COP21: forget 'the future', we need a more radical present

As COP21 meets, people around the world already realise the devastating impacts of climate change. Instead of acting for 'the future', we need to reimagine a better here and now.

Che Ramsden
30 November 2015

Pre-schoolers at Clare Ellis Brown Pre-Primary in Durban, South Africa hosted a sustainability-themed concert for family and friends on Saturday 28 November. In the midst of the city, they boast a recycling project, a permaculture garden, a worm farm, and also house a chicken and two rabbits – helping to connect the children with nature and building a sense of appreciation and wonder at the natural world. At their performance, the children also handed out fliers for the city’s Climate March, one of thousands which took place around the world this weekend before the twenty-first annual session of the Conference of the Parties (COP21) which opened in Paris on Monday 30 November. They sang Glenn Lehmann’s ‘I Am The Earth’, which ends:

We share the future
Stand side by side
One Earth, one people
We’ll turn the tide
And in the future
They’ll say with pride
One Earth, one people
We turned the tide
Side by side

These children are too young to remember it, but four years ago their city, Durban, hosted COP17 which, at the time, was the second-largest meeting of its kind. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) hailed it as ‘a breakthrough’ because the conference operationalised the Cancun Agreements reached the previous year: to reduce carbon emissions, help developing countries deal with climate change, and keep the average global temperature rise below two degrees Celsius. Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, President of COP17, said in her closing statement, “what we have achieved in Durban will play a central role in saving tomorrow, today.”

Climate change march. Photo flickr: Attlla Babo

When I think back to my own childhood, a generation ago, I remember a lot of talk about the future being in our hands. Our class would plant a tree for Arbor Day at the beginning of each September, and we would learn about recycling. Especially in the summertime, we were made aware of the hole in the ozone over the Antarctic, which threatened to stretch over the tip of South Africa as it became alarmingly large in the mid-late 1990s. It was caused by the release of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) found in aerosols and refrigerators, and it affected our regional weather. (Ozone depletion is different from climate change, which is caused by greenhouse gas emission, but is similarly man-made and has disproportionally affected the southern hemisphere.) We stopped using aerosols and slapped on more sunscreen. We were safeguarding our generation, ‘the future’.

The concept of acting to save ‘the future’ – or, as a substitute, ‘our children’ – tends to pervade rhetoric around important decisions. It can be a powerful way of giving significant choices due gravitas, but it can also distract us from the reality of these choices. Because, of course, ‘the future’ never arrives. I feel sad when I think about another generation of children having to think on the same terms mine did: continuing climate change, with successive governments failing to achieve effective action, and increasing instability.

Climate change march. Photo flickr: Garry Knight

Yet there is a new sense of urgency about climate change. Our present is at threat as much as the future. Arctic summer sea ice is melting faster than predicted, there has been an increase in droughts, floods, storms and hurricanes, and fresh water sources are drying up. The Fifth Assessment Report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projects further warming if greenhouse gas emissions continue, affecting surface and ocean temperatures, sea level and  the global water cycle. I think this is what I found particularly moving about the concert at Clare Ellis Brown Pre-Primary; the children were singing about being in a moment, now, when the tide is turning – it is no longer a distant vision that we are working towards.

The radical present

In his 2004 polemic, No Future, queer theorist Lee Edelman rejects the ‘reproductive futurism’ which drives mainstream discourse. He posits instead that queer politics should embrace an alternative radicalism which insists on a better here and now. This was on my mind when, back in London, I joined the People’s March for Climate Justice and Jobs. Many UK-based activists had intended joining the planned march in Paris; after this was cancelled, they focused again on London, which was one of the largest of the worldwide demonstrations with about 50,000 people taking part.

I spoke to John Hoggett, who organised a Queer Bloc on London’s march, for LGBTI people “and anyone who falls under the ‘queer’ umbrella.” John’s been involved with climate activism since the turn of the millennium, when the Campaign against Climate Change (CCC) protested outside the US embassy in London after George W. Bush rejected the Kyoto Treaty. “That was a really effective thing to do, to pull climate activists together in the UK,” explains John, and he goes on to describe how, after getting involved, he organised a ‘Queer Time’ every evening at Reclaim the Power and Climate Camp. “People said they liked that non-macho space – that slightly safer space. Having that space helps people link together and get organised, and think about other things.” John tells me that after the first Queer Time, later that year when Student Pride was sponsored by BP, queer activists covered themselves in pink shower gel to protest the pinkwashing that was going on.

“The idea of queer people organising around climate change is really important.” The activism at Student Pride is indicative of this. “There’s a stream in modern queer politics which recognises that there’s been a lot of assimilation which has benefitted mainly white, mainly upper- and middle-class, mainly men” – here John mentions Lord Browne as an example, former CEO of BP and current Partner at Riverstone (which co-owns of Cuadrilla Resources), who authored the 2010 Browne Report recommending the cap on tuition fees be lifted. He is clear that he doesn’t want to make “a vicious personal attack on someone, that’s not productive,” but he can imagine a light-hearted action which highlights that “for most LGBT people, having people who are out and doing these things, that’s not forwarding the movement we are part of. All of this is not acceptable, it’s not acceptable to me.” Having a Queer Bloc on such an important march is one way of showing this.

I asked John what his hopes are for this year’s Climate March. He’s been on every Climate March in London since that first Kyoto Rally in 2001, and he explains that they are an effective way of raising the media profile of the COPs and surrounding climate activism. It is also a good way for campaigners involved with direct action to be seen and taken seriously by big-name NGOs like Avaaz. “These sort of marches…need loads of organisations on board, bringing in lots of other people. Around Copenhagen [COP15, in 2009], the march got big again, because loads of NGOs got on board. What’s really disappointing is that the NGOs can disappear again afterwards, like they did around Copenhagen.” He also hopes that organisations focused on climate change will look at joining with the anti-austerity movement and the peace movement, “because these issues, they’re all linked.”

Linked issues

Climate change, like austerity and war, disproportionally affects those without power, particularly women and the poor (indeed, 70% the world’s poor are women). UN Women Watch highlights that this is partly because ‘women in rural areas in developing countries are highly dependent on local natural resources for their livelihood’ – so any depletion of these resources due to climate change will impact them – and partly because women’s access to decision-making structures compounds these effects. As Asad Rehman from Friends of the Earth told us in London, “the great injustice is those who are least responsible for our crisis have to deal with its impacts.”

If the politicians who meet at COP21 will not represent those most affected, the message from the marches this weekend is that their concerns must be amplified in other ways. In London, indigenous people led the front of the march (with a banner, ‘indigenous peoples defending mother earth’). A ‘die-in’ was staged to represent the deaths caused by climate change, predominantly in the Global South. Friends of the Earth’s CEO, Craig Bennett (“the time to act is now!”) was followed on stage by a group of indigenous activists from the Sami community in Sweden, whose way of life is threatened by climate change.

‘The future’ of climate change which was envisaged when I was a child – the drought, famine, storms and flooding – became a reality some time ago. It is experienced daily around the globe, and felt most keenly by those who have lost their way of life and their loved ones. COP21 is another opportunity to reprioritise the way more powerful humans think about our planet and all the people who inhabit it – and, through the unprecedented support for climate marches around the world, this has already started outside of the conference centre.

Ché Ramsden will be reporting from Cop21 in Paris for openDemocracy 50.50

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