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Keeping Paris in perspective on the journey to system change

After spending nearly three weeks in Paris around COP21, I had to leave on Friday 11th – one day before the big final day of action. My destination was an inner transition facilitation course in rural England, a stark contrast from the chaos of a squat shared with 60 other activists in a disused factory in urban Paris. Many asked me why I was leaving just before the major finale, and I answered that I trusted that me going on this course was my contribution to the larger story at this moment. But there was clearly still a part of me that did want to be there in the midst of the action. All day on Saturday I struggled to be present at my training, feeling a real urgency to go and check the internet to see what was going on in Paris. However, when evening came and I finally did so, what I found left me with a deep sense of emptiness. Huge newspaper headlines greeted me with the “success” of the climate deal (see my colleague Maddy’s blog to find out why this is an illusion) and barely a mention of the massive protests that some of the people around me had been pouring their bodies, minds and souls into for the last few weeks.

This moment of reality check, of seeing from the outsider perspective, provoked me into a sudden process of re-visiting my own values. Whilst I had walked into Paris three weeks earlier with clarity that neither the COP itself nor the mobilisations around it would constitute major turning points along the road to system change, at some level I had clearly got sucked into that whirlwind of excitement and adrenaline that comes with intense activism. But this moment of realisation – of seeing what this looks like from the standpoint of any other person reading the news – pulled me suddenly back. I was reminded that I need to let go of grand expectations and remember that building the deep transformational change needed to respond to the severity of the climate crisis is much bigger and broader than just these mobilisations and “moments”. That it really involves a long, gradual process of building up a new version of our reality day by day, from the roots up.

Yes, these moments can serve to galvanise the movement, to inspire us, bring us together, and send us home feeling part of a stronger movement. And Paris was successful in that. This was the main message of the Red Lines action on December 12th, which had the slogan “we are the ones we have been waiting for”. And over the two weeks of COP, as many have reported (including Maddy again, and Jess Worth and Danny Chivers from the New Internationalist), it was evident across many spaces that there was some really positive progress in terms of movement building and developing a stronger and more coherent collective narrative.

However, I did feel that large parts of the movement are not really engaging with some of the more challenging questions that we need to face if we really want to see deep systemic change: Why are the vast majority of people in our wider societies still not engaging with these issues? What are the underlying values that sustain the current system? How would those need to shift in order for the system change we believe in to be possible? And as an activist movement, to what extent are we really moving towards shifting those values? Or do our own actions on some levels actually replicate and even reinforce those values? Are actions that leave people stressed, exhausted and without time for human connection, really reflecting the change we believe in?

The good news on this front was that there is more and more emphasis on building alternatives to the current system. As in previous years, in Paris the message of “System Change Not Climate Change” could be seen and heard everywhere. And there were many spaces and events that were sharing and exploring autonomous initiatives that have the potential to form part of that shift. The Global Village of Alternativesrun by Alternatiba during the middle weekend of the COP was one example of this, and at the parallel Peoples’ Climate Summit, almost half of the self-managed events were focused on solutions, ranging from community energy initiatives and just transition, to agro-ecology and co-housing. However this is not what makes it into the mainstream coverage of what’s going on at COP. And even on the ground, the initiatives on show in these diverse spaces around the COP don’t truly reflect the scale of the rapidly growing movement of people building alternatives in their local communities across the globe. So when we think about where to go next as a movement, as well as connecting up grassroots resistance struggles I also see great potential in beginning to put more energy into building bridges between efforts to build alternatives, integrating them better into the narrative and giving them more visibility.

Learn about how the concept of community has become embedded in the Casa de los Ningunos, and how the principles represented by their ideas of “community” support their vision for radical social change. Photo: Jocelyn Kellenberger
At The Democracy Center, our contribution to this process is our latest project: Abundance for Everybody: tackling climate change and exploring ways to live well in urban Bolivia. We have been listening to and learning from La Casa de los Ningunos, an experimental community project in La Paz, Bolivia, where a group of young urban activists have come together to experiment with finding new ways to collaborate and coexist amongst themselvesand to share those experiences with others. Originally motivated by their concerns about climate change, their work started off centred around a conscious food project which focuses on promoting awareness of the environmental, social and economic impacts of food as a path to awakening a more critical view of our concept of progress and development in general. Now they also integrate experimentation with reciprocal economic arrangements, such as work exchanges and the gift economy, and they particularly focus on building a new set of values, based around sharing and collaboration instead of competition, as a response to the root causes of injustice. And fundamentally, they consider this work to be profoundly political. As one of their members says: “That’s why we need community, because in community you can set up all the necessary structures. You need education, food, economy. And that is political. Because the political is not about political parties, it’s about how you structure your society, even your mini-society of four people.” We invite you to explore more about the Casa on our new micro-site, which we hope will also provide some food for thought and insight around the questions posed earlier in this blog.

So my conclusion around COP21 is that overall we are heading in the right direction and we can look back at Paris and feel positive about the progress made in terms of building the movement and shifting the narrative. But as we look forward, with this wind in our sails, let’s not be afraid to also step back for a reality check and look at those underlying questions with a critical eye. And let’s start giving more priority to the projects that are working to build the alternatives, as they can offer experiences and sources of inspiration to help us build a deeply coherent and collaborative movement that genuinely embodies the “system change not climate change” that we all dream of.

Keeping it Grounded

Last week I spent just a couple of days in Paris to listen and meet with people from what, in the wake of COP21, is getting talked about as an ever-strengthening climate justice movement. If you read one piece on why the accord reached there is divorced from the principles this movement is growing itself around, make it this one from the New Internationalist (whose reporting throughout from Paris has been invaluable).

I couldn’t stay longer because I had to get back to my 2-year-old son. When I think about the chances for greater social and environmental justice in his lifetime I flip-flop, as all you parents do I’m sure, between hope and despair. When I think about the implications of things getting worse (or staying the same, which is actually the same thing), my mind hits a wall. I can’t think about it.

Carlos Larrea of the Ecuadorian YASunidos movement to keep oil in the ground in the Amazon – and everywhere.

Government representatives, the mainstream media, and parts of the climate movement are currently floating off on a wave of congratulatory rhetoric after the Paris Agreement was gavelled in last weekend. The accord is being hailed as an historic game-changer and signalling the end of the fossil fuel era.

There has never been a more important time to come back to Earth. The words ‘fossil fuel’ are not even mentioned in the Paris agreement. At its best the Paris deal may, as Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace said, make the sides of the hole we have to dig ourselves out of a bit less steep. It may give us a bit of leverage in our fight. At its worst, it entrenches a status quo that opens the floodgates to carbon trading, geoengineering, and a whole dystopia of market mechanisms and privatisation of nature; a positive jamboree for transnational corporations. The climate justice movement is doing good work pointing these things out. Those on the frontlines of this depredatory fossil-based economy are already witnesses to this dystopia, and in Paris it was heartening to see that more and more they are recognised as the most crucial actors in driving this movement forward. With their feet firmly planted, they are leading the calls to #keepitintheground.

Pascoe Sabido of Corporate Europe Observatory guides activists on a ‘corporate lobby tour’ of Paris. Check out CEO’s new ‘Polluter’s Paradise’ report.

Everywhere the deal has been referred to as ‘legally binding’ by the main press corps. But try (as I have been) to actually find out in what sense and how it will be legally binding and you come up against another brick wall. The very fact that it is an ‘agreement’ and not a ‘treaty’ seems to indicate its relative weakness in terms of international law. Carbon Brief gave a useful overview of these issues back in November. In that piece they said that ‘Some or all of the provisions could be softened with aspirational language’ – and indeed that seems to be exactly what has happened. Lots of ‘shoulds’, ‘will work to pursues’ and ‘aim towardses’, but not much enforceable commitment. And that includes on that much-lauded wording about aiming for 1.5 degrees. Apparently the new agreement does write in a binding commitment to submit an emissions reduction target – but not to say how much that will be nor how you will achieve it. In a gushing piece in the Guardian on what a diplomatic victory the deal represented, much of how substance was sacrificed in order to achieve this can be read in this one short paragraph:

The EU backed down on having the intended emissions cuts, agreed at a national level, to be legally binding; the US accepted language on “loss and damage”; China and India agreed that an aspiration of holding warming to 1.5C could be included.

So there’s some nice language and aspiration – but, as we already knew, the actual commitments to reduce emissions via INDCs are based on voluntary pledges by country and are not binding. Unlike, we have to keep emphasizing, the TTIP, TPP and other free trade agreements which have been and are being written into law and which threaten to completely undermine any chance of climate regulations.

So, as Danny Chivers and Jess Worth of New Internationalist (again!) have written, ‘Of course there are elements of the deal that climate justice activists can use…But to openly celebrate this deal would be a kick in the teeth to the hundreds of millions of people for whom its wording spells out the end of their homes and livelihoods.’

Nnimmo Bassey of Oilwatch talking about the connections between extractivism, militarism, and climate change at a general assembly in the ZAC.

What is being celebrated instead, by activists and the alternative media who actually care about a just transition and building a new and better society and economy, is the organizing which is already going on to resist dirty energy, resist false solutions, and get on with that building work. Also to be celebrated is the daily-growing insistence on the intersectionality of the climate crisis with the other crises which corporate power thrives on. As we often say here at the Democracy Center, climate change is about much more than climate change. Everyone at Paris – frontline defenders, trade unionists, indigenous representatives, feminists, peace activists, solidarity activists – was talking about the importance of linking and thereby strengthening their diverse struggles. Now we have to carry on with the extremely hard work of actually doing that, and doing it effectively.

Those who are waltzing off into the sunset declaring Paris a success are also those, one suspects, who would like to step back and convince themselves that deeply compromised political systems and corrupt leaders are going to deliver us from this mess. In the end, this is a disempowering stance, a mirror of the passivity which we are encouraged to adopt in our consumer culture.

Much more empowering, for all of the challenges it faces, is to join the chorus which says: we know it is up to us. We hope that the piece of paper you have written your agreement on turns out to be worth something on our path to a better future – but we are certainly not going to rely on your signatories to deliver it; we are already working on it.

Feet on the ground, eyes open to the traps and hazards around it, this is where the climate justice movement stands today – reclaiming power. When I think of my son, this is where hope lies.

Maddy Ryle is the Democracy Center’s communications director.

Keeping it Grounded

Last week I spent just a couple of days in Paris to listen and meet with people from what, in the wake of COP21, is getting talked about as an ever-strengthening climate justice movement. If you read one piece on why the accord reached there is divorced from the principles this movement is growing itself around, make it this one from the New Internationalist (whose reporting throughout from Paris has been invaluable).

I couldn’t stay longer because I had to get back to my 2-year-old son. When I think about the chances for greater social and environmental justice in his lifetime I flip-flop, as all you parents do I’m sure, between hope and despair. When I think about the implications of things getting worse (or staying the same, which is actually the same thing), my mind hits a wall. I can’t think about it.

Carlos Larrea of the Ecuadorian YASunidos movement to keep oil in the ground in the Amazon – and everywhere.

Government representatives, the mainstream media, and parts of the climate movement are currently floating off on a wave of congratulatory rhetoric after the Paris Agreement was gavelled in last weekend. The accord is being hailed as an historic game-changer and signalling the end of the fossil fuel era.

There has never been a more important time to come back to Earth. The words ‘fossil fuel’ are not even mentioned in the Paris agreement. At its best the Paris deal may, as Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace said, make the sides of the hole we have to dig ourselves out of a bit less steep. It may give us a bit of leverage in our fight. At its worst, it entrenches a status quo that opens the floodgates to carbon trading, geoengineering, and a whole dystopia of market mechanisms and privatisation of nature; a positive jamboree for transnational corporations. The climate justice movement is doing good work pointing these things out. Those on the frontlines of this depredatory fossil-based economy are already witnesses to this dystopia, and in Paris it was heartening to see that more and more they are recognised as the most crucial actors in driving this movement forward. With their feet firmly planted, they are leading the calls to #keepitintheground.

Pascoe Sabido of Corporate Europe Observatory guides activists on a ‘corporate lobby tour’ of Paris. Check out CEO’s new ‘Polluter’s Paradise’ report.

Everywhere the deal has been referred to as ‘legally binding’ by the main press corps. But try (as I have been) to actually find out in what sense and how it will be legally binding and you come up against another brick wall. The very fact that it is an ‘agreement’ and not a ‘treaty’ seems to indicate its relative weakness in terms of international law. Carbon Brief gave a useful overview of these issues back in November. In that piece they said that ‘Some or all of the provisions could be softened with aspirational language’ – and indeed that seems to be exactly what has happened. Lots of ‘shoulds’, ‘will work to pursues’ and ‘aim towardses’, but not much enforceable commitment. And that includes on that much-lauded wording about aiming for 1.5 degrees. Apparently the new agreement does write in a binding commitment to submit an emissions reduction target – but not to say how much that will be nor how you will achieve it. In a gushing piece in the Guardian on what a diplomatic victory the deal represented, much of how substance was sacrificed in order to achieve this can be read in this one short paragraph:

The EU backed down on having the intended emissions cuts, agreed at a national level, to be legally binding; the US accepted language on “loss and damage”; China and India agreed that an aspiration of holding warming to 1.5C could be included.

So there’s some nice language and aspiration – but, as we already knew, the actual commitments to reduce emissions via INDCs are based on voluntary pledges by country and are not binding. Unlike, we have to keep emphasizing, the TTIP, TPP and other free trade agreements which have been and are being written into law and which threaten to completely undermine any chance of climate regulations.

So, as Danny Chivers and Jess Worth of New Internationalist (again!) have written, ‘Of course there are elements of the deal that climate justice activists can use…But to openly celebrate this deal would be a kick in the teeth to the hundreds of millions of people for whom its wording spells out the end of their homes and livelihoods.’

Nnimmo Bassey of Oilwatch talking about the connections between extractivism, militarism, and climate change at a general assembly in the ZAC.

What is being celebrated instead, by activists and the alternative media who actually care about a just transition and building a new and better society and economy, is the organizing which is already going on to resist dirty energy, resist false solutions, and get on with that building work. Also to be celebrated is the daily-growing insistence on the intersectionality of the climate crisis with the other crises which corporate power thrives on. As we often say here at the Democracy Center, climate change is about much more than climate change. Everyone at Paris – frontline defenders, trade unionists, indigenous representatives, feminists, peace activists, solidarity activists – was talking about the importance of linking and thereby strengthening their diverse struggles. Now we have to carry on with the extremely hard work of actually doing that, and doing it effectively.

Those who are waltzing off into the sunset declaring Paris a success are also those, one suspects, who would like to step back and convince themselves that deeply compromised political systems and corrupt leaders are going to deliver us from this mess. In the end, this is a disempowering stance, a mirror of the passivity which we are encouraged to adopt in our consumer culture.

Much more empowering, for all of the challenges it faces, is to join the chorus which says: we know it is up to us. We hope that the piece of paper you have written your agreement on turns out to be worth something on our path to a better future – but we are certainly not going to rely on your signatories to deliver it; we are already working on it.

Feet on the ground, eyes open to the traps and hazards around it, this is where the climate justice movement stands today – reclaiming power. When I think of my son, this is where hope lies.

Maddy Ryle is the Democracy Center’s communications director.

Here’s What We’ll Do After the Paris Climate Summit Drops the Ball

Across the world, the eyes and the aspirations of climate activists are turning toward Paris. At the end of this month, delegations from more than 190 nations will gather in the French capital for the 21st annual U.N.-sponsored global summit to address a planetary crisis: our warming Earth. But COP 21 (the acronym stands for “Conference of the Parties”) will not be just another climate summit. The Paris meeting marks the deadline for reaching a new a global agreement—a “final exam” preceded by years of complex negotiations. It is that looming deadline that is making the Paris summit the object of intense attention from governments, activists, and many others.

Heads of state from around the world will descend on Paris, offering up a parade of lofty statements about forward progress and a string of announcements about their new commitments. Outside of the summit, a diverse alliance of climate organizations, labor unions, youth groups, and many others are mobilizing to turn hundreds of thousands into the streets of Paris, as well as other cities across the globe. The marches will call out the inadequacy of government promises and demand a serious global commitment to keep 80 percent of remaining fossil fuels in the ground and a swift global transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.

The reality, however, is that we already know the essence of the climate deal humanity will awake to the day the conference ends, and the news isn’t good. While the Paris accord will mark an important global recognition of the crisis, and a loose structure in which nations pledge to act, none of that will halt the crisis that is already changing the planet in huge ways.

Paris will make it official that no global agreement is coming to save the day. The work of taking concrete action will still lie ahead. And the center of that action is going to come increasingly from creative communities taking leadership on their own and joining forces.

The Summit of Promises

After more than 20 years of global negotiations (the important ones carried out behind closed doors), the world’s governments have agreed on a basic plan for how they aim to cut back on planet-altering carbon emissions. At the center of that plan sits a piece of confusing jargon, “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions,” or INDCs. These are pledges, made separately by each nation, laying out what each says it will do to reduce its carbon output.

In an intelligent world, in the face of a crisis so dire, nations would sit down together, craft a collective, science-based solution and bind themselves to it. However, we live in this world, and binding international agreements are reserved for the realm of trade deals such as the looming, corporate-backed Trans Pacific Partnership.

The Paris deal, in contrast, is a collection of promises, with no actual consequences for breaking them. The “intentions” in the INDCs are much like the ones many of us have after the holidays to give up sweets and get more exercise. Even if we mean them at the start, those intentions have a way of being forgotten. Absent accountability and sanctions, governments are going to toss aside many of their climate pledges in much the same way.

Even if some surprising wave of political discipline holds them to keep their COP promises, the aggregate impact of those pledges doesn’t come close to what is needed to keep planetary warming to below two degrees centigrade, the level scientists say is the maximum before all hell breaks loose—and which many warn is still far too high to prevent widespread disaster.

The United States’ INDC, for example, pledges cuts in its carbon emissions by 26-28 percent by 2025, but that target is both inadequate and based on manipulation of the baseline dates used to measure progress toward it. Serious national action by the U.S. will also eventually require support from a Congress currently more inclined to believe in the reality of professional wrestling than of climate science. Bolivia has pledged to end all “illegal” deforestation by 2020, a goal achieved in good part by legalizing the large-scale deforestation it plans to undertake for soy production and cattle grazing.

Add to this the fact that those pledges don’t take effect for another five years, and it easy to understand why the Paris agreement is going to land a long way short of slowing the advance of the climate crisis.

To be sure, getting governments to make such commitments at all is progress and it took a great deal of effort to get here. But the pledges aren’t nearly enough and there are plenty of false solutions baked into the mix.

When the Paris conference comes to a close, the question will still be the same as it was before: What can we actually do to address the climate crisis in a way that works?

A Reminder in New York

Last year during the giant People’s Climate March in New York City, I was offered a reminder about a fundamental challenge that sits at the heart of the climate crisis. It happened around midday, when I got hungry. Standing near the tail end of the March at Central Park West and 81stStreet, still waiting to move after two hours, I suggested to my friend Carey that we commit a little political sin and escape one block over to Columbus Avenue to see if we could find something to eat. What we found was an avenue shut off to car traffic for almost as many blocks as the climate march and almost as filled with people. In this case, the draw was not saving the planet but a street fair lined with cheap Indian food and foil-wrapped burritos.

If you were in that great sea of climate activists that September day in New York, it was easy to believe that we had brought the nation’s largest city to a standstill; that the whole word was watching. In fact, you could be just a block away eating cheap piroshki and not even know there was a climate march.

Which brings me to my point—the great masses of people on this planet, be they in Brooklyn or Bolivia, are not thinking about climate change or what to do about it. They are living their lives, negotiating daily with a set of choices handed to them by systems and powers they don’t control—about how to get to work, where to get their food, how to make a home, and all the other things we do that have converted humanity into seven billion ants chewing up the planet.

The challenge before us is to change the behavior of billions of people in very deep ways, very fast. We will need to do more than just change people’s consciousness; we also need to fundamentally change the choices and options that surround us. If we want people to move out of cars and into public transit, then public transit needs to be efficient and affordable. If we want poorer nations to stop decimating rainforests for grazing and agricultural land, then we need to help assure that the people living in those forests can sustain themselves there in a dignified way, and that nations can develop without decimating the environment. If we want to get rid of our addiction to fossil fuels, we need to develop other ways to keep the lights on.

The roads for action beyond Paris will be many. Some will steer toward direct action against dirty energy projects, others will aim at promoting personal ways to live more sustainably. But to alter human activity on the vast scale required, one tool will remain essential: using the powers of citizen democracy to change public policy. Our deep disappointments with politics aside, getting governments to take action still remains the indispensible tool for altering both corporate behavior, and humanity’s.

A Global Movement of Local Movements

The deal coming from Paris will be, in the language of the policy wonk, a “soft policy floor.” It will represent the minimum effort we should expect from national governments, and it means that our challenge afterwards will be twofold: to press them to hold to those pledges (to make the floor hard instead of squishy), and to make sure that the floor doesn’t become the ceiling. If we are going to combat the climate crisis in a real way, we will need to fight for more serious action that goes well beyond what Paris promises.

That more serious action is not likely to come from national governments. If anything, their INDC pledges are inflated version of their plans, not understatements. We are going to have to win more aggressive policy action somewhere else, and that is increasingly going to be in our states and our communities, both in the U.S. and beyond. This is where I think we can find some reason for hope.

At the local level, we fall less often into ideological divides and are more likely to see ourselves as neighbors facing a common threat. Look at the political battle in the Pacific Northwest over coal trains, where stalwart climate activists have joined together with wealthy, often Republican, homeowners. Look as well at the Cowboy Indian Alliance, which brought together Native tribes and white ranchers in the recent victory against the Keystone XL pipeline.

Political creativity is still possible at the local level. As communities experiment and demonstrate success with everything from re-municipalizing utilities to alternative transport, ideas move from being quirky and marginal to something broadly accepted and possible to scale up across many communities. Bike-sharing programs, for example, began as radical acts in the Netherlands and France in the 1960s and 70s and have now evolved into systems today in more than 600 cities.

At the local level it also becomes far more possible for young people to take the lead. This is crucial because young people are and must be the backbone of climate action and climate justice campaigns. I know 20-year-olds who have gotten initiatives on the ballot in local elections. That kind of clout takes decades to acquire in national politics.

How can a collection of separate local efforts build anything close to the kind of large-scale, international change required to confront the global climate crisis? The answer is that, in isolation, they can’t. Our challenge will be to build a global movement of connected local movements, so that their impact becomes vastly more than the sum of their separate parts. Regional and local governments across the world—including, notably, the entire West Coast of North America—are already building those collaborations and linkages, through a set of formal agreements. Activist communities must also find similar ways to join forces.

Working together means many things. It means sharing strategies and learning from one another about what it takes to win public support and political action. It means joining together to take on common adversaries, including corporations such as Chevron, Shell, and Glencore (the Swiss mining conglomerate), which do damage not just in one community or one country but many at the same time. It also means taking inspiration from one another. Climate activism is hard, and in the face of a deepening crisis it would be easy for an entire movement to collapse under the weight of pessimism. Our passions, victories, and commitment must be shared in new and powerful ways to keep the movement’s hope solid and alive.

Changing what governments do is about much more than walking the halls of a capitol; it is also about altering the political winds that make change possible. The current wave of political attention today in the U.S. on income inequality, and action on issues such as the minimum wage, owe a good deal to the protests of Occupy Wall Street that forced those issues out of the shadows and squarely onto the political agenda.

More than two millennia ago, Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War that most battles are won or lost by the choice of battlefield, long before they are fought. Global summitry, so far removed from regular citizens, was never going to be our place to win solid action, and we should not be surprised by the inadequacies coming out of Paris next month. Our powers lie elsewhere, in our communities especially, and this is where we must take the battle.

Our future will rely not on a single global accord, but on a wide constellation of diverse and creative advances across the world, that we win together, arm in arm, and community by community.