The Copenhagen climate talks were an utter failure. But what lessons do Marxists argue climate campaigners should draw from this experience?
1) Sober up on global geopolitics. Globalisation and neoliberalism live on – but at the behest of national states and their capitalist governments. Capitalist rivalry - the new imperialism between the existing US hegemon and the emerging challenger China - shaped the failure of these talks. The rest of the states are dancing to tune of one or other of these colossuses. The divide is not primarily between rich and poor countries – rather the real divide is within global capitalism, between the ruling capitalists and their states on the one side and the weak, beleaguered but potentially powerful forces of the working classes, the labour movement and its allies on the other.
2) Sober up on Obama. The US announced before the talks that no treaty would be possible because of congressional arithmetic. But when Obama arrived, he offered only 4% cut in emissions by 2020 and enough loopholes for this to amount to nothing. For all the rhetoric he is still at the beck and call of US fossil fuel capital – and for all the soft soap, he is happy to override even the limited democratic processes that exist at the climate talks. The US labour movement needs to untie itself from its role as a satrapy of the Democrats and build its own political party.
3) Don’t duck the issue of China. It is woolly third worldism to fail to criticise China. It is ruled by a Stalinist totalitarian government, which believes it can best safeguard its continued rule by expanding its fossil fuel-based economy. It is the rising imperialist power of the 21st century. It was the Chinese government that vetoed the 80% emissions target cut for advanced economies, and the 50% figure globally and even talk of an emissions peak by 2020. Only a Tiananmen style worker-led popular movement in China can avert the social and ecological disaster that will engulf both the Chinese people and millions of others.
4) Don’t ignore the left cover provided for China by India, Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Sudan and other states. None of these regimes has a coherent alternative; rather they reject the US bloc only to embrace the Chinese camp. They are not allies of labour movements anywhere, not least for what they do to their own workers.
5) The European Union was hapless. It formally had the most progressive position of the advanced economic blocs going into the talks. But the EU did not table its big offer of a 30% cut in emissions by 2020. Like the UK government, it made noises in the right direction on targets, but was unable to force an agreement. More significantly its own plans are neoliberal to the core – market mechanisms like emissions trading will not do the job and will come at enormous expense for workers.
6) There is a massive democratic deficit – even with the main UN process. The official talks excluded more and more observers until it became largely a jamboree of existing heads of state and their entourages. And then the US-China-India-Brazil-South Africa Accord parachuted over the top of two years of negotiations and 15 years of dialogue. Climate change is a global problem that cries out for a cooperative commonwealth of socialist federations; instead it has a broken-backed regime of quarrelling thieves.
7) The repression will get worse. The G20 in London was a harbinger and the thousands beaten and arrested in Copenhagen shows that the bourgeois states barely tolerate peaceful protest when it comes to climate change.
8) The NGOs are impotent. Years of lobbying, partnership, cuddling up to governments, issuing reports, doing stunts and succouring consciences amount to what? No power when it matters. The NGO road to salvation is the road to nowhere – get some real politics.
9) No retreat to utopia. Many climate activists will be tempted to turn away from politics, turn away from activism, and instead create “liberated spaces”, communes, alternative lifestyles and isles of utopia. But to go local now is to turn away from the real task of building a global movement to take on the states and the capitalists they represent. To change the world it is necessary to take power – meaning to take the power away from the bourgeoisie, not coexist with them.
10) Turn to the labour movement. The labour movement was partially represented inside the official talks and outside on the demos in Copenhagen. Often bureaucratic and quiescent, it may not look like the obvious force to turn to on climate change. But it is the necessary force to affect change. Workers are the main victims of climate change globally – just as they are exploited by the capitalist system that drives climate change. This gives workers a tremendous self-interest in combating climate change – strong enough to overcome sectional fears about jobs. And workers have tremendous economic and political power when organised – the power to halt production but also the power to create a collective, democratic planned system of production that can cut emissions while maintaining decent living standards for all. The Vestas struggle, and countless strikes, give a tiny glimpse of what is possible.
What’s needed is an international working class-based climate movement. Such a movement needs tribunes – agitators to organise, galvanise and fight. The official climate process lies in tatters. But a resurgent socialist movement can turn the tide. Working-class self-reliance, self-defence and self-emancipation are the lessons from Copenhagen.