After Durban: Climate Activists Target Corporate Power

With UN climate negotiations turning out disappointing once again, some members of the climate justice movement are fighting what they say is the root cause of climate inaction.

"I feel like I've written the same story for the past three years," climate reporter Kate Sheppard tweeted from Durban, South Africa, last week.

Indeed, this year's United Nations climate negotiations in Durban--the Conference of the Parties, where world governments get together ostensibly to talk about reining in climate change--proceeded much like the previous two. Experts predicted the talks would fall apart. Scientists released frightening warnings about the world's failure to act (including a report that greenhouse gas emissions shot up 5.9 percent last year, likely the largest increase since the Industrial Revolution). The talks ended in the early morning hours on Sunday with an extension of the Kyoto Protocol and a two-page agreement (called the "Durban Platform") to make another agreement by 2015, next time "with legal force." But the negotiations produced no binding commitments from the participating nations substantive enough to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, a threshold that was once considered "safe," though new research suggests even that much warming poses serious environmental and economic dangers. Still, many major press outlets proclaimed the "Durban platform" a success, because it was, perhaps, better than not having an agreement at all.

Many of the citizen groups that gathered at Durban see the talks as a failure. Inspired, in part, by the Occupy movement, they are beginning to cry foul at the ways they believe corporate influence at home has stymied their governments' participation in the U.N. process year after year.

"We're not going to be overly distracted by the ongoing shell game of endless U.N. negotiations," Bill McKibben, founder of the climate activist group, said in a statement after the close of the climate talks. "We know that the real debate is between the bottom line of the scientists, and the bottom line of the fossil fuel companies ... we're going to take on the subsidies that make the oil companies so rich, and the systemic corruption that makes them so politically powerful."

It's not news that the fossil-fuel industry has fought hard against climate legislation in the United States, for instance by helping to weaken and ultimately kill the cap-and-trade bill in Congress in 2010. But a recent report by Greenpeace International, released just days before the negotiations, documents how fossil-fuel companies have fought climate policies at every level of government in countries around the world. For example, in Australia, energy and mining companies have launched large ad campaigns to derail the passage of a carbon tax. Canadian politicians are heavily under the influence of companies involved in tar-sands extraction: For instance, in July 2011, a meeting of energy ministers to discuss Canada's energy future was sponsored by 11 oil companies (at a cost of CA$180,000). Meanwhile, the Canadian oil industry receives more than CA$1.3 billion every year in government handouts. And Royal Dutch Shell, which also has major investments in Canadian tar sands expansion, recently petitioned the Japanese government to oppose any extension of the Kyoto Protocol (the only binding climate treaty that has ever existed).

Businesses haven't yet become more than observers to the U.N. climate negotiations, but they have sought day-long conferences and private meetings with negotiators and governments as an attempt to influence the negotiating process.

Inside the meetings themselves, the United States has bullied negotiators and obstructed progress year after year. The Bush Administration made plain its do-nothing policy on climate when it backed out of the Kyoto Protocol in 2001. It has been a surprise to climate activists to see the Obama Administration continue to fiercely undermine the talks. In 2009, as revealed by Wikileaks cables, the United States went so far as to threaten, intimidate, and spy on negotiators to get what it wanted: the weak Copenhagen Accord, which had no legally binding requirements to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

Last week, at least one move by the United States made it clear whose interests the government had in mind. U.S. negotiators blocked consensus at the Durban meetings in order to give the private sector (i.e., multinational corporations) access to a funding program to help developing countries to respond to climate change--to develop renewables and deal with the years of droughts, storms, floods, rising seas and other havoc coming their way. Writing for the Friends of the Earth blog, Kate Horner called it a "hijack ... for the benefit of multinational corporations in the wealthy world, meaning that many of the world's poorest will once again be bypassed as the 1 percent grow even wealthier."

Despite the failings of the United Nations process, none of the citizen groups I spoke with by phone in Durban this week seemed prepared to abandon it. "It's the fight for democracy on an international scale. Government officials that come to these international gatherings need to be accountable to their constituents and not to corporations," said Jen Soriano of the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance.

Nobody thinks it will be easy to wrench the climate policymaking process away from corporate influence--but activists believe the climate talks will go almost nowhere if they don't. In the United States, grassroots environmental groups like are buoyed by winning a delay (and ultimately, they hope, a complete stop) of the construction of a 1,700-mile oil pipeline proposed by the Canadian company TransCanada. And the most hopeful news of the Durban meetings happened outside the negotiations themselves, as activists from around the world demanded action. On December 3, thousands of activists marched through the streets of Durban, singing and dancing. Inside the conference this past Friday, activists disrupted the meetings by breaking into South African freedom songs. They delivered 700,000 signatures calling on the U.S. to stop pushing for a delay of any climate agreement until 2020; U.S. negotiators ultimately backed down partly in response to international pressure. And South African grassroots leaders unveiled a economic report that called on their government to revive the country's crippled economy by creating "one million climate jobs" in sectors like transit, housing, agriculture and renewable energy.

It will be a long fight to translate these actions into enough grassroots power to push corporate influence out of climate politics, both domestically and in international negotiations, but many activists believe it is the only way forward.

This article was written for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.