ocean-liner around in time”, and use that as a comfortable excuse to stay disengaged. But this cop-out won’t work in the long-term. Psychologically, it means you have to use more and more emotional energy on denial and justification — avoiding the signs that are increasingly all around us that something is seriously wrong. Wouldn’t it be easier to face the unpleasant facts and rather than turning away, overcome our fears and paralysis by getting engaged in addressing the root of the problem?

It is up to all of us — as individuals, as members of the activist community, and as conscious beings who are part of the natural world around us — to cut through the fog, the sense of resignation, disempowerment and frustration — and figure out how we can go down a different path. If human societies don’t change course soon and figure out a way to maintain the ecological balance on the planet from which we evolved, all the stuff we spend our days working on and worrying about isn’t going to matter.

It is amazing how easily the brewing climate catastrophe can get lost in a blizzard of concerns and problems: the economic crisis, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, health care reform, gay marriage — the list goes on. And for most people, it can be hard enough just to get through the day on a personal level — juggling work, family and a million other things while trying to carve out some time for freedom and pleasure.

Somehow, we have to figure out a way to put decreasing greenhouse gas emissions on the front burner and keep it there to demand real action, not the false solutions, greenwashing, and gradualism leading to non-action that is the current reality. Protests in the streets and grassroots organizing are the key — the mainstream economic and political systems are incapable of changing paths because they created the emissions-dependent world and their power is utterly dependent on maintaining it.

It is becoming more obvious how the outdated structures of power that are killing the planet are the same structures that require inequality, oppression, violence and misery. There’s room to make connections and move the struggle forward across a broad front while not losing sight of the reality that if we lose the environment, our species is going to go down with it.

A Call to Climate Action

Numerous groups are calling for coordinated, global protests during the international climate change meeting in Copenhagen Dec. 7 – 18 . The COP meets once a year and includes government officials from 189 countries plus 10,000 official observers — corporate lobbyists and representatives from mainstream non-governmental organizations.

While theoretically United Nations conferences like Copenhagen could coordinate a global plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, in reality they are like a World Trade Organization applied to greenhouse gas emissions. Elites — whether from the developed world, major corporations, or the third world — prioritize figuring out new, perverse ways to profit from greenhouse gas emissions reducton. Actually reducing emissions is in the backseat, almost an afterthought. The Copenhagen process favors top-down, corporate solutions that permit business as usual — with resulting inequality and profit — to continue with as little disruption as possible.

The most popular corporate solution to global warming is creating a global emissions trading system in which industries in rich countries could continue emissions as usual in exchange for paying someone else who claims to have reduced emissions for “credits” to pollute. The key assumption behind such initiatives is that the most important goal is maintaining constant economic growth, and that emissions reductions are a laudable goal as long as they can be achieved without hurting growth. But this thinking gets it backwards — the endless pursuit of economic growth on a finite planet is what has gotten us into this mess in the first place.

A key aspect of Copenhagen-related protests will be to outline the difference between real actions to address greenhouse gas emissions and false solutions. A real emissions reduction means fossil fuels are left in the ground and not burned — either because alternative energy sources are found or because the energy isn’t required in the first place. A false solution is a solution that allows a particular industry, technology or nation to continue to burn precisely the same fossil fuels as before, or even increase emissions, and yet pat themselves on the back because they’ve used accounting methods to show an emissions reduction. You would think such absurd numerical trickery would be laughed out of the room and recognized as an Emperor With No Clothes, until you realized that this is the primary mainstream response to the climate crisis.

While some people are going to Copenhagen to protest there, the best advice seems to be to avoid international travel and do something in your own community. In Copenhagen, there is likely to be a diversity of tactics ranging from polite lobbying and street protests, all the way to militant direct action to shut down the meeting and symbols of outmoded CO2 emissions, such as local coal-fired electricity plants. Protests in the USA are likely to be along similar lines with tiny actions in smaller places and grander actions in population centers. You can get involved in planning and participating in these actions.

As Slingshot goes to press in mid-September, it is not a good sign that there are currently very few specific times, dates and places being proposed for decentralized actions. That means there’s a lot of room for folks to get involved and make something happen. It might also mean that not much is going to happen unless someone gets up and organizes something soon. You don’t have to wait for someone else to call for an action — you and your friends can do it yourselves. Check the end of this article for links to some of the radical climate action groups.

350 parts per million

To build up momentum for the Copenhagen meeting, the 350.org group founded by early climate visionary Bill McKibben is calling for decentralized, global actions on October 24. 350.org likes visible, symbolic protests — many spelling out the number 350 — that can be photographed and emailed into a central website. 350 refers to the maximum number of parts per million of carbon dioxide that scientists believe can be in the atmosphere without leading to disastrous climate change. The 350.org folks like it because it is a simple message for people to rally around — not proposing precisely how to cut emissions, but just trying to set a target for CO2.

Currently, there are 390 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere — up from around 280 ppm before the industrial revolution. The number increases every year as more and more fossil fuels are burned to sustain the current of form of human social organization. While the Kyoto Protocol was designed to cut emissions to 1990 levels (which were already too high), emissions have instead gone up and up and up since Kyoto went into effect. Despite all the Al Gore movies and speeches and billboards, emissions have not been reduced. To the contrary, the growing demand for more stuff by a growing world population is being met in the first world as well as in the third world by relying almost exclusively on fossil fuels.

To reduce the CO2 concentration to less than 350 ppm would require much less fossil fuel combustion going forward, rather than the current expansion of fossil fuel use. Over time, natural processes such as plant growth can remove some of the CO2 already in the atmosphere if humans would stop adding more. In the US, 40 percent of CO2 emissions are from burning coal, oil and natural gas to generate electricity — 83 percent of that is from coal. This could be the easiest area to dramatically cut emissions, since alternative technologies to generate electricity already exist and the fossil fuel combustion for electricity are concentrated in a relatively small number of huge facilities.

The 350.org website already lists over 1,000 protest plans in over 100 countries spanning the globe, so many people can plug into these actions. According to their website, there will be “school children planting 350 trees in Bangledesh, scientists hanging banners saying 350 on the statues on Easter Island, 350 scuba divers diving underwater at the Great Barrier Reef.”

350.org is not a radical group in that they don’t have an anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian analysis — they don’t connect the climate crisis with the many forms of oppression associated with the current order. But to their credit, they are highly critical of the pathetic lack of action by governments and corporations regarding greenhouse emissions and climate change. They seem to understand the distractions and greenwashing that is going on and realize that fundamental change is necessary which can only come from grassroots action. According to their call to action, “This is even more important than changing your lightbulb–this is your chance to help change the way the whole world operates.” They organize public events on a global scale so it makes sense to check their website, find the closest action, and join in.

False solutions — business as usual

To set the stage for the Copenhagen meeting, the US Congress is trying to pass an emissions trading bill known as the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (ACES, H.R.2454 or the Waxman-Markey Bill). While other developed countries have had global warming laws for the past few years, this would be the first US law aimed at limiting greenhouse gas emissions. The bill would seek to require a 17 percent emissions reduction from 2005 levels for a variety of greenhouse gases (chiefly CO2) by 2020 and an 80 percent reduction by 2050. It also requires electrical utilities to produce 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020 and a few other odds and ends like electrical grid modernization, more electric cars and energy efficient buildings and appliance mandates.

The key to the emissions reductions is to create a “cap-and-trade” system. The government would create emissions credits which would give their owner a right to emit a particular amount of CO2. Over time, the number of credits would decrease. The idea is that the invisible hand of the market would determine how these emissions reductions would happen. A business holding a bunch of credits could reduce their own emissions and then they could sell the extra credits they didn’t need to use for their own emissions, taking the proceeds to help pay for costs associated with cutting their emissions. Or, if it was cheaper for a particular company to buy credits for emissions rather than reducing their own emissions, they could do that. Theoretically, such a system would mean that the cheapest emissions reductions would be made first, and the most expensive would be made last. A similar system was successful in reducing acid rain pollution that is created when high sulfer coal is burned.

The ACES is a timid business give-away. A 17 percent reductions target by 2020 is an extremely modest goal given the scale of the problem and is hard to take a distant 2050 goal very seriously. Under the bill, the government would give out 85% of the credits to various corporations and utilities for free and have an auction for the remaining 15 percent. To the extent the credits can be sold, this means the government gives away billions to heavy greenhosue gas emissions. Moreover, it means companies can make money selling credits for adopting emissions reducing technologies they would have done anyway. Such programs are prone to speculation, difficult to enforce, and legitimize the fossil fueled status quo.

Look for more timid, corporate welfare plans like this in Copenhagen, except applied on a global scale. A key flaw in transnational emissions trading schemes is that rich, developed countries buy credits so they can continue to emit pollution from sellers who are “reducing” emissions in dubious ways. For instance, there are already documented cases in which Europeans (who currently have cap-and-trade) have bought credits from third world projects that would have been built anyway.

A different path

Corporations and the governments that serve them aren’t going to bring us a lower emissions, ecologically sustainable world. There’s no money to be made nor bureacratic systems to expand when people reject the basic goals and values of the industrial age and realize that life is about engagement with ourselves, our surroundings and others, not owning and using stuff. The systems threatening climate catastrophe are the same systems that treat human beings as objects to be controlled, manipulated and used. In fact, a corporation treats people and the environment with a similar disregard: a tree is a natural resource while a person is a human resource.

Going down a more ecologically sustainable path isn’t just about protests and rejecting particular government plans or learning ways to consume less and installing alternative technologies to replace fossil fuels, although some of these changes may be steps along the way. People are going to have to engage each other and find solutions outside of media channels controled by corporations and the state — on the streets and in local communities. The protests this fall can be (with your help) a modest first step.

For more info, contact: www.climate-justice-action.org, www.risingtidenorthamerica.org