Friday, October 9, 2015

Take the Climate Crisis to the Streets?

As plans fall into place for the COP 21 Paris conference, more plans surfaced yesterday for the other Paris climate event, the one that will be happening concurrently in the streets of Paris, in other cities, and in social media everywhere. Calling its event 'Climate Games,' the ad hoc coalition is publicizing a dispersed, anonymous clearing house for protestors to carry out rigorously nonviolent actions--called 'adventures'--that might include blockades, public art and theater, and ... who knows what? (An amusing sample of possible 'adventures' can be found here.)

The organizing coalition includes over 130 citizens' groups, among them, the anti-globalization group ATTAC, OxFam, Greenpeace, many smaller French environmental and social welfare organizations, and a number of high-profile activists like Naomi Klein. ATTAC has provided an early indicator of what this might look like: teams of activists have begun invading Paris bank branches and appropriating desk chairs, until they have 196 of them--one for each national delegation, who can thus symbolically seat themselves in chairs supplied by 'the people' rather than the banks. Blockades--a major part of the plan--will not disrupt the actual proceedings or impede delegates, but will instead establish ten 'red lines' across Paris--each representing a non-negotiable demand for a viable climate agreement, and each accompanied by a team of artists, performers, and agitators amplifying the message of that particular 'red line.'

All of which raises two questions for me: 1) is this necessary? And 2) is it useful?

On the first question, the premise of 'Climate Games' is that the agreement shaping up in the official UNFCCC process is inadequate, that the conference won't act boldly and speedily enough to avert climate change disaster, and that we have a moral obligation to push the conference toward more urgent agreements. Is this true? Almost all informed observers agree that what the national INDC proposals include will not keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius (the arbitrary but widely accepted red flag level) this century. Some, including venerable climate scientist James Hansen, anticipate a much more rapid rise in sea levels than previously predicted, while other scientists are raising the specter of irreversible tipping points that would lead to unmanageable temperature rise within a generation or two. So there is real scientific basis for thinking that the gradualist approach--carbon neutrality by the end of this century--is simply irresponsible.

A slowly modified status quo is what governments are proposing because they are the status quo. They represent existing financial and corporate interests, and they aren't willing--or indeed empowered--to alter those power relationships. If solar and wind can turn a profit, if energy companies are given incentives to redirect investments to renewables, if development aid emphasizes clean energy projects ... then the steamship might slowly change course without any real structural change in power or financial relationships. One could easily argue that such is the overarching strategy of COP 21, of the whole UN process--and of President Obama's 'all of the above' policy, or China's solar + coal + hydro growth-based planning, or India's 'first we address poverty' proposal. Meanwhile we carbonize our atmosphere beyond the point of no return, and displace hundreds of millions of people--not to mention other species--in the process.

If this view has merit--and of course the science is always debatable as to the depth and rate of climate change--then the protestors are right: people's voices need to sound the alarm over the quiet hum of business as usual inside the conference hall.

But will protest work? It has taken 3 decades for the urgency of the climate issue to reach a threshold of public awareness, certainly in the US but perhaps--given the previous failures of the COP movement--globally as well. Those who need to change the most, to support the most dramatic transfers of resources and of lifestyle perquisites, are not surprisingly the most skeptical. Will the ingenious guerilla communications strategies of 'Climate Games' persuade them? Or rather antagonize them, and make the movement seem even more marginal than it already does?

Some have already questioned the 'games' metaphor, and I think that's right. This is a deadly serious business. The oil executives who are determined to burn every drop they can extract aren't going to be cleverly persuaded. The utilities executives (and the UK's Chancellor Osborne) busily taking away solar subsidies from homeowners can't be teased out of their self-interest. If the more dire scientific assessments are correct, then a more urgent strategy may be needed. Power, enormous wealth, and global privilege will not be yielded up because it's the right thing to do. They will have to be fought--maybe not now, not yet, but soon, under conditions of chaos and despair. 'Climate Games' may be merely a supercilious prologue to (armed) climate struggle, or climate disaster.

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