A lesson from Seattle for Copenhagen:
Vigorous Activism Can Defeat the Denialists
Preparations for the December 7-18 Copenhagen climate summit aregoing as expected, including a rare sighting of the African elites'stiffenedspines. That's a great development (maybe decisive), more about thatbelow.
While activists help raise the temperature on the streets outside theBella Centre on December 12, 13 and 16, inside we will see global Northelites defensively armed with pathetic non-binding carbon emissions cuts(U.S. President Barack Obama's promise is a mere 4% below 1990 levels) and carbon trading, butwithout offering the money to repay the North's ecological debt to the global South.
The first and third of these are lamentable enough, the second is the mostserious diversion from the crucial work of cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Anine-minute film launched on the internet on December 1, TheStory of Cap and Trade[watch the film at the end of this article], gives all the ammunitionclimate activists need to understand and critique emissions trading,and to seek genuine solutions.
Another important diversion emerged on November 20, when hackerspublished embarrassing emails from the University of East Anglia(UEA) Climate Research Unit. What I've understood fromGuardian's George MonbiotandEnviroKnow is roughly this:
The UEA researchers were silly egocentric, ultracompetitiveacademics who were at times sloppy – an occupational hazard true ofmost of us – only in this case there is a huge amount at stake so theirsilliness ismassively amplified.
But a few academics who aresilly about their work ethos do not reverse the universal understandingthat scientists have regarding climate change.
Peoplewho want to distract the world from getting to the root of the climatecrisis may well have a field day with the UEA emails scandal, whichshould in turn compel the rest of us to redouble our efforts to achievereal action to stop climate change.
The unapologetic UEA researcher Phil Jones seems to think thatbecauseclimate denialists have been a pain in the arse (since 2001), it wasokay to hide scientific data (paid for by taxpayers), and to avoidwastingvaluable time addressing the loonies' arguments: “Initially at thebeginning I did try to respond to them in the hope I might convincethem but I soon realised it was a forlorn hope and broke offcommunication.”
Hucksters for Status Quo
Where I live, Durban in South Africa, we've had dreadful experiences with twokinds of life-threatening denialisms: apartheid and AIDS.
Dating back many decades, apartheid-denialists insisted that blackSouth Africans had it better than anywhere else in Africa, thatanti-apartheid sanctions would only hurt blacks and not foster change,and that if blacks took over the government it would be the ruinationof South Africa, with whites having all their wealth expropriated etc.
>From around 1999-2003, AIDS denialists very vocally insisted that HIVand AIDS were not related, that AIDS medicines were toxic and would dono good, and that the activists' lobby for the medicines was merely afront for the CIA and the big pharmaceutical corporations (denialist-in-chief Thabo Mbeki is nowbeing widely cited for genocide involving 350,000 unnecessary deathsdue to his presidency's withholding of AIDS medicines).
In both cases, as with human-induced climate change, the denialists' role was toentrench the status quo forces of state and capital. They were, simply,hucksters for vested interests.
In both cases they were defeated,thanks to vigorous social activism:
During the 1980s, the United Democratic Front, the AfricanNational Congress and other liberation forcesfound that the apartheid denialists' main damage was in opposingpressure for sanctions and disinvestment to be taken against the racistSouth African regime. So we intensified our efforts and byAugust 1985 won the necessary breakthrough when New York banks withdrewlinesof credit to Pretoria, thus forcing a split between Afrikaner staterulers and white English-speaking capitalists. Within a few days, thelatter travelled to Lusaka to meet the exiled ANC leadership, and thenover the next eight years helped shake loose Afrikaner nationalism'shold on the state. Indeed today in South Africa you will search longand hard to find a white person who admits they ever defended apartheid.
TheTreatment Action Campaign found that a mix of local andinternationalist activism was sufficiently strong to pry open BigPharma's monopoly on intellectual property rights and also overthrowopposition by the U.S. and South African governments, a story worthrevisiting in more detail in below. In short, by 2003, the coterie ofAIDS denialists surrounding Mbeki lost to street heat, ridicule andlegal critique, so today nearly 800,000 South Africans and millionsmore elsewhere have access to AIDS medicines.
We'll look back at the climate denialists and judge them asmerely a momentary quirk in human rationality, ultimately not in theleast influential. The real danger comes from fossil fuel firms which,like big tobacco corporations decades ago, know full well the lethal potential oftheir products. Their objective is to place a grain of doubt in ourminds, and for that climate denialists are rather useful.
The fossil fuel firms – especially BP, Shell, Chevron and ExxonMobil– not only fund denialist think tanks and “astroturf” outfits, such astheGlobal Climate Coalition (i.e. fake green groups). They support membersof the U.S. Congress – such as Rick Boucher from Virginia – whoenergetically sabotagelegislation aimed at capping emissions (Congress' offsets, carbontrading and other distraction gimmicks mean there will be no net U.S.cuts until the late 2030s). They also work with mainstream “green”groups – the World Wide Fund for Nature comes to mind – to haltenvironmental progress.
These corporations are far more insidious than the email hackers. Ihope we aren't further distracted by the UEA affair and that this is aquickly forgotten little episode of dirty academic laundry meant forthe dustbin of our sloppy movement where it belongs, so we can make themovement stronger, more transparent, more rigorous, more democratic andmuch more militant in trying to defeat the fossil fuel industry.
One way to do so is to flash back to Seattle a decade ago, whenthe World Trade Organisation (WTO) mobilisations on November 30, 1999,taughtcivil society activists and African leaders two powerful lessons.Veteran anti-apartheid and social justice activist comrade DennisBrutus from South Africa – who turned 85 years old on November 28 –reminded usof two lessons from one of the most eventful weeks in his amazing life.
First, working together, African and global South leaders and activists have the powerto disrupt a system of global governance that meets the global North'sshort-term interests against both the global South and the longer-terminterests of the world's people and the planet. Second, in the very actof disrupting global malgovernance, major concessions can be won.
Spectacular protests against the WTO summit's opening ceremony is whatmost recall about Seattle, 1999: activists “locking down” to preventdelegates entering the conference centre, a barrage of tear gas and pepperspray from hundreds of riot cops, a sea of broken windows and a municipal police force laterprosecuted for violating U.S. citizens' most basic civil liberties. (SeeDavid and Rebecca Solnit's excellent new book, The Battle of the Storyof the Battle of Seattle.)
That was outside the convention centre. Inside, when negotiationsbelatedlygot underway, African leaders quickly grew worried that furthertrade liberalisation would damage their tiny industrial sectors. Thedamage was well recognised, as even establishment research revealedAfrica would be the continent to suffer the worst net losses fromcorporate-dominated free trade.
The U.S. trade representative, Charlene Barchefsky, repeatedlyinsulted African elites who raised this point. With the exception ofSouth African trade minister Alec Erwin, whoenjoyed an insider role to promote South Africa's self-interest,delegations from the Organisation of African Unity (OAU, since renamedthe African Union) were soon furious.
As OAU deputy director general V.J. McKeen recalled: “They went outto adinner in a bus, and then were left out in the cold to walk back...When we went into the room for our Africangroup meeting, I mean, there was no interpretation provided... so onehad to improvise. And then even the microphone facilities were switchedoff.”
Tetteh Hormeku, from the African Trade Network of progressive civil society groups, picks up the story:
“By the second day of the formal negotiations, theAfrican and other developing-country delegates hadfound themselves totally marginalised... [and threatened] to withdrawthe consensus required to reach a conclusion of the conference. By thistime, even the Americans and their supporters in the WTO secretariatmust have woken up to the futility of their 'rough tactics'.”
By walking out, the Africans' strong willpower earned majorconcessionsin the next WTO summit, in Doha, in November 2001. At the same time asthe global justice movement began widening into an anti-imperialistmovement in the wake of the USA's post-9/11 re-militarisation, Africanactivists delved deeper into extreme local challenges, such ascombating AIDS. In Doha, African elites joined forces with activistsagain.
On this occasion, the positive catalyst was a South African government law – the 1997 Medicines Act – which permitted the state's compulsorylicensing of patented drugs. In 1998, the Treatment Action Campaignwas launched to lobby for AIDS drugs, which adecade ago were prohibitively expensive – $15,000 (U.S.) per person peryear – for nearly all South Africa's HIV-positive people (roughly 10%of thepopulation).
That campaign was immediately confronted by the U.S. State Department's attack on South Africa's Medicines Act,a “full court press,” as bureaucratstestified to the U.S. Congress. The U.S. elites' aim was to protect“intellectual property rights” and halt the emergence of a parallelinexpensive supply of AIDS medicines that would undermine lucrativeWestern markets.
U.S. vice-president Al Gore directly intervened with South African governmentleaders in 1998-99, aiming to revoke the Medicines Act. Then in mid-1999, Gore launched his presidential election bid, a campaigngenerously funded by big pharmaceutical corporations, which that year provided $2.3-million to the Democratic Party.
In solidarity with the South Africans, the U.S. AIDS Coalition toUnleash Power (ACTUP) began protesting at Gore's campaign events in NewHampshire,Pennsylvania and Tennessee. The demos soon threatened to cost Gore farmore in adverse publicity than he was raising in Big Pharmacontributions, so he changed sides.
As pressure built, even during the reign of president George W. Bushand his repressive trade representative Robert Zoellick (now World Bankpresident), the WTO's Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual PropertyRights system was amended at Doha in late 2001 to permit generic drugsto be used in medical emergencies. This was a huge victory for Africa,removing any rationale to continueto deny life-saving medicines to the world's poorest people.
Protest in Seattle, 1999.
In 2003, with another dreadful WTO deal on the table in Cancun and30,000 protesters outside, once again the African leadership withdrewfrom the consensus, wrecking the plans of the U.S. and Europe for furtherliberalisation. The WTO has still not recovered.
These are the precedents required to overcome the three hugechallengesthe North faces in Copenhagen: 2020 greenhouse gas emissions cuts of atleast 45%(from 1990 levels) through a binding international agreement; thedecommissioning of carbon markets and offset gimmicks; and payment onthe vast ecological debt owed to victims of climate change.Realistically, the adverse balance of forces currently prevailing willnot permit victories on even one, much less all three. What response islogical?
In Barcelona, in early November, African negotiators boycotted thepre-Copenhagen talks, making good on African Union leader Meles Zenawi's Septemberthreat, because the North had put so little on the negotiating table.
Indeed, that is the main lesson from Seattle: by walking out –alongside mass action by civil society protesters – and halting a bad deal inCopenhagen on December 18, we can together pave the way for subsequentprogress.
Two years after Seattle's failure, progress was won through Africanaccess to life-saving medicines. We must ensure it doesn't take twoyears after Copenhagen's failure for Africa to get access tolife-saving greenhouse gas emissions cuts and to climate debt repayment, alongside thedemise of carbon trading – but those are surely the battles just ahead. •
Patrick Bond directs the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society.
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Received on Fri Dec 4 03:42:14 2009
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