Opposition Isn’t Enough

The COP21 agreement's shortcomings show that the climate justice movement needs to start thinking about state power.

COP21 protesters in Paris. Boris Allin / Libération

On Saturday, 15,000 people formed a human line in front of the Arc de Triomphe bearing miles worth of red fabric. The final text of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Paris Accords  (UFCCC) had just been released, and protesters aimed to represent the “red lines” of warming and emissions that they intend to keep world governments from crossing. Some of those lines, scientific thresholds beyond which protesters say lies near-certain planetary destruction, made their way into the final agreement passed later that night. Many did not.

Virtually every major newspaper called the deal “historic.” The Guardian went so far as to dub it the world’s greatest diplomatic achievement. “The world finally has a framework for cooperating on climate change that’s suited to the task,” a climate expert at the Council on Foreign Relations told the New York Times.

Others were more critical. Environmental writer George Monbiot called it “a disaster.” The Grassroots Global Justice Alliance’s Cindy Weisner likens the deal to “a death warrant for the planet.” For climate scientist James Hansen, this year’s talks have been at once “bullshit” and “a fraud, really fake,” citing the negotiators’ tendency to do more talking than acting. For climate organizers set to return home this weekend, the agreement and this year’s negotiations should be a spur to something more: a challenge to engage and eventually take state power.

Here’s what we got in last weekend’s agreement: the most exciting statements in the text — asserting indigenous and migrant rights, food sovereignty, and a justice-based transition away from fossil fuels, for instance — are hedged in its unenforceable preamble.

Each of these lines represented years, if not decades, of work by unions, farmers, and First Nations leaders looking to ensure that a low-carbon economy protects the interests of society’s most vulnerable. Now rather than having teeth, these concerns are acknowledged, recognized, and taken into account, respectively, before the text gets down to its rule-making business in the sections (Articles, in UFCCC-speak) that follow the preamble.

But even those portions lack teeth. Nations are under no legal obligation to cut emissions along the guidelines laid out. And even the documents’ legally binding sections are loaded with sentences carefully worded so as to allow governments as much room for creative interpretation as possible.

Anything that would have put historical emitters on the line for loss and damage payments — the closest a deal would have come to climate reparations — has been reduced to the level of a suggestion by the United States. The Accords also contain no reference to the words coal, oil, or fossil fuels, opting for the more slippery language of “technology transfer” and “capacity building” to address energy transitions.

While Global South nations and grassroots groups succeeded in integrating a (loose) 1.5 degree cap on warming into the final text, it is a purely linguistic commitment: the content of the deal still puts us on track for a rise in temperatures between 2.7 and 3.7 degrees Celsius, almost double the amount that scientists say is safe. Bringing the temperature rise down will require that nations’ intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) — the plans they brought with them to Paris — become a lot more ambitious.

In the final moments before the vote, a “technical error” in the agreement was detected and changed. A passage from Article 4 mistakenly stated that developed countries “shall” (rather than should) take the lead in driving emissions cuts, which in the topsy-turvy world of UN lingo connotes a legal commitment. “The should/shall issue was important,” the Guardian’s live feed from La Bourget announced, “because it suggested developed countries had greater responsibility to do more than developing countries.”

US and Canadian fears assuaged, the agreement was adopted minutes later. COP21 had managed to avoid the down-to-the-wire implosion that drove climate talks in Copenhagen six years ago to collapse, sending the climate movement into a reflexive tailspin. Just after this weekend’s vote, the retrofitted airport hanger where the talks took place broke out in celebration, joined by many of the bleary-eyed denizens of #COP21 Twitter.

Yet hardened by the 2009 breakdown in Copenhagen, even the environmental NGOs celebrating the deal acknowledge that success after Paris now rests with movements, not world leaders. With a cringeworthy comparison to the end of South African apartheid, online organizing giant Avaaz gave the agreement high praise. Executive Director Emma Ruby-Sachs wrote in a triumphant email to the organization’s 20 million-plus email list that “ambitious visions like these rely on movements to carry them into the mainstream, and on movements to make them reality in our everyday lives.”

More critical of the text, Bill McKibben and 350.org’s declaration was also more succinct: “Game on,” referring to movements’ responsibility now to hold leaders to the 1.5 degree cap laid out in the agreement.

But what does — or should — “movement” mean in the wake of the Paris Accords? And what needs to complement movements in order to realize a world without — or with less — climate chaos?

Organizer and political scientist Tadzio Mueller tells me in Paris that there remains a “strong localism” within the environmental movement, unconcerned with consolidating power into federal policy or political office.

“You could shut down one coal-fired power plant after another,” Mueller explains, “but you need a national coal phase-out law if you want to stabilize and render permanent those gains. At some point you need some mode of generalizing social movement successes.”

Individual fights over fossil-fuel transportation and infrastructure have provided a few rare bright spots in the environmental movements’ otherwise bleak history. And, in contrast to abstract talk of degrees and parts-per-million, local struggles put a human face to the fossil-fuel industry’s wrongs.

Successful, bottom-up campaigns like those against Shell’s Arctic drilling and the Keystone XL pipeline carry a symbolic weight that extends well beyond the pipeline’s proposed route. No doubt these and other grassroots efforts put pressure on Obama to enact his Clean Power Plan, and, more locally, on New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to ban fracking in his state. Still, beyond the easy rhetorical links that can be drawn between these efforts, the most promising environmental struggles remain organizationally dispersed and lacking a common platform.

Confrontational direct action at sites of fossil-fuel extraction and export is just one part of the equation needed to bridge the gap between 3.5 and 1.5 degrees inscribed in this weekend’s deal. Another piece, harder to solve, is uniting movements behind a call for what states should be doing rather than simply what they shouldn’t: funding retraining programs for workers in the fossil-fuel sector; protecting indigenous land rights; and massively reinvesting in our crumbling and not particularly green infrastructure — all in one way or another consistent with the Paris Accords’ more ambitious (and barely enforceable) language, and impossible without the reins of the state.

Successfully implementing the Accords will rely on how countries implement their INDCs. Given wealthy governments’ penchant for stonewalling progress against the fossil-fuel industry, making any of these changes possible will require more than overcoming longstanding divisions between local environmental justice struggles and climate policy wonks. It will take finding altogether more creative and confrontational ways to engage state power.

Mueller, who has spent the better part of the last decade working at the intersection of Europe’s left and environmental movements, sees grassroots greens’ antipathy for the state as “very understandable because that’s where the base of the power in this movement lies,” referencing the strength that struggles against fracking, for instance, have built in small towns and provinces. He adds that “a healthy and understandable distrust of governments” is necessary, “particularly after decades of neoliberal capture of [state] institutions.”

Discussing the relationship between the state and the climate movement, Frances Fox Piven echoed Mueller. She told me this summer that the challenge in front of today’s climate organizers is twofold: “We need state power when we deal with problems like market excesses and climate change. We [also] have to democratize the state.”

At a packed event with Naomi Klein and a host of trade union organizers last Monday in Paris, Jeremy Corbyn — clearly a few steps out of his comfort zone — made the case for why a redistributive state needs to be one that pays more than lip service to tackling climate change, envisioning a world “where governments protect the ultimate public good of a stable climate.”

A movement for such a state will not be starting from scratch: talks, protests, and gatherings of movement leaders and organizers the last two weeks in Paris have offered more grounds for hope than any news from the Blue Zone of the negotiations themselves. Climate justice campaigners should be taking themselves every bit as seriously as the struggles against austerity that have sought to take power in recent years. After COP21, movements can ensure that governments don’t cross the red lines. Only states can decide where they lie.