Last week marked the ten-year anniversary of the “Battle of Seattle”, when tens of thousands of protesters successfully shut down the World Trade Organisation’s ministerial meetings on its opening day. Taking negotiators and the media by surprise, the mass mobilisation of diverse groups, from environmentalists to trade unionists, effectively stalled trade talks that many critics suggest would have consolidated global corporate power at the expense of the world’s poor and marginalised. Hailed by author Naomi Klein as the global justice movement’s ‘coming-out party’, many commentators view the protests as a major inspiration for the transnational mobilisations for social, economic and environmental justice that are now a regular feature at international policy meetings.
Now, with world leaders meeting at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (7–18th December) in Copenhagen to discuss what experts warn is the greatest humanitarian challenge the world faces – global warming – the so-called ‘movement of movements’ faces its next major milestone. Just as Seattle revealed the extent of opposition to profit-driven corporate globalisation shared by social movements around the world, Copenhagen may reveal a global justice movement that has developed beyond the politics of resistance into a truly diverse, forward-looking movement for change. In the words of David Solnit, co-author of The Battle of the Story of the Battle of Seattle: “If Seattle was the movement of movements' coming-out party, then maybe Copenhagen will be a celebration of our coming of age.”
The lead up to Copenhagen has seen a groundswell of collaborative activism by civil society groups across the planet, leading to speculation that social movements will coalesce once again and successfully ‘Seattle’ the negotiations. However, the call for climate justice under which the global movement is uniting has a distinctly different flavour to the so-called ‘anti-globalisation’ protests of the late 1990s. Unlike the mobilisations against the WTO and the international financial institutions, dismissed by some as reactionary expressions of discontent, the movement for climate justice is not just a shared voice of opposition. From environmentalists and anti-poverty groups to farmers’ organisations and trade unionists, together these voices are weaving a coherent narrative on the causes of global warming and building an alternative paradigm that incorporates their diverse interests.
Rather than treating climate change as a purely environmental issue that can be averted by technological solutions and market mechanisms, climate justice suggests that the causes lie in the unjust economic model that has seen industrialised countries reap the benefits of fossil fuel-intensive development. The movement calls for the industrialised world to repay its climate debt to poor countries, communities and people – those who will be most impacted by a crisis not of their making. Furthermore, climate justice recognises that the right to development must be at the heart of a fair and sustainable deal. Instead of focussing on the buying and selling of the right to pollute, advocates argue for solutions that promote alternative paths to development, such as sharing green technology, encouraging sustainable agricultural practices, and ensuring all communities have access to a fair and equitable share of the world’s resources.
The level and mode of transnational mobilisations that have already occurred in support of climate justice also point to a maturing global civil society. On 24th October, a global day of action organised by the 350 campaign saw 5200 actions in 181 countries unite in a call for an equitable and meaningful solution to the climate crisis – the most widespread protest in human history to date. The media echoed the call for a socially just solution to the climate crisis on the 7th December in an unprecedented common editorial, published by 56 newspapers in 45 countries, which urged the industrialised world to recognise its responsibility to “help poorer countries adapt to climate change… to enable them to grow economically without growing their emissions”.
While a series of protests and demonstrations are highlighting the call for climate justice in Copenhagen, the heart of the movement is at the civil society counterpart to the official conference, Klimarforum09. At this open and inclusive platform for discussion, people and groups from all corners of the planet are coming together to create an alternative declaration
under the heading ‘system change – not climate change’. The hope is to inspire political leaders to put social and climate justice at the heart of a strong, cooperative and binding treaty on the challenge of addressing climate change. While reaching a legally binding agreement is officially off the Copenhagen agenda, the political declaration now expected is no less important in setting the framework for future negotiations and drawing the contours of a final agreement. With the final text of the Klimaforum09 declaration to be finalised by the 14th December, it has the potential to influence the outcome of the current conference and, in so doing, place climate justice on the official agenda moving forward.
While the protests a decade ago ‘changed the story on free trade’, civil society activism in Copenhagen may achieve much more than a change in popular rhetoric. With the goal of nurturing a holistic response to the threat of global warming, the climate justice movement could succeed in guiding future negotiations and policymaking to prioritise social and climate justice above the self-interest of individual countries and big business.