Upward gazing can be politically blinding
Who’s not heard the great African revolutionary Amilcar Cabral’s injunction, fifty years ago, “Tell no lies and claim no easy victories”? If, like me, you’re a petit bourgeois who is hopeful for social progress, then let’s be frank: this advice hits at our greatest weakness, the temptation of back-slapping vanity.
The leading framers for the 41-million strong clicktivist team from Avaaz need to remember Cabral. They over-reached ridiculously last week in praising the G7:
Many told us it was a pipe dream, but the G7 Summit of leading world powers just committed to getting the global economy off fossil fuels forever!!! Even the normally cynical media is raving that this is a huge deal. And it’s one giant step closer to a huge win at the Paris summit in December – where the entire world could unite behind the same goal of a world without fossil fuels – the only way to save us all from catastrophic climate change… Our work is far from done, but it’s a day to celebrate – click here to read more and say congratulations to everyone else in this incredibly wonderful community!!
Actually, according to The Economist: “no fossil-fuel-burning power station will be closed down in the immediate future as a result of this declaration. The goal will not make any difference to the countries’ environmental policies, since they are mostly consistent with this long-range goal anyway. Where they are not (some countries are increasing coal use, for example) they will not be reined in because of the new promises… the G7’s climate effort raises as many questions as it answers. The group seems to have rejected proposals for more demanding targets, such as decarbonisation by 2050.”
Or Time: “The results were disappointing to say the least… The G7 announced an ‘ambitious’ plan to phase out all fossil fuels worldwide by 2100. Unfortunately, they didn’t make any concrete plans to scale back their own conventional fuel consumption. That’s a big deal when 59 percent of historic global carbon dioxide emissions—meaning the greenhouse gases already warming the atmosphere—comes from these seven nations. Taken as a group, G7 coal plants produce twice the amount of CO2 as the entire African continent, and at least 10 times the carbon emissions produced by the 48 least developed countries as a whole. If the G7 is serious about tackling climate change, they should start at home.”
So what was going on, really? Here’s a talking head from the Council on Foreign Relations (an imperialist braintrust): “The United States has long pressed for a shift away from binding emissions reduction commitments and toward a mix of nationally grounded emission-cutting efforts and binding international commitments to transparency and verification. European countries have often taken the other side, emphasizing the importance of binding targets (or at least policies) for cutting emissions. Now it looks like the big developed countries are on the same page as the United States. The language above is all about binding countries to transparency – and there isn’t anything elsewhere in the communiqué about binding them to actual emissions goals.”
There is an even tougher critique from the left, e.g. from Oscar Reyes of the Institute for Policy Studies, who annotated the G7 climate communique here. He lands many powerful blows, not least of which is that you simply cannot trust these politicians. This is well known in Africa. Exactly a decade ago, Tony Blair led the (then-G8) Gleneagles Summit that made all manner of ambitious redistributive promises for the continent that weren’t fulfilled.
Another promise to look at more critically is whether ‘net zero’ carbon emissions by 2100 will be gamed through ‘false solutions’ like Carbon Capture and Storage, dropping iron filings in the ocean to create algae blooms, and expansion of timber plantations to suck up CO2. The most serious watchdogs here, the ETC group, ActionAid and Biofuelwatch, agree that the G7 needs to reverse its energy ministers’ recent endorsement of these Dr Strangelove strategies.
Put it all together, and after last week’s Elmau G7 Summit, admits even Oxfam (often also upward gazing), “This lukewarm summit result will only make the fight harder, if not impossible.”
Avaaz are not only embarrassingly contradicted on their right flank. The organisation’s premature celebration is dangerous. After all, the conservative (pro-market pro-insiderism anti-activism) wing of ‘climate action’ politics – as distinct from climate justice advocacy – is gaming us all now, arguing that the Paris COP21 can result in a victory. Avaaz just amped up that narrative.
Will the mild-mannered Climate Action Network (CAN) join a big all-in tent to maximise Paris popular mobilisations? In 2011 at the COP17, that’s the approach that civil society tried in Durban, to my regret. I think CJ activists drawing in CAN – and Avaaz – may be making a serious mistake. For this surprising Avaaz spin – declaring victory at the G7 – compounds the essential problem of mis-estimating the rigour of the fight ahead.
The reality: if we don’t dramatically change the balance of forces and applaud activists who do much more militant modes of engagement, then global COP malgovernance continues another 21 years. Civil disobedience has been breaking out in all sorts of blockadia spaces, and so surely Avaaz should put 99% of its climate advocacy effort into amplifying the work of those heroes?
From Paris, one of the main organisers of COP21 protests, Maxime Combes, was suitably cynical about the G7, which “had already committed in 2009 (in Italy) to not exceed 2° C and to achieve a reduction of at least 50% of global emissions by 2050. So nothing new in the 2015 declarations except that at that time they had also committed to reduce by 80% or more their own emissions by 2050. No mention of this target is present in the declaration this year.” Avaaz is young, yes, but still should be able to recognise backsliding over the half-dozen years.
Last September, I was greatly heartened by Avaaz mobilising (not messaging), against what were my own prior predictions (on RealNews from 4’00”, reflecting pessimism thanks partly to Avaaz’s awfully unfortunate New York subway adverts, putting “hipsters and bankers in the same boat march”). That wonderful mass march linked the issues and put non-compromising placards high into the air (way higher than ‘climate action’ or pro-nuke or pro-cap-and-trade), and the next day, the Flood Wall Street protest hit corporations hard for a few hours. Avaaz and allies appropriately had us marching away from the UN, because after all nothing useful has happened there regarding air pollution – or any global crisis for that matter – since the 1987 Montreal Protocol addressed the ozone hole by banning CFCs.
And I am also one who appreciates Avaaz’s excellent petition machinery. (It’s in use now generating awareness and solidarity for truly excellent anti-mining campaigns two hours south and north of where I live in Durban, for example.) So this is not a standard lefty critique of clicktivism. It is a recognition of how desperately important it is for Avaaz to retain maximum credibility in the mainstream and among hard-core activists alike. Endorsing the world’s 1% politicians is quite surreal, given how little they did last week in Bavaria, what with their 85-year time horizon and orientation to false solutions.
Avaaz wasn’t alone, by the way. From a press release I learned from Greenpeace’s international climate politics officer Martin Kaiser: “Elmau delivered.” Also, from Greenpeace US Energy Campaign director Kelly Mitchell, “Leaders at the G7 meeting have put forward a powerful call to move the global economy away from fossil fuels and toward a renewable energy future. Heading into the Paris climate meeting this year, it’s a significant step toward securing a commitment to 100% renewable energy by 2050.”
Tell no lies, claim no easy victories. What I hope might happen is that in future Avaaz, Greenpeace and similar well-meaning activists might at least see it in their interest to tell the truth and intensify the battle against the leaders of the G7 (and the BRICS too) and especially against the corporations that yank their chains. Instead of Avaaz massaging the G7 elites for “sending an immediate signal to dirty and clean energy investors that will help accelerate the clean-energy boom we desperately need,” as if capitalism can solve the climate crisis, why not re-boot the power relations?
How about this wording, instead: “Since the G7 rulers finally recognise that fossil fuels must stay underground, duh!, but still fail to act decisively to that end, we in Avaaz condemn the politicians. We’ll redouble our efforts to target their biggest fossil investors. We’ll do so through not only divestment – achieved by small investor committees in wealthy Global North institutions – but now we’ll also turn Avaaz’s mighty 41-million strong listserve towards consumer boycotts of the corporations and especially the banks that have the most power over these G7-BRICS politicos. And we’ll get legal and media support for anyone blockading these firms, since the ‘necessity defence’ for civil disobedience is becoming much more vital to our world’s near-term survival. Even the Pope’s new climate Encyclical agrees.”
Wouldn’t that be a more satisfying and nutritious strategy than the climate junkfood email that millions just received from Avaaz? I really felt a little sick after consuming it. Surely Avaaz can see the merits of shifting the goalposts to the left each time they have a chance, and thus enhancing the climate justice struggle – not joining the G7 in a fatal climate snuggle.
Patrick Bond is author of Politics of Climate Justice and, in Durban, directs the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society.
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