Contentious Politics and the Climate Justice Movement | by Jacklyn Cock

by Jun 21, 2012All Articles

‘Ask for a camel when you expect to get a goat’
Introduction
The climate crisis is deepening. Despite 17 years of multinational negotiations there is no binding global agreement on the reduction of carbon emissions. In fact carbon emissions are rising which means climate change will intensify and have devastating impacts – particularly on the working class – in the form of rising food prices, water shortages, crop failures and so on. Shifting to a new energy regime will be particularly challenging for South Africa given the carbon intensive nature of our economy and the continued dominance of the ‘minerals-energy complex’.
The failure of the multinational negotiations to secure an adequate and binding agreement on the reduction of carbon emissions has generated an emphasis on the mobilization of civil society. As environmental justice analyst David Hallowes states, “the ‘theatre of engagement’ needs to shift away from the international negotiations” (Interview, Durban 2.12.2011). However civil society contains deep differences and serious power imbalances as the 2011 Global Day of Action march demonstrated.
Theatrical elements were evident in this march of 15,000 people from all over the world to the site of the COP 17 negotiations in Durban. It was a very colourful event, with different movements marching in their battalions, singing and chanting, “ A people united will never be defeated.” There were the 400 members of the Rural Women’s Assembly in their green t-shirts proclaiming “Women – the guardians of seed, life and earth”, indigenous people in feathered headdresses, 500 Democratic Left Front and Climate Jobs campaigners in red with the slogan, “Listen to the People. End Capitalism not Nature”, SATAWU members in orange, giant banners with different messages, puppets, a balloon proclaiming “Rights for Mother Earth now”, an inflated octopus wearing an ‘Uncle Sam’ hat, some of Via Campesina’s 200 million worldwide members, a funeral procession following a coffin to mark the end of ‘King Coal’, loud chants such as,” Away with the capitalist agenda away”, as well as ” Panzi COP17 that does not represent the people, panzi”, and three topless women carrying an anti-nuclear banner. At first glance it seemed a powerful illustration of the World Social Forum slogan of “Unity in Diversity” with many different traditions and forms of struggle all converging in the same direction – the International Convention Centre.
However the unity of direction was geographic rather than political. Early in the march violence broke out between some 300 people labeled ‘Host City Monitors’ who turned out to be paid members of the ANC Youth League who claimed to be provoked by “these anti-Zuma people behind us”. Despite an exceptionally heavy police presence , they threw stones and water bottles, tore up banners and posters, made physical threats, sang ANC songs and flourished placards such as “Zuma until Jesus comes”. On another occasion in the Durban City Hall the same contingent attacked silent protestors holding placards appealing for Zuma to ”listen to the people of Africa”. Overall COP 17 demonstrated a number of tensions and an ideological faultline which divided mobilisation around climate change into two broad groupings: those who adhere to a ‘green’ reform agenda which implies a form of ‘green capitalism’ which stresses market based solutions, and those committed to a ‘red-green’ agenda centered on transformative change.
However many climate change activists are eager to overcome these divisions and mobilize a unified movement. This chapter asserts that as a ‘master frame’ climate justice has the potential to connect particular local struggles, generalize them and link them to a global project of transformation. It could generate a form of solidarity, larger and deeper than anything we have seen before. But this global potential may not be realized because of the way climate change has become embedded in ‘contentious politics’ involving competing claims and interests .
‘Contentious politics’ is a terrain “where people make discontinuous, public, collective claims on each other” (Tilly, 2001:26). The scale of the contention reflects the significance of the central issue. Climate change is having massive social and economic impacts. It means increases in the temperature of the earth’s atmosphere, less predictable rainfall, rising sea levels, and more extreme weather events such as droughts and floods. These extreme weather events will result in major social and geographical displacement, crop failures and increased food insecurity.
It is a deeply political issue in the sense that it reflects relations of inequality ,power and injustice. It is the over-consumption and waste of the powerful elites in the rich industrialised countries of the North who are mainly responsible for the carbon emissions which cause climate change, but the people of the South – particularly in Southern Africa – will suffer the most from its adverse impacts. Africa only contributes 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions but is the most vulnerable to their adverse effects.
The Sites of Contentious Politics
There are two sites of contentious politics around climate change involving different actors and interests, both marked by extreme power imbalances:
(i)  inside the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations as demonstrated at the various multinational Conference of the Parties (COP) at Kyoto, Copenhagen, Cancun and Durban.
(ii)  outside the negotiations but inside the civil society groupings that are mobilizing around the issue.
In both sites the central ground of contention is competing notions of ‘justice’
Insider contentious politics
Negotiations within the UNFCCC reflect “interactions in which actors make claims bearing on someone else’s interests, in which governments appear either as targets, initiators of such claims or third parties “ (Tilly, 2008:5). Disagreements reflect the main fault line within the UNFCCC which has geographical, political and economic dimensions: differences between the powerful, industrialized developed countries of the North and those of the ‘developing ‘ countries of the South.The two main issues of contention are firstly, the future of the Kyoto Protocol which promotes carbon trading, and secondly the operation and funding of the Green Climate Fund. The developing countries want a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol with stronger targets, as well as finance and technology to help with ‘mitigation’ and ‘adaptation’ to the impacts of climate change(iii)
These issues are embedded in competing notions of justice. Developing countries maintain that the rich countries must agree on reparations in the form of financial support, as well as far deeper cuts in carbon emissions, since they are largely responsible for the problem. The notion of ‘climate justice’ is emphasized to mean that developed countries have a historic responsibility: a wide range of activities in addition to carbon emissions contribute to an ecological debt owed to countries in the global south: the extraction of natural resources, unequal terms of trade, degradation of land and soil for export crops, loss of biodiversity and so on.
Contention reflects the dominance of narrow, national and corporate interests on the part of those with power. All the major national governments are commited to economic growth, and none seems willing to consider any emission reduction policy that would undermine it. The result is that to date not only have the global elites failed to achieve a binding reduction of carbon emissions through the UNFCCC framework, but carbon emissions are rising. This failure is largely due to a ‘corporate capture’ of the UNFCCC process (Fernandes and Girard, 2011).This has involved the promotion of ‘false solutions’ such as carbon trading which includes offset schemes which allow multinational corporations to profit while continuing polluting. (iv)
These ‘false solutions’ are retained in the COP 17 package of decisions known as the ‘Durban Platform for Enhanced Action’ that was reached by the 195 countries participating. In terms of this delegates agreed to start work early in 2012 on formulating a new, universal,(including both developed and developing countries) legally binding treaty to cut greenhouse gases, to be decided by 2015 and to come into force by 2020. This means that the Kyoto Protocol is extended for a short period before being replaced by a broader agreement.
The contentious nature of climate politics is dramatically evident in the different responses to this agreement. Several positive responses focus on the continuation of the carbon market as the instrument to catalyse private investment into addressing climate change. For instance, National Business Initiative CEO Joanne Yawitch maintained that “The most important” outcome “ is the securing of the second commitment period and the carbon market” (Cited in Business Day 15.12.2011). President Zuma described the agreement as a “huge success.” (State of the Nation speech February, 20122)
However the commitment to this new agreement (driven by the EU and supported by South Africa and some of the big international environmental NGOs in the Climate Action Network) is widely viewed by climate justice activists as an excuse for inaction, as a delaying tactic which obscures the real agenda of rich, developed countries, which is to escape their responsibility to reduce emissions. Bobby Peek of Groundwork said, “It is clear what is driving this agenda. More and more countries are coming to the international climate talks with one objective in mind: to defend and advance the economic interests of their polluting industries and multinational corporations and resist the global effort for a strong and fair agreement to tackle climate change.” (Groundwork Press Release Durban/Friends of the Earth International Press Release 7.12.2011).
According to Climate Justice Now (CJN) because of the devastating impact climate change will have on hundreds of millions of people, especially in Africa, the agreement “is creating a climate apartheid where the richest 1% of the world have decided that it is acceptable to sacrifice the 99%…It constitutes “ a crime against humanity”.(CJN Press Release, Durban 10.12.2011) Scientists maintain that the delay until 2020 will be too late as the world would have surpassed the scientific cut-off point of halting a temperature rise of more than 2 degrees Celsius.“ Delaying real action until 2020 is a crime of global proportions. Increase in global temperatures of 4 degrees Celsius, permitted under this plan, is a death sentence for Africa, Small Island States and the poor and vulnerable worldwide’, said Nimmo Bassey, chair of the Friends of the Earth International. (Africa Focus Bulletin 7.12.2011). Other climate justice activists describe it as “ a demonstration of the palpable failure of our current economic system to address economic, social or environmental crises”, said Janet Redman of the Washington –based Institute for Policy Studies (Climate Justice Now Press Release 11.12.2011. ). The enormous power and influence of corporate polluters is the main reason for this disastrous outcome. As Kumi Naidoo expressed it, “Polluters won, people lost”. (Business Day 12.12.2011) Overall it means not only the continuation of ‘green capitalism’, but as Esther Vivas writing in ZNet (24.12.2011) argues COP 17 means “an increase in green capitalism”.
Green capitalism
Capital’s response to the ecological crisis generally and climate change specifically is that the system can continue to expand by creating a new ‘green capitalism’, bringing the efficiency of the market to bear on nature and its reproduction. It means that the climate crisis has been appropriated by capitalism as another site of accumulation:. what Bond calls ‘climate –crisis capitalism’, namely, “turning a medium/long-term ,system –threatening prospect into a short-term source of commodification, speculation and profit” (Bond, 2011:2).
The two pillars on which green capitalism rests are technological innovation and expanding markets while keeping the existing institutions of capitalism intact.
More specifically green capitalism involves:
-the carbon trading regime which is enshrined in the Kyoto Protocols, and involves measures such as the Clean Development Mechanism(CDM) and REDD which allow developed countries to profit while avoiding the reduction of their own carbon emissions
  • appeals to nature (and even the crisis) as a marketing tool.
  • developing new largely untested technologies such as ‘climate-smart agriculture’ and clean coal technology through Carbon Capture and Storage which involves installing equipment that captures carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases and then pumping the gas underground
  • the development of new sources of energy such as solar, nuclear and wind hereby creating new market
  • the massive development of biofuels which involves diverting land from food production
Underlying all these strategies is the broad process of commodification: the transformation of nature and all social relations into economic relations, subordinated to the logic of the market and the imperatives of profit.
This process is disguised by a heavy reliance on manipulative advertising -‘greenwash’ –to persuade us of the efficacy of these strategies. But the main concern of the corporates remains profitability and the awareness that shrinking natural resources could damage it, as well as how ‘green’ measures such as energy efficiency could reduce costs, lessen risks and enhance public images.
The ideological basis is the ideology of ‘sustainability’(Cock, 2011). ‘Sustainbility’ is at the centre of the notion of a ‘green economy’ which will be the foundational concept at the ‘Rio+20’ conference in June The official agenda of the ‘conference is the transition to a global ‘green economy’ and reform of the institutions charged with sustainable development. The organisers are promoting the further commodification of nature by claiming that the ‘services’ provided by nature (clean air, pure water etc) should be given an economic value which would allow them to be bought, traded or offset.
However this notion of green or sustainable capitalism is being subjected to growing criticism. rooted in the understanding that it is capital’s logic of accumulation that is destroying the ecological conditions that sustain life. (Harris-White in Panitch and Leys, 2006; Kovel, 2001; Foster, 2000, 2009;Shiva, 2008; Angus, 2009). One outcome is an emphasis on popular mobilization.
Outsider contentions politics
Many now look to civil society if there is to be any hope of achieving meaningful emissions reductions. The most powerful actor is Climate Justice Now, (CJN) a “network of organizations and movements from across the globe committed to the fight for social, ecological and gender justice”. (http://www.climate- justice-now.org)
The global climate justice movement
The global climate justice movement has been steadily growing since CJN was formed in 2007 from different strands in the women’s, environment and democratic popular movements from the Global South like Via Campesina and Jubilee South.
The CJN movement emphasizes four themes: firstly the focus on ‘climate justice’which is stressed in both global and local terms. Globally it is stressed that a wide range of activities contribute to an ecological debt owed to countries in the global South. Locally it is demonstrated that it is the poor and the powerless who are most negatively affected by pollution and resource depletion and will bear the brunt of climate change.
Secondly it is recognised that it is the expansionist logic of the capitalist system of production and consumption, driven by large multinational corporations, financial markets and captive governments that are the cause of climate change, along with loss of biodiversity, water scarcity, the acidification of the oceans and so on. CJN is marked by an anti-capitalist discourse.
Thirdly CJN is not only calling for re-thinking the commitment to economic growth, but for an altered relationship to nature. It is spreading the insights that the commofidication of nature involves the deepening of both social and environmental justice; that the concepts of ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’ capitalism are oxymorons; that the notion of ‘sustainable development’ is vacuous and has been appropriated by neo-liberal capitalism; and that capitalism cannot accommodate the ecological changes necessary for human survival.
Lastly CJN is driven by the recognition that global elites have to-date failed to solve the climate crisis through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change(UNFCCC) process because they have relied on ‘false solutions’, particularly carbon trading.
This failure underlies the potential of this moment for global civil society to build solidarity around climate justice. The balance of forces means that doing so in South Africa is particularly difficult.
The South African government response to climate change
Agreement on reducing carbon emissions is particularly challenging to South Africa, because of the centrality of the ‘minerals-energy complex’ which revolves around a dependence on fossil-fuel based energy. In his 2012 State of the Nation address President Zuma painted a picture of a resource intensive industrial development policy to promote economic growth. There was no reference to the National Planning Commission’s recommendation that “South Africa needs to move away from the unsustainable use of natural resources.” The government’s climate change policy favours carbon trading and is rooted in a ‘green capitalism’. This includes technological innovation in expensive, schemes like nuclear energy, developing ‘climate smart crops’, untested carbon capture and storage underground, as well as expanding markets, while keeping the existing institutions of capitalism intact.
Currently South Africa has no legislation requiring a reduction in carbon emissions, but the government seems aware of the seriousness of the threat of climate change.(v) Like the earlier Green Paper, The 2011 National Climate Change Response White Paper warns that “potential impacts on South Africa in the medium to long-term are significant and potentially catastrophic”, for “after 2050 warming is projected to reach around 3 – 4 degrees C along the coast and 6 -7 degrees C in the interior. With these kinds of temperature increases, life as we know it, will change completely”(Government of the Republic of South Africa, 2011:9).
However the White Paper fails to engage with the full impact of climate change on the working class – especially in relation to rising food prices, water shortages and crop failures. While there is reference to a “long-term just transition to a climate-resilient and lower carbon economy and society” (Ibid, p.5) the notion of ‘justice’ is not developed.
There is a vague reference to the potential of ‘green jobs’(Ibid,p. 15) and the ‘new, green economy’(Ibid,p.32) but these are not defined.
Other official policy documents demonstrate an incoherence and aspirations towards reducing carbon emissions are contradicted by government practices which involve massively expanded coal-fired and nuclear energy(Trollop and Tyler, 2011). Overall, policy and practice displays the continued power of the corporations at the centre of the minerals-energy complex to shape development to their own profit-driven interests
Mobilising civil society in South Africa
This is the context in which some of the organizations involved in popular mobilisation are trying to create a unified voice on climate justice. Several analysts have stressed the unifying potential of the CJN SA movement formed in 2009. According to Patrick Bond, “.the CJ organisations and networks offer great potential to fuse issue-specific progressive environmental and social activists, many of which have strong roots in oppressed communities” (Bond, 2010:3)
The director of Greenpeace has also emphasized the importance of unity. According to Kumi Naidoo “as the host of COP 17 the government of South Africa has a great opportunity to represent Africa who will be hardest hit by climate change. We must come together and speak with one voice…Having different marches at the World Summit on Sustainable Development meant we let South Africa down”. (Kumi Naidoo Uppsala interview 13.4.2011).
Tristan Taylor of Earthlife Africa, Johannesburg believes that there is potential for unity if there is tolerance for political differences and the campaign focuses around one simple idea: ‘Stop climate change now’. Then the different organisations can take the idea in different political directions”. (Interview, Johannesburg 12.3.2011).
The organisations participating in the COP17 process – whether ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ the negotiations – demonstrate different shades of ‘green’ (meaning minimally some level of commitment to more sustainable society-nature relations). Overall, the main fault line runs along ideological lines between those organizations with a ‘green’ reform agenda and those with a ‘red-green’ transformative agenda. All the organisations are working on the mobilisation of civil society, and most appeal to the notion of ‘climate justice to do so. All emphasize the need for change towards the goal of a low carbon economy but differ on the scale of change involved, and the means of reaching it. There is also no agreement on what a ‘low carbon economy’ would look like.
At the same time some of the ‘green’ reform organizations engage in radical actions, such as Greenpeace Africa’s occupation of a crane on the construction site of Kusile, one of the world’s largest coal-fired power plants. Similarly the energetic promotion of renewable energy by Richard Worthington of WWF appears ‘radical’ to supporters of the status quo dependence on coal. However there are sharp lines of contention which focus on five wedge issues: the role of technology, the value of the UNFCCC process, market mechanisms, particularly carbon trading, the expansionist logic of neo-liberal capitalism as the cause of the climate crisis and how our relationship to nature should change.
The main issue of contention is the reliance on market mechanisms enshrined in the Kyoto Protocol, which is viewed with a level of skepticism among CJN activists because it is the only legally binding agreement. Generally, those organizations with a reform agenda accept market based solutions such as carbon trading, place a heavy reliance on technologies such as Carbon Capture and Storage, and view the UNFCCC process and the South African government’s negotiating position in positive terms. This is the object of intense criticism by those organizations with a transformative agenda who stress that market based solutions such as carbon trading are one way in which capital is attempting to appropriate the crisis and make climate change a site of capital accumulation. They are particularly critical of CDM and REDD as “unsustainable’ and ‘unjust’. Reducing Emissisions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) is particularly controversial; supported by some environmental groups who maintain it contributes to forest preservation, others claim it involves the further commodificiation of nature and will benefit corporate investors while damaging the livelihoods and cultures of forest-dependent communities. They are skeptical of expensive and untested technologies, such as the ‘climate smart agriculture’ promoted by the World Bank and the Food and Agriculture Organisation, and Carbon Capture and Storage. There is a strong emphasis on the cause of the climate crisis as the expansionist logic of the capitalist system. Some organizations prioritise a class analysis, while many of the Northern NGOs are ‘class blind’, for example, following the influential Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice, in framing climate change in the liberal discourse of human rights. (vi) Others understand the issue as a stark choice between ‘green capitalism’ or ‘eco-socialism’ .
Understandings of nature is another source of contention which undermines unified action.It is generally recognized that we are living in a period when our relationship to nature is being dramatically transformed in the process of commodification. More and more of nature is being framed in terms of exchange value and mediated through the market. According to Burawoy (2006) this commodification of nature is the “central feature” of the contemporary period of what he calls “third wave marketisation’.
Consequently some have called for a “new, civilizational paradigm, one grounded not in dominance over nature but in respect for natural cycles of renewal – and acutely sensitive to natural limits..” (Klein, 2011:5). Contention is clearest in how the idea of protecting the Rights of Mother Earth counterposes directly to the commodification of nature, particularly through carbon markets.(vii) According to Joel Kovel(2011) the understanding of “humankind as part of nature is central to ecosocialism” while other socialists view nature in instrumental terms as a store of natural resources for economic activities.
Provisional mapping of the climate change terrain would indicate a loose grouping round a few key nodes such as groundwork, the South Durban Environmental Alliance and Earthlife Africa, Johannesburg, now the lead organisation in South Africa of the international alliance Climate Justice Now which supports a transformative agenda. A key node in an alternative approach centers on the World Wildlife Fund,(WWF) an international NGO which supports both carbon trading and offsets such as REDD, and the role of the World Bank in mitigation funding in a reform agenda. The thrust is on reforming or greening the present form of ‘suicide capitalism.’ At COP17 the CEO of WWFSA appealed to “business to take the lead and show that a low carbon economy is feasible”. (Cited in Business Day 7.12.2011)
The organisations groundwork and Earthlife Africa Johannesburg build on an earlier tradition of environmental justice struggles some of which involved grassroots communities, such as the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance which emerged from struggles against the pollution of the groundwater in the Vaal (Cock, 2006). Both organizations are not only key nodes with transformative agendas in this movement, but are both locally grounded and globally connected. They thus transcends the primary emphasis on localism which Albo has identified as a common weakness in ecology movements (Albo in Panitch and Leys, 2007: 359) A specific Earthlife Africa Johannesburg project, the Sustainable Energy and Climate Change Project (SECCP) illustrates this exceptional ‘reach’ stretching up into global campaigns as well as down into grassroots communities. For example in partnership with Groundwork and others in 2009 the SECCP played an important part in making connections between organizations in the global North and South to mobilize opposition to the World Bank loan to build more coal fired power stations. It demonstrated that the $3.75 billion loan to Eskom would increase the price of electricity for poor people and worsen South Africa’s contribution to carbon emissions and climate change. An Earthlife/groundwork briefing document was produced and within three months more than 200 organisations across the world were mobilised to endorse a critique of that loan.
Earthlife SECCP and groundwork assisted the World Bank Inspection Panel in a tour of areas surrounding Medupi power station, and helped to bring together a coalition of residents, traditional leaders and farmers to oppose the development. SECCP argued that “this loan is not about poor people or jobs or even the climate” but is benefiting vested interests .(Adam et al, 2010:12) They were accused by Public Enterprises Minister Barbara Hogan of being ‘unpatriotic’ (Tristan Taylor, policy officer Earthlife interview, Johannesburg 7.10.2010). While the campaign failed to block the loan, as Taylor states, “the campaign showed that environmental groups in South Africa have the international and domestic reach to seriously interfere with government plans”.(Ibid).
This example demonstrates both organization’s capacity to globalize local resistance. Doing so frequently involves linking four repertoires of action: capacity building workshops with grassroots communities, targeted protest actions, policy interventions and research All four repertoires were illustrated when in 2010 Earthlife launched a research report on a major polluter (in global terms) SASOL which was done in partnership with groundwork. It was simultaneously released in both Johannesburg and COP 16 at Cancun, thus connecting the local and the global.
Earthlife Africa Johannesburg was a powerful presence in Durban at COP17. The organization co-ordinated the COP17 mobilisation process in Gauteng with monthly meetings and has organised countless protest actions involving grassroots communities with whom it has strong links. For example, at a demonstration at Sasol’s headquarters in Johannesburg in October 2011 against Sasol’s presence on the South African official negotiating team for COP 17 (along with Eskom), the majority of the participants (on a boiling hot day) were older women from the Soweto Concerned Residents Association. Earthlife emphasizes a feminist perspective. The organistion brought about 1,500 people to Durban for the march.
However while there are divisions between those organizations with a reform and those with a transformative agenda, the climate justice movement has also been a site of co-operation and shared logistical planning. Both Earthlife and WWF were present at the foundational meeting in January 2011 when more than 80 organizations representing a broad spectrum of civil society came together at a COP 17 planning conference in Durban. A co-ordinating committee of 17 mandated persons representing a wide range of civil society organisations was formed as a facilitatory body and tasked with promoting and coordinating civil society engagement in COP17. It’s tasks included coordinating the Global Day of Action( a traditional event at the UNFCCC COPS which includes a mass march), coordinating the autonomous Civil Society Space, organizing a Climate Refugee Camp and supporting mobilisation across South Africa. It included a diverse range of environmental organisations including the World Wildlife Fund , Greenpeace, Earthlife, SAFCEI,South African Faith Communties Environmental Initiative) SDCEA, EMG, PACJA(Pan African Climate Justice Alliance) Climate Justice Now SA, Timberwatch, Global Climate Change Alliance, groundwork, Oxfam SA, Amnesty International and grassroots organisations such as Abahlali baseMjondolo. The only union represented was SAMU and Sibusiso Gumede from COSATU.
The grouping includes many different shades of green and the participating organizations stated different objectives. The meeting has been described as “fraught’ with a major source of division being the issue of market-based solutions, such as carbon trading. Furthermore there were disagreements on the goal of civil society mobilization, whether the focus should be a specific event – COP 17 –or the process of building a movement. While some focused on COP17, others argued for moving beyond it to Rio+20 or to the building the environmental movement globally. An Earthlife official stated, “COP17 is not the end goal – it is a means of creating a stronger environmental movement”. (Ferial Adam, Earthlife meeting, Johannesburg 20.2.2011)
This goal was achieved at COP 17 when a massive amount of energy was demonstrated in the 225 registered events held in ‘The People’s Space’ at UKZN. Almost five thousand people converged from all across the country to attend seminars, demonstrations,cultural events and vigils, generally marked by a spirit of shared learning, deep concern and tolerance. A particularly moving event involved a ‘Climate Justice Hearing’where grassroots representatives from across the globe presented their experiential testimony on the impact of climate change on their livelihoods to a panel of representatives from Tibet, Brazil, Bolivia and South Africa in front of a packed auditorium. Numerous demonstrations and protest actions took place outside the ICC,especially in a designated ’Speakers Corner ‘during the two weeks including an occupation by over100 activists of the hallowed corridors of the ICC one afternoon.
However there was a degree of tension between grassroots formations and some of the larger well resourced international environmental NGOs, some of whom have ‘insider ‘status at UNFCCC negotiations.(vii) It has been pointed out that “..many of those big green groups have avoided, with phobic precision, any serious debate on the blindingly obvious roots of the climate crisis: globalization, deregulation and contemporary capitalism’s quest for perpetual growth”. (Klein, 2011:15) The absence of any shared agreement on strategy and tactics was clearly a serious organizational weakness.
One expression of these differences that emerged at COP17 concerned some complaints about the different food and sleeping arrangements for those 2,000 grassroots activists staying in the Climate Refugee Camp and those NGO activists staying in expensive hotels, as well as those who traveled in the ‘Climate Change Bus’(a 27 hour journey from Cape Town ) and those who had a 2 hour flight. Ironically a similar criticism has been made from the ‘right’ about “rich politicians and film stars from the West and the privileged activist from Greenpeace and WWF , flying in on jet aircraft to Durban…” (Kenny, in Business Day 28.11.2011
All of these COP17 actions could be criticized as ephemeral and limited to creating what has been called ‘carnival bonds.’ (Bauman, 2006). However the discourse of justice and the emphasis in these actions on how the worst affected by climate change are, and will be the poor and the powerless could have a more enduring force. Tarrow has emphasized the mobilizing power of the justice frame. In Power in Movement he argues that injustice and emotionality are central to framing contention. “Collective emotions are triggered by an injustice frame, which highlights and morally condemns human suffering, contending that such suffering is not inevitable, “not written in the stars”.(Tarrow,1998:111) This justice frame is prominent in two new political developments in South Africa – the emergence of the Democratic Left Front and the labour movement’s engagement with the climate change issue. While it is too early to speak of an emerging ‘red-green’ alliance, there are grounds for a potentially powerful network of environmental and labour activists, a linkage that could foreground climate justice in an anti-capitalist agenda.
New political developments
(i) New Left Initiatives
A concern with climate justice was strong in the declaration that came out of the founding Conference of the Democratic Left(DLF) in January 2011. The declaration states, “We believe that our anti-capitalism must be green as well as red. Global capitalism threatens our world with disaster. If it is left to plunder the natural resources of our planet and pollute the atmosphere, the oceans and the soil life itself will be under grave threat. “(Declaration of the Democratic Left Front adopted by the First National conference 20 23 January 2011. Johannesburg) Many DLF activists are committed to a new form of ethical, democratic and ecological socialism. This is not encoded in any blueprint but is to be built ‘from the bottom up’.
The unifying potential of the climate crisis suggests that the DLF need not necessarily go the way at earlier attempts of convergences in the form of the Social Movements Indaba and Social Movements United.
A DLF resolution was passed ” to work closely with the Climate Justice Now network and other organisations towards making COP 17 a focal point to expose the alignment of the South African government to green neo-liberal capitalism.” (DLF Press statement Johannesburg 20.2.2011) The organisation was committed to “ mapping out a concrete and alternative agenda for the transition to a post carbon economy.” With this end it invited “forces linked to the Cochabamba People’s Summit, which means the Bolivian government, Bolivian social movements, forces linked to the leading eco-socialist networks anti-capitalist and climate justice groups to a strategic conversation” in Durban in September, 2011. The period between September and December involved much grassroots awareness work on climate change and the DLF was a powerful presence at COP 17. The conference on Ecosocialism organized in the People’s Space emphasized how the climate crisis is embedded in a more general social crisis characterised by poverty, inequality, violence and the destruction of community.
This ideological thrust could promote the inclusion of the labour movement. As Bond has argued, the linkage of red and green struggles under the climate justice banner “will require society moving from a fossil fuel dependent capitalism to eco-socialism”, and this depends on “ a stronger labour input”.(Bond, 2011:195)
(ii)The mobilization of labour
In many countries there is a gulf between the trade union and the environmental movements. The labour movement in South Africa has traditionally neglected environmental issues in favour of jobs as illustrated by the ‘steel valley struggle’ (Cock, 2007). However this is changing. The climate justice movement could revitalize trade unions both globally and locally, as it is increasingly recognized that workers and their organizations are an indispensable force for a just transition to a low carbon economy.
A ‘million climate jobs campaign’ is modeled on a British trade union campaign and is taking hold in the local labour movement. It is structured on the argument that if we are to move in a ‘just transition’ to a low carbon economy using renewable energy instead of coal, it will be workers who will have to build wind, wave tide and solar power. It is workers who will have to renovate and insulate our homes and buildings and build new forms of public transport. It is stressed that the lives of working people could improve in the process. Research findings were launched at COP17 which demonstrated that 3.7 million climate jobs (jobs which reduce carbon emissions) could be created to address both the unemployment crisis and the climate crisis in South Africa. It is also stressed that climate jobs must be ‘decent’, largely publically driven jobs’ which promote equality and justice.
The trade union federation COSATU is starting to recognize climate change as a developmental and social issue, that constitutes “one of the greatest threats to our planet and our people”.(2010 National Congress resolution)
Following discussion at a workshop in Durban in July 2011 on climate change and attended by national office bearers, representatives of the 20 affiliated unions and 9 provincial structures, a Climate Change Policy Framework was adopted.
Fifteen principles were agreed on of which the most controversial were:
  • Capitalist accumulation has been the underlying cause of excessive greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore global warming and climate change.
  • A new low carbon development path is needed which addresses the need for decent jobs and the elimination of unemployment
  • We reject market mechanisms to reduce carbon emissions
  • Developed countries must pay their climate debt and the Green Climate Fund must be accountable.
  • A Just Transition towards a low –carbon and climate –resilient society is required
While capital ‘s discourse of a transition to a new energy regime or a low carbon economy emphasizes growth, competitiveness and efficiency, the labour movement is commited to this notion of a ‘just transition’. However this is contentious with very different understandings of the scale and nature of the changes involved. To some it involves shallow change focused on protecting the most vulnerable sectors of the workforce, while to others it requires deep, transformative change to ensure both sustainability and justice in the move to a low carbon economy. In this sense the ecological crisis is understood to represent an opportunity: an opportunity to not only address the unemployment crisis in our society, but to demand the redistribution of power and resources; to challenge the conventional understanding of economic growth and to mobilize for an alternative development path .
In the final COSATU policy framework on climate change endorsed by the Central Executive Committee in August 2011 the explanation of a just transition reads, “The evidence suggests that the transition to a low carbon economy will potentially create more jobs than it will lose. But we have to campaign for protection and support for workers whose jobs or livelihoods might be threatened by the transition. If we do not do that, then these workers will resist the transition.We also have to ensure that the development of new, green industries does not become an excuise for lowering wages and social benefits….”
The question is: are these necessary but sufficient conditions for a just transition?
Whereas the the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) speaks of a ‘paradigm shift’, some activists of the Cosatu affiliate the South African Municipal workers Union (SAMWU), speak of ‘regime change’. SAMWU’s response to the National Climate Change Response Green Paper, February 2011,states, “Tackling greenhouse gas emissions is not just a technical or technological problem. It requires a fundamental economic and social transformation to substantially change current patterns of production and consumption.”
Cosatu president, Sdumo Dlamini has stressed that “We need a just transition which will not lead to job losses. We need a transition that will create jobs.” (Addressing a COP 17 public meeting in Durban, 7.12.2011).NALEDI researcher, Fundi Nzimande says COSATU wants “just transition strategies to a green economy in which there are as few job losses as possible.” She has referred to building”alliances with civil society” and emphasizes a class analysis, “We want to view climate change from a working class perspectives. We want to counter the big business point of view” (Interview, Durban 15.7.2011).
The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) representing some 500,000 mineworkers is obviously particularly sensitive to job losses and some shop stewards have expressed faith in new technology to reduce carbon emission. By contrast, another |Cosatu affiliate, the National Union of Metalworkers (NUMSA) one of the biggest unions representing almost 300,000 workers in energy intensive industries, is skeptical of the ‘just transition’ approach and warns that the shift to a low carbon economy, and particularly the development of renewable energy, is being dominated by green capitalism. (Interview, NUMSA official Johannesburg 7.2. 2012). According to the NUMSA President,“..the language of ‘just transition’ needs a class analysis. We believe that a ‘just transition’ can become a disarming term for the working class if we are not careful.It must always be clear that capitalism has caused the crisis of climate change that we see today. There is an urgent need to situate the question of climate change in a class struggle perspective”. (Opening address by NUMSA President Cedric Gina to the Numsa International Seminar on Climate Change and Class Struggle 4.12.2011).
NUMSA believes a “just transition must be based in worker controlled democratic social ownership of key means of production and means of subsistence… Without this struggle over ownership and the struggle for a socially owned renewable energy sector, just transition will become a capitalist concept, building up a capitalist “green economy:.(Statement from NUMSA Central Committee issued on 14.12.2011). In 2011 NUMSA established two worker led Research and Development Groups, one on energy efficiency and the other on renewable energy. (Interview, Dinga Sikwebu, Numsa official. 7.2.2012).These will investigate the carbon emissions of various products and then work with groups in the community that use them. The aim is to build an evaluation of these products in relation to carbon emissions into their negotiating strategy.
NUMSA, one of the biggest unions representing workers in energy intensive industries, is skeptical of the ‘just transition’ approach. According to the NUMSA President,“..the language of ‘just transition’ needs a class analysis. We believe that a ‘just transition’ can become a disarming term for the working class if we are not careful.It must always be clear that capitalism has caused the crisis of climate change that we see today. There is an urgent need to situate the question of climate change in a class struggle perspective”. (Opening address by NUMSA President Cedric Gina to the Numsa International Seminar on Climate Change and Class Struggle 4.12.2011). NUMSA believes a “just transition must be based in worker controlled democratic social ownership of key means of production and means of subsistence… Without this struggle over ownership and the struggle for a socially owned renewable energy sector, just transition will become a capitalist concept, building up a capitalist “green economy:.(Statement from NUMSA Central Committee issued on 14.12.2011). NUMSA has established worker led research teams in different sectors. These will investigate the carbon emissions of various products and then work with groups in the community that use them. The aim is to build an evaluation of these products in relation to carbon emissions into their negotiating strategy.
Overall there are differences within the labour movement in their responses to the climate crisis. Contention is emerging in relating to five issues:
  • the substantive content of a ‘just’ transition
  • the use of market mechanisms to reduce carbon emissions
  • the efficacy of technologies such as clean coal and Carbon Capture and Storage
  • whether it is possible to delink economic growth from carbon emissions and
  • the scale of change necessary to address the climate crisis.
However a transformative understanding of a ‘just transition to a low carbon economy’ could be a precursor to an alternative social order. It could take labour beyond the ‘real world historical options ‘ of green capitalism “where economic growth is de-linked from emissions and environmental destruction generally, or …. a ‘suicide capitalism scenario where fossil-fuel corporations and major industry, agriculture, transport and retail interests are successful in maintaining business as usual” (Sweeney,2011:9).
For example it could involve:
  • the collective, democratic control of production
  • the mass roll out of socially owned renewable energy could mean decentralized energy with much greater potential for community control.
  • the localization of food production in the shift from carbon-intensive industrial agriculture to agro-ecology could promote not only food security, co-operatives and more communal living, but also a more direct sense of connection to nature.
  • the reduction of consumption could mean the simplification of middle class lifestyles, with reduced waste, extravagance and ostentation
  • the shift to public transport could reduce the reliance on private motor cars as symbols of power and freedom
  • more sharing of resources in more collective social forms which could erode the individualism which is a mark of neo-liberal capitalism
  • the shift towards a more appreciative use of natural resources could reduce the alienation from nature of many urban inhabitants
  • the spreading of values of sharing, simplicity, solidarity and more mindful living.
A vision of an alternative social order could demonstrate how climate justice can only be realised in a social order that changes the present patterns of production and consumption which are based on waste, competition and pollution and focuses on the provision of basic human needs such as clean air, unpolluted water, safe food, adequate sanitation, public transport, universal healthcare, quality education, useful work and renewable energy. Mapping such an alternative vision would challenge the “deepest shadow that hangs over us (which) is neither terror, environmental collapse, nor global recession. It is the internalized fatalism that holds there is no possible alternative to capital’s world order”(Kovel cited in Kelly and Malone, 2006:116).
Conclusion: creating transnational solidarity.
At present there is no coherent, militant climate justice movement in South Africa. There were militant elements in the Global Day of Action march but it did not present any kind of political challenge to the negotiators inside the ICC. The messages presented to Christiana Figueres and Minister Maite Nkoana –Mashabane at the end of the march were politely asking to be heard: ‘listen to the voices of rural women’, and ‘listen to the youth’. Only the message from Zwelinzima Vavi struck a stronger note.
One crucial lesson from COP 17 is to shift from ‘asking’ (whether for camels or goats or simply to be heard) to ‘demanding’.The crucial question is whether different civil society actors can form a common ground for militant action.
One problem is that civil society includes serious power imbalances. The UNFCCC welcomes civil society engagement as a democratizing force, but “this sector includes everything from grassroots peoples’ movements to business and industry organisations representing the world’s largest corporations…” As a consequence of this infiltration the UN’s climate change solutions “are largely driven by market mechanisms with the private sector as a leading player.” (Fernandes and Girard, 2011:10).(xi)
At the same time there are strategic weakneses in anti-capitalist global civil society. Satgar maintains that at the latest World Social Forum meeting in Dakar “hard lessons were drawn from the recent Copenhagen and Cancun climate negotiations.. NGO technocrats, donor –driven agendas, big egos, celebrity intellectuals and hard-line social movement agendas prevented a common voice and united agenda to prevail outside the negotiations in the streets” (Satgar, 2011:1).
The political reality is that while there has been mass mobilization of climate justice activists, the multilateral climate negotiations remain dominated by green capitalism. Anti- capitalist civil society is a splintered movement. There is no master ‘frame’ of climate justice encoded in any blueprint and no single, collective actor with a clear and singular identity mobilizing around climate change. The issue is attracting deeply committed and energetic activists, but there is no coherent center and no tidy margins; it is an inchoate, fragmented sum of multiple, diverse struggles and organizations.
But, most clearly in its warnings of the threat to human survival, this could change. Building a powerful climate justice movement, a movement grounded in a coherent, strong, restitutive concept of justice, a movement that can make its demands heard at both the national and global levels, is clearly necessary but difficult. To achieve this and to shift from being a site of carnival bonds and contentious politics, the climate justice movement must do more to :
  • promote the recognition that capitalism is both unjust and unsustainable; that the climate crisis is due to the expansionist logic of the capitalist system and that this system has to be changed if human survival is to be secured.
  • draw on the energy of grassroots struggles. Numerous civil society formations organized grassroots educational workshops in the run up to COP17, and a ‘Climate Train’ visited 17 towns in a month long educational campaign. All reported extensive calls for education and information about climate change, especially when framed in terms of issues such as access to adequate water, crop failures, flood damage and rising food prices. (ix) The concept of climate justice fuses a variety of these survivalist issues as well as international trade, development rights, technology, migration and biodiversity. In this sense it is possible that the climate justice movement is not only a source of radicalisation but is also promoting a more holistic, ecological understanding. In the past environmental justice struggles have too often been scattered and narrowly focused on single issues, the destruction of a wetland here or water pollution there. The global nature of climate change generates a broader, more integrated perspective.
  • incorporate the organisational capacity of the labour movement,
  • connect with the current anger about deepening social injustice, expressed by the ‘occupy movement’ which has involved protest actions in 900 cities around the world. This has to demonstrate that injustice is intrinsic to capitalism. As David Harvey has written “.. an ethical, non-exploitative and socially just capitalism that rebounds to the benefit of all is impossible. It contradicts the very nature of what capital is about” (Harvey, 2010:239).
It is clear that the post apartheid state is driven by vested interests. It perpetuates market-led economic growth models which benefit large corporations at the expense of job creation and the social needs of the majority. It will not drive ecological transformation and solve the problem of climate change which threatens us all. Neither will capitalism.
If these understandings were linked to a vision of an alternative social order, and could draw on the organizational strength of the trade unions and the energy of grassroots struggles, an alliance of labour and environmental activists in a climate justice movement could generate a transnational solidarity that is larger, deeper and more powerful than anything we have seen before.
Footnotes
(i) “Ask for a camel when you expect to get a goat” is a Somali saying meaning aim high but settle for less. It has been used to illustrate the strategy of developing nations in the United Nations negotiations on climate change.
(ii)This paper is based on the analysis of relevant primary and secondary sources, participant observation and numerous discussions and interviews with key activists.
(iii) A contentious issue is the source of the funds with the majority of climate justice activists arguing for public finance.
(iv)Carbon trading involves the buying and selling of an artificial commodity, the right to emit greenhouse gases, and comes in two main forms, ‘cap and trade’ and ‘offsetting’.The largest offset scheme is the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) established under the framework of the Kyoto Protocol which allows rich countries ‘flexibility’ in their emissions reductions by allowing them to buy those reductions from developing countries instead.
(v)At the UNFCCC negotiations in 2009 in Copenhagen South Africa said it would reduce emissions by 34% by 2020 and 42% by 2025 below a business as usual basline structured on a fanciful ‘Growth without Constraint’ scenario.
(vi)Mary Robinson from the Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice. asserts that “climate change represents .. the greatest threat to human rights that we will ever face.”.(Johannesburg seminar March, 20l1).
(vii)In response to the failure of COP 15 at Copenhagen the Bolivian government organised the People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba. Many climate justice activists maintain that the Cochabamba Agreement is the best roadmap around.
(viii) It is important not to homogenize these groups. For example Friends of the Earth International, is the world’s largest grassroots environmental network it has a transformative agenda, and opposes carbon trading whereas the World Wildlife Fund supports it.
(ix)For this reason Standing asserts that a transformative capacity lies within the ‘precariat’ (the millions who are unemployed or in insecure employment) whom he describes as naturally the green class in arguing for a more egalitarian society in which sharing and reproductive, resource-conserving activities are prioritized.” (Standing, 2011:179)
Works cited
(a)Bond,P.2011Climate Justice. Paralysis above, Movement Below(UKZN Press)
(c)Bond, P. 2011‘SA reps at climate talks are letting us all down’, The Sunday Independent 6.2.2011)
(b)Bond, P. 2011 ’A Dirty Deal coming down in Durban’, The Mercury 6.12.2011
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Jacklyn Cock, Professor Emeritus Sociology Department and Honorary Research Associate, SWOP, University of the Witwatersrand
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