A new weather front

Last year was the year that the world woke up to the prospect of catastrophic climate change. The debate about the future of life on Earth changed, from a few scientists and eco-radicals predicting doom to politicians and corporations proclaiming a need for action – even ‘radical’ action. Paul Sumburn assesses this new landscape

After years of drawing attention to the facts of climate change, suddenly the issue is everywhere, and everyone, it seems, is calling for action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In some senses this is a rare victory, a response both to the pressure of activists and the scientific consensus channelled powerfully by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But, of course, some see the potential to expand the sphere of capital’s influence: most mainstream talk is of market-friendly technological solutions, ‘carbon trading’ and oil companies dabbling in renewable energy.

This new situation raises important questions about strategy. It’s no longer about making a noise and raising the issue: it’s about getting to grips with the fundamental problem. In the UK the growing movement against the fossil fuel economy has attempted to find a way out of this rhetorical labyrinth by taking action that stops or reduces carbon dioxide emissions whilst promoting workable ecological solutions and challenging dominant power structures. First we describe what we did, and second we describe how climate change, capitalism and resistance to both, all fit together.

The Camp for Climate Action

In August 2006 around 600 people worried about climate change, and looking for something beyond the empty rhetoric of the politicians and corporations, got together for a two week camp next to the UK’s largest power station and tried to shut it down. The focus of the camp was power. Drax coal-fired power station provides around 7% of the UK’s electricity and produces over 20 million tons of CO2 each year. Its existence and continued use is incompatible with any kind of ecological or equitable future. Our attempts to shut it down were an audacious strike both at a source of CO2 emissions and a lynchpin of 21st century capitalism.

The camp embodied three key ideas. First, a commitment to direct action: a belief that solutions to the problem of climate change lie not with governments and corporations but with grassroots movements for change. On the day of action the camp attempted to breach the power station perimeter with the aim of occupying the site and closing it down. On this occasion we didn’t achieve our objectives (due in part to the massive security operation involving 4,000 police) although the role of coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, was exposed for the first time. Second, a commitment to popular education. The camp was a site for over 100 meetings and workshops, on climate and related issues. Finally we experimented with alternatives to the social relations of capitalism. The camp was organised as an autonomous space, from eating to entertainment to satellite-linked internet connections, with decisions made via non-hierarchical methods of consensus and a strong commitment to limiting our environmental impact. Many of the ideas for the camp’s organisation came from a re-creation of the ‘neighbourhood’ or barrio system of organisation as used in 2002 at the Strasbourg no border camp and continued in 2005 at the G8 camp in Stirling, Scotland. This commitment to autonomy, non-hierarchy and low impact living inspired many for whom the camp was their first experience of political activity.

The camp was in many ways a great success but any temporary gathering of people has its limitations and important strategic questions remain. Many of us organising the camp recognised how the summit gatherings met our crucial need for convergence, for coming together and acting in unison. We also rejected the over-emphasis on individual responsibility and wanted to take on the corporate interests which cause large emissions and which can only be tackled through collective effort. It’s important that, where they can, people make individual changes but switching light bulbs doesn’t connect a person with real causes of climate change, the political and economic system. We felt that the climate camp could learn from summit convergences, but also had the potential to move beyond them in a number of ways. First, the camp was at a time and place of our choosing. One of the dangers of the G8 gatherings is that we become an institutionalised symbolic mirror. They have their summit; we try to stop it. The climate camp, for some, was an attempt to break out of that cycle.

Second, the camp was a direct attempt to stop something real, in this case a power station and CO2 emissions. Symbolic action can be, and has been, profoundly important but there is a danger that summit gatherings are increasingly lost in a hall of mirrors. Over time the symbolism of our protest is drained of its power. There is, of course, a risk that the climate camp could itself create new false targets as people imagine that Drax (or any similar place) is capitalism and not just a large machine animated by capitalist process.

Finally, the camp was also an attempt to challenge the pessimism around this issue. Faced with the full facts about climate change and the massive reduction in emissions necessary over a very short period of time, it’s all too easy to either deny the problem or conclude that it’s too late, that it’s an issue so large and entrenched that it’s without solution. We found it remarkable that scientists’ predictions of global catastrophe under business-as-usual had hardly animated radicals. We wanted to move away from denial. We wanted to say that the future is, literally, in our hands.

The ostrich has left the building

Ostriches were a recurring motif of the camp. Publicity posters showed people with heads in the sand and at one point during the demonstrations the police confiscated a giant puppet of an ostrich, suspecting it contained equipment for direct action. But the figure of the ostrich no longer captures the problem before us. Climate change is no longer being ignored but that doesn’t mean that we can move on.

We have to realise that capitalism may not have to sort climate change out in order to survive. Or at least it might need to avoid only the very highest of the projected temperature rises. It’s important to remember that capitalism operates by breaking down and collapsing. It contracts through war, depression or restructuring in order to allow for a new round of growth. In fact it has already written off large parts of the world as surplus populations. The most likely scenario is a version of business as usual with some attempts to ameliorate conditions for a much smaller guaranteed core, alongside a huge increase in securitisation against the rest of the world. The only check on this nightmare is what we, as local and world population, will put up with. We could even say that the temperature of the earth will be a measure of our ability to self-organise. Literally keeping the earth within liveable temperatures will be the definition of the success or failure of class struggle in the 21st century.

There is a fundamental difference between the levels of climate change that those who make the rules, make investment decisions, and the like are happy to accept, and the levels that peasant farmers, slum-dwellers and factory workers can tolerate. What’s ‘dangerous’ for the former are changes in the weather that cause international security problems (as the UK government made clear in its presentation to the UN Security Council made clear) and changes in the weather that, domino-like, cause a massive contraction of the economy (as the UK government’s Stern report sets out). What’s ‘dangerous’ to the latter are crop failure and hunger, destroyed houses from extreme rains and storms, and everywhere across the Third World, heatstrokes and exhaustion, primarily affecting the young, old, and ill.

Biological precarity and class-based weather fronts

Climate change takes many of the major problems, tragedies and dilemmas we currently face and acts as a multiplier. People are dying of starvation now; climate change will add many millions more. There are refugees now, and environmental refugees already outnumber those displaced by armed conflict, according to the Red Cross, yet climate change will change rainfall patterns, causing mass ecological dislocation and migration as some places become agriculturally dead. At the beginning of the 21st century weather is the frontline in the conflict between rich and poor, between west and south, between one class and another.

Remember Katrina? Remember the gridlocked highways as the wealthy escaped the city leaving the poor behind to face the hurricane? Credible scientific predictions suggest that unless emissions are drastically reduced, the synthesis of global temperature rise and precarity (or precariousness) will cause the mass-migrations of hundreds of millions of people and food shortages in rich countries. Given our socially interconnected world this could be the making of a revolution, or make the tragedies of the twentieth century appear mild. Again, this will be down to people’s choices. Climate change is the vicious end result of an international class war that started with slavery and imperialism and is now manifest as neo-liberal globalisation. The question to us is where will it end?

There is no such thing as a ‘natural disaster’. The impacts of extreme natural events form a tragic map of inequality, disadvantage and class division. The wealthy have better housing and live in safer places. When things go wrong they have access to better health care and the finances to start again. On looking at who is affected worst by earthquakes in the south, some geographers now describe them as ‘class quakes’. Climate change is no different, except in terms of scale. It’s the poor who live on the banks of rivers and estuaries that might flood, whose housing is most vulnerable to storms, who are the first to starve when food prices rise and who have limited means to rebuild when things go wrong. On top of this existing economic and social precarity, the exhaust fumes of neo-liberalism, in the form of climate change, are ushering in a new era of biological precarity.

There is only environment

To get to grips with this mess we need to move beyond the green movement’s tendency to construct the environment as a separate sphere or as an idealised moral good. Enclosure of the natural world is seen as an unfortunate and curable symptom of the market rather than one of its fundamental and necessary modes of expansion. We can also see how climate change, like human rights, may be turned around and used against us. Just as humanitarian intervention has been used as a mask for power politics, such as justifying the invasion of Iraq, environmentalism may suffer the same fate. In fact the process is well underway. In the Lacondon jungle of Chiapas, southern Mexico the government is attempting to ‘resettle’ communities that are now in zones designated for conservation. This is because there is a grand plan, the Plan Puebla Panama, to ‘develop’ (i.e. enclose) Central America. Conservationists kicked up a fuss and were granted the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, a conservation initiative. So the local people are now in the ‘wrong’ place. This isn’t simply a case of spin by the Mexican government: one of the prime movers behind this has been the giant US eco-NGO Conservation International, which worked intimately with the military and Mexican government to design the reserve areas. The indigenous people have done a good job of preserving their local environment – so much so that it’s globally important for conservation – yet if we consider only the environment then we end up siding with the Mexican military and against the Zapatistas.

What this makes clear is that we can’t treat climate change as a separate issue: like everything else, power relations run right through it. Any movement based around climate change has to be enmeshed in the rest of the problems of the world’s movements. Likewise any movement for a liveable future needs to take on climate change. Climate change is not a cause; it’s a symptom (albeit one with the potential to kill off the patient). Equally the impacts and interconnectedness of climate change will undermine any success we might have in other areas. In the context of the debate in these pages it will be difficult to talk of winning, as millions starve or the Amazon burns. Looking at it this way round, we can see that climate change has the potential to link us not just as victims of disaster but as people fighting together.

Common struggle

As we’ve already hinted, the links between radical campaigning on climate change and other areas are so strong that they could in time become indivisible. Migration is one key example: the greatest cause of migration in coming years will be climate change-induced drought and ‘natural’ disasters. We must say yes to a world without borders, and equally yes to people having a functioning environment wherever they choose to live. We sometimes neglect to look at the causes of migration because we don’t want to reduce our focus on the injustice of border control and racist immigration policy. Unless we act now, the near future will see a world in which people are forced to migrate in vastly increased numbers and in which fear-induced border policy becomes more extreme.

Whilst the struggle against alienating, shit work is an essential measure of our struggles against capitalism, it is also essential for solving the problem of carbon emissions. Capital’s main means of winning out in workplace struggles is either attack, restructuring and increasing precarity, or else paying people off with increased wages. In neither case is the central issue of exploitation challenged. Instead the globalised (and thus increasingly energy-intensive) nature of capital is affirmed. In the former, capital is globalised to weaken the position of the worker; in the latter the worker strikes a kind of deal with the devil and accepts an increased level of consumption in return for ongoing alienation. Both options exacerbate climate change.

In an increasingly globalised market the chances are that what we produce has an ever more remote relationship to our actual needs. A growth in consumption is both the market’s solution and its raison d’etre. But how do workers take back meaning and control? Part of this must involve autonomy but part must also mean relocalisation. Of course local production is not sufficient to solve the problem of alienation and exploitation (there are countless ‘local’ businesses that are as corrupt and exploitative as those keyed into global markets). But at the same time autonomy alone is not enough. While there is a world of difference between worker control and capitalist control, shit and polluting work remains shit and polluting work, regardless of who owns the production line. Our challenge is to tackle both the relationships within the workplace and the kind of work being done. In other words solutions to climate change have to encourage good solutions to crap work: not more consumption and exploitation but less work and commodities and more free time and happiness.

Moreover climate change makes us all potentially precarious because it undermines the ways people try to achieve security within capitalism. A climate-related economic crash is a growing possibility, given the increasing frequency of extreme weather events and the impact of this on both infrastructure and the insurance industry. This crash alone won’t necessarily undermine capitalism but it will wipe out pensions, house prices, savings etc. We’ve seen in Argentina how precarious those forms of security are.

There is a danger of a vicious circle emerging, with the atomisation and conflict being caused by the huge increase in precarity then feeding back into support for policies of the free market, economic expansion and authoritarian methods of control. Against that, we have to raise the possibility of entering into a virtuous circle. Any amelioration of climate change increases the room or time all movements have to manoeuvre. The more time and space people have for politics, the more we can control the level of climate change and make sure that the measures used to combat it aren’t used against us. And in the end that sort of autonomous self-organisation is the only sort of security we can rely on.

Climate change is not an environmental issue, even if NGOs and liberal greens have claimed it so thus far. It is above all a social issue, and its impacts will affect all our social movements. The weather of the coming decades will literally frame and limit our struggles and, if left unchallenged, will completely undermine any successes we have elsewhere. Somehow in this blizzard of climate rhetoric we have to bring into focus the possibility of solutions that emphasise the human not the technological, solutions that reside in what we have to hand here and now, not what may or may not be on the desk in the shining corporate R&D lab.

BEYOND GREENWASH There is a remarkable mismatch between rhetoric and reality when it comes to climate change. The attempt to reengineer reality in terms of market solutions is about more than presentation and image, it’s a modal shift in the market to fend off the growth in more radical and threatening ideas (ones that suggest the market is in fact the problem). As one would expect the oil companies are out there at the forefront of this latest wave of greenwash. BP is for example planning a new gas-fired zero emission power station in Scotland that buries all its waste CO2 far below the North Sea, thus in their words taking hundreds of thousands of car equivalents of the roads. Further down we find out that the buried CO2 is actually being used to help pump out otherwise unreachable oil reserves releasing millions of new barrels of oil that – surprise surprise – will put many more cars back on the road than the first sleight of hand is taking off. Calling BP ‘Beyond Petroleum’ is like calling the British Army ‘Beyond Violence’. The oil companies will drill every last barrel of oil and gas there is on this planet until and unless they are stopped. Meanwhile the UK government talks green in one corner with a climate change bill (tying the government to binding targets for emissions reductions) but in the other corner it promotes road building, aviation expansion, free trade, and a relaxation of planning laws in favour of big developers.

Let’s be clear, it is the wealthy that produce most CO2 emissions. That goes for countries and individuals within countries. In the UK we produce on average around 9 tons of CO2 per head of population compared to a Tanzanian who produces around 0.1 tons. Within the UK it is the wealthy who drive and fly most. The world economy is built on the self-expansion of alienated labour but the burning of fossil fuels has also been intrinsic to industrial expansion, providing energy for the machines that labour uses. Shifting weather patterns are not a form of direct control, like military invasion or economic constraint, but they exacerbate the already appalling divisions between rich and poor.

There’s no doubt that a social movement with climate change as one of its central concerns is the only way to tackle human-induced climate change and the expansion of capital. The Climate Camp is an active part of that movement and a place where it can constitute itself. Climate change and the growing rhetoric around it expose a crack in the system. While the mainstream attempts to plaster this over with techno-fixes, there is, at the same time, the chance to expose the limits of these solutions and turn people on to the need for more fundamental action. The vast political space opened up by climate change will either be filled by business people and industry selling the latest shiny, plastic, bury-it, green-it, burn-it, offset-it, sell-it solutions or by people who have a critique of capitalism and can see enclosure and intensification as both an inevitable expression of capital and a changeable reality. There’s going to be a climate camp from 14 to 21 August 2007, celebrating these possibilities and challenging the fossil fuel economy not by 2030 or 2050, not upon a timeline set by the market but in the here and now. So if you can, come and join us for some serious climate action. www.climatecamp.org.uk

Paul Sumburn is part of the Camp for Climate Action Writers Bloc

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