Pascal Steven argues that a radical critique of climate change starts with capital, not carbon. He argues that the climate movement has moved into a post-political phase. Originally published in January 2009.
Everything is rational in capitalism, except capital or capitalism itself… the system is demented, yet it works very well at the same time”.
(Felix Guattarri, 1995)
“We mean business when we talk about climate change”.
(Jose Manuel Barroso, European commission president)
One of the biggest political spectacles of the coming year will be held in Copenhagen, (COP-15) in December. There, delegates from 170 countries, corporate lobbyists and NGO representatives will come together under the banner of the United Nations framework convention on climate change (UNFCC) in an attempt to solve the problem of climate change via the implementation of a global, market based, carbon cap and trade scheme. The deal brokered here will replace the Kyoto treaty which will expire in 2012. The COP-15 will be a core global governance mechanism through which climate change mitigation will be implemented. The deal that emerges from this has the potential to affect the entire socio-ecological field.
Although the framework for the new treaty has been sketched out at Poznan there is still lots to negotiate. Outside of state actors, NGOs from both North and South are calling for a mass movement to intervene in this process. Many are calling for a dramatic reduction in the maximum CO2 levels that will be permitted to be emitted whilst others are seeking greater flows of technological exchange and financial aid to cope with the effects of climate change. In the UK, the Climate Camp and sections of the radical left are also beginning to mobilise. However, heated debate still exists over whether we should go and, if we do decide to go what should our intervention consist of? With the upcoming anti-Nato, G8, G20 and COP-15 summits 2009 appears, at least on paper, as the year in which summit mobilisations come back into vogue. However, unlike mobilisations during the alter-globalisation cycle of resistance, the politics of climate change make an intervention at the COP-15 much more difficult. Whilst many are calling for the COP-15 to be de-legitimised and shut down others are calling for a pragmatic engagement with it and suggest corporate lobbyists or the most dilatory states as targets. This article hopes to problematise the (post)politics of the COP-15 process and highlight the difficulties a radical left intervention would encounter in doing so.
Post-politics of climate change
The formal political space of the COP-15 process can be defined by its emphasis on consensus. Although every actor involved has their own individual agenda and set of goals for the summit it appears a degree of consensus has been reached. A new political space based on science and technocratic administration is emerging where the only debates that remain are over the finer points of the carbon market which will be implemented. Climate change has been de-politicised and debate is now framed within scientific terms of carbon parts per million in the atmosphere. Despite appearing as a non-political issue, it is the exact opposite. Anthropogenic emissions stem from concrete forms of production. By focusing on carbon and not the flows of capital responsible for their emission, policy makers are confusing the effects with the system that produces them. This focus on carbon helps to insulate the system from criticism by creating the problem as external and divorcing it from its social context.
Climate change has been defined in terms of carbon and not in terms of capital, but any policy needs support in order to be implemented. The political willpower to act on climate change has been galvanised through an apocalyptic and millenarian narrative. The argument for averting climate change is clear and unequivocal; if we do not mitigate climate change the results will be disastrous for the entire world. This is of course true, the effects of climate change will be devastating for many, particularly for the most vulnerable sections of society. Therefore we must act now to avert this catastrophic build up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The problem is defined as a universal problem requiring a united global response. Faced with the prospect of apocalypse, old left-right antagonisms begin to look outdated and those standing outside of this “carbon consensus” are marginalised as idealistic at best. Climate change therefore becomes a post-political space devoid of conflict and instead focused on implementing policy based on science, technology and markets. This appeal to universal action has helped to short circuit real political debate over future potential socio-ecological relationships. Within this depoliticised space Ed Miliband’s call for “millions on the streets” in a Make Poverty History style mobilisation to give Gordon Brown a mandate at the COP-15 sits comfortably with environmental activists calling for a pragmatic engagement with the process. Much like the Gleneagles G8 summit, COP-15 appears to be recuperating antagonism in order to re-articulate global patterns of capital.
This is tying the world into a disastrous course of action. Climate change must be defined as an issue of capital not carbon. Contrary to the claims of proponents of the emerging “green” economy, there is no equitable technological solution to climate change. A de-carbonised global economy (as many wish to see) will still be a capitalist economy with all the social and environmental damage this entails. A greener form of capitalism will be a more austere form of capitalism in which increasing unrest will require disciplining by increasingly authoritarian forms of state power. At best the COP-15 will be a pyrrhic victory in which catastrophic climate change is averted at the expense of many people’s standards of living. The Cop-15 process can be seen as one part of this emerging green new deal in which converging ecological and financial crises can be recuperated into circuits of capital accumulation. This carbon market will primarily benefit private interests in the North who have enough financial power to offset their emissions via “development” projects in the global south which look likely to only benefit small sections of local elites. Real political contestation has been trumped by a process whose destructive and deeply political nature has been obscured behind a scientific and apparently universal mandate for action.
That the media and the entire political spectrum appear in support of this process makes an anti-capitalist intervention even more problematic. By demanding the end of capitalist social relationships and refusing to accept the COP-15 we are articulating a demand that is impossible to be accommodated within the existing political sphere, especially one which forecloses the political through its use of science and focus on “universal” consensus. By standing outside of this, our demands are likely to be made legible in one of two ways. The first narrative, already used by George Monbiot with regards to last years climate camp, is that a radical intervention at the COP-15 will be an outdated and ideologically driven form of protest in a situation which needs a unified global effort behind it. The second narrative, and perhaps the more undesirable, will be that our intervention will be conflated with that of more liberal groups.
Despite this, we must act. Our intervention must embody a rejection of the false solutions proffered by the COP-15 process whilst clearly standing in opposition to liberals and environmentalists wishing to “make Kyoto Stronger” who are in fact pushing for a more austere form of capitalism. Our only hope of breaking through this will be an intervention of such force that the post-political veneer of the COP-15 process will be shattered, even if only for the days of the conference. Given a trend of increasingly militarised summit policing this appears an unenviable, if necessary, task.
In terms of environmental politics the anti-capitalist left is nowhere. Climate change has gone post-political. The only debates left at COP-15 are over the finer points of the carbon market which will be implemented, a market which will produce new forms of structural violence. In an incredible demonstration of the adaptability of capital many NGOs and environmentalists are supporting this process. Although it would be tempting to remain in our local communities the impacts of climate change and its mitigation are so large that we cannot afford to ignore this summit. Although as a movement our energies are perhaps best focused on the local this is our last chance to try and de-legitimise this process and re-politicise climate change.
Given the post-politics of climate change however this will be very difficult to achieve. An analysis of post-political processes has severe implications for anti-capitalist interventions. If the political sphere is no longer, if it ever was, a viable space for protests then perhaps the focus should shift to autonomous interventions in spaces that we create. Indeed, the real intervention against global climate governance may well be expressed in food riots, anti-airport expansion campaigns and fuel poverty campaigns, perhaps even by people not explicitly identifying with climate change politics. Whether we are successful or not at COP-15 we must begin to recognise ways in which we can support these autonomous uprisings rooted in our everyday experiences of capital.
Pascal Steven lives and works in Manchester.