Getting Action at Rio+20: Asking Hard Questions in the Marvelous City

We are very happy to repost an excerpt here from a blog by Kylie, a Democracy Center associate who was at the Rio summit in June and wrote this in response. The piece was first published by mutiny zine and we encourage you to read it in full (with references) on their site.

Of countersummits and COPs

We’ve known for a while the limits of what Tadzio Müller called “countersummits-r-us.” The brightest sparks in environmental justice organizing have long said that the UN negotiations are a dead end – as early as 2009 climate justice activists were urging each other not to pin their hopes on a good deal. After Copenhagen, Rising Tide stopped a coal train in Australia, declaring that after the world’s governments had failed, “now it’s up to us.”

And yet we keep devoting time and energy to the UN process. It seems as long as the world’s decision-makers keep gathering, we will keep stalking them. This is to a certain extent inevitable, and necessary. Playing a defensive or blocking role in negotiations remains important, if we are not to see new swathes of resources handed over to privatisation, or (in the case of the Australian government’s policy agenda) large sums of foreign aid money handed over to mining companies. But we need to make sure it’s not taking up so much of our time, resources and energy that we can’t do other work.

If we accept that the countersummits will continue, let’s get the most we possibly can out of them. Even when we’re shunted far away from official spaces, we can still do effective actions. We saw this in Rio, when 3000 people turned up to Vale’s HQ in downtown Rio, listened to spokespeople of communities affected by the company, then projected a target onto the building and left it covered with blood-coloured paint.

And beyond the summit spectacle? Certainly, we can educate each other and reinforce movement ties through actions and workshops “for us, by us” (to borrow a phrase.) But despite a significant degree of randomness at these gatherings – who has funding to travel, who self-selects – they are still an opportunity to strategise internationally. People used this opportunity in Rio, but perhaps not as much as we could have. We should take every opportunity to figure out the nuts and bolts of how we get strong enough to win against fossil fuel profiteers – what messages, what targets, what timelines. And maybe, in the end, less summit-hopping and more door-knocking where we live and work.

The front line is the fenceline: where we’re already winning

This last point brings us to the good news: that struggles under the umbrellla of the ‘global climate movement’ are actually winning, on several fronts. But they’re not always being won as struggles primarily about climate change. In the US, anti-coal activism has brought city-based allies to work alongside communities living in the shadow of mountaintop removal. “Fracking” has become a household word, not because of its climate impacts, but because people are speaking out about their drinking water catching on fire. Communities in California and Chiapas are campaigning against climate legislation that would allow oil companies to buy offsets from Mexican forests, instead of cleaning up the Californian air they are polluting. In Bolivia, indigenous groups have forced the government into a bitter battle over a proposed highway through the middle of a rainforest – and while they have mobilized support from climate activists and others in the cities, they have framed the issue around their right to decide what happens on their land. In Australia, for all the foreboding that leftists may feel about such an alliance, a coalition of farmers and environmentalists is proving to be a formidable enemy for the gas industry. In the UK, climate justice activists are organizing around “fuel poverty”- the inability of people to heat their homes.

All of these struggles are anchored in organizing where people work and live their lives. For those in the climate movement afraid of giving up momentum and power of the larger climate change frame: it doesn’t have to be an either/or. Making the case to nonprofit funders last year, Sarah Hansen argued “[i]t’s not merely that grassroots organizing wins change at the local level but, in case after case, builds the political pressure and climate for national change as well.” Holly Creenaune has argued convincingly that we can support and escalate frontline struggles against fossil fuels as well as strengthening community organizing on climate change in Australia.

We can keep using the climate change frame when it works. We can keep going to summits when it works. But we should make sure that we don’t do either of those things at the expense of building power on the front lines. Because it’s there, ultimately, and not at the negotiating tables of the UN, that the larger struggle is going to be won.

This is just an excerpt – read the complete article at


This article was posted in Climate, Getting Action, News. Bookmark this article.

Comments are closed.