The pretentiously titled “World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth” took place in Cochabamba, Bolivia, between 19 and 22 April.
Called by the president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, the conference attracted over 30,000 people to discuss the way forward after the failure of Copenhagen climate talks.
While participants were rightly critical of the existing neo-liberal political economy of climate change, which puts market instruments at the centre of its strategy to tackle the issue (and leaves the dominant social relations untouched), their positive proposals lacked clarity or substance.
The Bolivian government made four proposals: 1. that nature should be granted rights that protect ecosystems from annihilation (a “universal declaration of Mother Earth rights”); 2. that those who violate those rights should face a “climate justice tribunal”; 3. that poor countries should receive compensation for the climate crisis they face but had little role in creating (“climate debt”); and 4. that there should be a “world people’s referendum on climate change”.
None of these proposals has any purchase at all. Framing the whole discourse in terms of “Mother Earth” makes far too many concessions to backward-looking, semi-religious patriarchal values that socialists and eco-feminists rightly reject (e.g., “We call the world to regain our ancestral spiritual essence...”).
To speak of “rights” for the earth is also problematic. It involves human agents advocating these rights on behalf of others beings, plants and ecosystems, yet it blurs the specific social agents and structures (i.e. capital) that do the damage.
The universal declaration also lacks the power of enforcement — hence the idea of a climate court is a distraction. Dragging executives and ministers through this kind of court, with no sanctions, is a complete diversion from holding these people to account through political action — through demonstrations, strikes, occupations, voting and ultimately revolution to overthrow them.
Similarly, the idea of climate debt is incoherent. The idea that historic responsibility for emissions rests with developed countries appears to make sense — it is a fact of geography that most industrial emissions have so far come from Europe and North America. However climate debt, like other reparations arguments, is a rebranded relic of woolly third worldism. People living in “developed countries” now did not make those decisions. They were not born then — and the vast majority of people then and today do not hold the levers of power. Workers did not sconsciously decide to pollute, and don’t now.
Climate debt also leads to the conclusion that people in developed countries must pay for the debt by cutting their living standards. Yet the justice argument should apply equally to workers here as well. Workers in relatively affluent countries did not cause the problem, yet they are expected to pay for it. And who gets off the hook? Capital — the real root of the problem.
Finally, the proposal for an international vote seems like a good idea, until the practicalities are thought through. Who would organise it? What will happen in places like China, Iran, Saudi Arabia etc — big polluters with no democracy — how will people there register their view? But most importantly, what would such a vote, with probably a dismal turn-out, actually signify? At best, that many people are bothered about climate change and want to tackle it. We know that already.
What is needed is a coherent political programme around which to unite workers and our allies to fight. The vote won’t be about mobilising people to tackle climate change at the expense of the bosses and their states.
The report of the summit in Socialist Worker (24 April) was odd. The SWP fantasised that “The centre of resistance over climate change is shifting to the oppressed”, making far too many concessions to the romantic fetishism of indigenous peoples that is prevalent on the left. Whilst indigenous peoples suffer from the effects of climate change and from capitalism, their social power is weak and social solutions proposed by people speaking in their name are often utopian or reactionary.
The gathering was not an improvement on the social forums of the last decade and was hardly packed with genuine representatives of the industrial working class. The circular from the ITUC saying “don’t go to Cochabamba” might have been a factor, but would hardly be decisive for militant unions. The SWP was closer to the truth when stated that “there is little talk yet [at the meeting] of unemployment, of the economic crisis, of green jobs or of workers”.
Cochabamba was chosen for the venue of the “World People’s Conference” because it is threatened by the effects of climate change — particularly its water supply. And a decade ago Cochabamba was also the site of the water war, a magnificent struggle against water privatisation that fed into a whole period of working-class uprisings against the old Bolivian state. Morales owes his ascendency to that fight. But the lessons of those struggles do not appear to have been learned.
Working-class forms of struggle, linking industrial and community direct action, including strikes, mass mobilisations and even armed militias, threw back the privatisers then. But this time we had wishful thinking, warm words and little action on climate change.