Beyond Copenhagen: what kind of bottom-up climate activism do we need?

Rupert Read
4 January 2010

As we move into 2010, the feeling of many people across this country seems to be that now is the time to give up on large-scale politics, and focus on small local-level solutions to the outstanding problems of our age, such as manmade climate change (the Transition movement, which began in Totnes and is slowly spreading worldwide, is an outstanding example of such 'localist' solution-seeking). It is natural that in the wake of Copenhagen's failure many people are turning to ways that they as individuals can best contribute.

A series of letters to the Observer, published under the heading 'Think global, act local after Copenhagen', are among many striking examples. Professor Colin Campbell of York suggests that individual towns take the initiative in reducing emissions to compensate for increases in 'twinned' cities in the developing world. Jim McCluskey of Twickenham seconds Ed Miliband's emphasis on the role of green NGOs and the public, as opposed to his own government. Duncan Kerr, MD of A Climate 4 Change, writes that "a groundswell of actions by individual communities led by local authorities, supported in turn by national government, is surely the most effective way of creating the climate for change that would tip our leaders into action."

However, it is quite wrong to think that such contributions can possibly be enough. The problem, in a globalised economic system, as James Hansen among others has clearly recognised, is that if you burn less fossil fuel, others who are less eco-conscious will receive a price-signal that it is just fine to burn more fossil fuels, thus blunting much of the effect of your individual action. This means that well-intentioned individuals and localities alone - or, indeed, this kingdom alone - cannot make a major contribution to preventing runaway climate change because, however well we do, our effectiveness will be partly cancelled out by the corresponding actions (or inaction) of others.

There is enough fossil fuel still in the ground to cook the planet. So the only solution is global constraint of others' carbon emissions, as well as of your own. There simply has to be a replacement for the stalled COP15 process. If we as a species are not to die, politics cannot be dead.

What troubles me particularly about the end game at Copenhagen and about widespread assumptions about how COP15 might now move forward is the idea - the implausible assumption - that any workable proposal will emerge from or be initiated by the EU, US or China. For why not approach this deadlock from the other end? A proposal initiated by the G77 countries and the small island states (such as the Maldives and Tuvalu, which have actually emerged from the Copenhagen debacle with a huge amount of credit and public sympathy) would be one which the rich countries could then be challenged to buy into to avoid being held responsible for initiating ecocide. And we - the conscious citizenry of those countries - could apply the pressure to make our leaders sign. Some such global political strategy is essential, if we are to bequeath a liveable planet to our children. I think it would have much more credibility if it came first from the poorest, rather than from the richest and the biggest emitters.

So: 2010 must be a year of climate politics, and ought, I suggest, to be a year in which such politics comes from the bottom up not in the sense only of local or individual action, but in the sense of action coming from the countries that have traditionally been at the bottom of the heap, globally. In this context, Evo Morales' new call for a summit of movements on climate and capitalism is a hopeful development, pointing in just the right direction.

A clear summary of the proposals made by various nations at COP15 can be found at the Beyond Copenhagen blog. The proposal from Tuvalu is the closest we have to a workable climate-solution. Perhaps the key 'bottom-up' strategy needed now is for more and more of the world to get behind something like the Tuvalu proposal, and gradually prevent the developed countries (and India and China) from stymieing the climate-progress we need and can believe in.

If our low-energy lightbulbs and our Transition Towns and so on are going to mean anything, then we need also to get behind climate-initiatives such as that of Tuvalu which could provide the needed international framework to solve this unavoidably global problem.

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