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COP21: the climate movement’s last summit?

In Paris, by trying to lift off ‘planet summit’, its gravity became truly noticeable for the first time.

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Between October 2014 and March 2016 I studied how the climate movement was mobilizing around the COP21 climate summit in Paris. Although the focus of this research was academic, I have long wondered whether my research could in any way be useful to those involved in the movement. Despite several activists’ encouragement, I hesitated to take up this role. I felt there was little I could teach organizers who seemed perfectly capable of self-reflexion about what could be improved. It is therefore with the greatest humility that I present some of my main findings, and the lessons that may possibly be learned. I have the greatest respect for the difficulty of the tasks movement organizers faced in the run up to Paris – amplified by the terrorist attacks that struck Paris just two weeks before the summit, and by the ‘state of emergency’ that was subsequently installed. I also realize this piece comes late. How useful my findings still are for future mobilization is for others to decide. Nonetheless, as Erik Olin Wright puts it, “[emancipatory] social science, rather than simply social criticism or social philosophy, recognizes the importance (…) of systematic scientific knowledge about how the world works.”

Despite numerous repeated and widely-shared calls to stop ‘summit-hopping’, the post-Copenhagen climate movement (a semantic shortcut, that does little justice to the diversity underlying it) gathered its forces once more for the Paris climate summit. Why were they there again, despite such widely shared scepticism? How did they try to prevent scenarios that were held responsible for previous failures? Did they effectively manage to prevent these scenarios? And how successful were they in proposing and executing alternative strategies?

My main conclusion is that even though some lessons clearly have been learned from the Copenhagen experience, and despite its drive for tactical innovation, the movement has been unable to find a solution to the challenges that lead to the ‘Copenhagen-hangover’. This is not the result of any individual or collective failures. Rather, I will try to show, it is inherent to the context of global summits and to the nature of summit mobilizations. Summits do not allow their momentum to be used without paying a tribute of full attention to the summit in return. Popular strategies around COP21 that aimed to use the momentum of the summit whilst increasing their distance from the official negotiation process, were constricted by this effect. To demonstrate this point, let’s look at the success of some of the main strategies that were proposed to prevent the Copenhagen-hangover.

An alternative party

A first common response to preventing the Copenhagen scenario was to organize actions that would ignore COP21 and target alternative, arguably more powerful actors instead. Several successful actions did take place: the False Solutions COP21 actions effectively disrupted the rather corporate Solutions COP21 fair; the Global Village of Alternatives showed opportunities to address climate change outside the international policy making process; and La Via Campesina highlighted the responsibility of big corporations by painting a big Red Line in from of the office of Danone. But none of these actions engaged a particularly large number of participants in radical action, and so did not materialize the goal of using the COP21 momentum to mobilize the masses into a radical and lasting climate movement.

While this may have been due in part to the complex and uncertain context that was created by the state of emergency, it already became increasingly clear throughout the months of preparation before COP21 that it would be very difficult to draw attention away from the official negotiations. As some of the people who initially advocated alternative targets increasingly concluded as the summit drew closer: there are a lot of other games in town, but not during COP21. Indeed, the question ‘how to tell the masses to come to Paris during COP21 whilst asking them to ignore COP21?’ remained largely unanswered. With absolutely no lack of organizational experience or expertise united in this mobilization, it seemed there was ultimately no simple answer to this question.

Conclusion: It is very difficult to develop strategies that can mobilize the masses around summits, whilst getting these masses to engage in actions that are not oriented towards these summits.

Crashing the party

A second strategy focused on the disruption of the summit. It was expected that government leaders would come out celebrating a death sentence for the planet, and so the movement prepared to disrupt the party. Although the goal of disruption sounds legit, the (potential) effectiveness of such a strategy is questionable.

As Carl Death described in his article on ‘summit theatres’ (Environmental Politics, 2011), even strong opposition to summits contributes to the image of summits as places where global governance is taking problems very serious. Resistance contributes to the performed image of seriousness.  Whether the general public really picks up more than this general picture is questionable (see below). Some online media reported on the Red Lines action’s critical message, but the mainstream media did not. Take the Guardian, which had already been reporting on the plans for the Red Lines action. If anyone should have brought the Red Lines message to the masses, unfortunately, not even the Guardian gave proper coverage of the Red Lines action, or of the ‘last word’ action that was held afterwards at the Eiffel Tower. In the Guardian’s live feed there was brief mentioning of the Red Lines action, but it was framed as ‘10,000 people on the streets calling for a strong climate deal’ – precisely the type of framing that organizers had aimed to prevent. The rest of the day, the live feed was filled mainly with celebratory coverage of the signed deal. No actual article was dedicated to the Red Lines action.

This was not the result of any individual or collective failure. Part of this outcome was the result of some bad luck, with the final negotiation text being released at about the same time that the Red Lines action began, thus overshadowing the latter. Moreover, the State of Emergency also made the organization of a radical action so much more complicated. With greatly increased uncertainty, organizers were forced to opt for the safe side of things, thereby losing an important radical edge. Had the Red Lines action indeed taken place according to the original plans – including the building of (symbolic) barricades around the conference centre – it might have had a more profound disrupting effect.

However, beyond these unfortunate circumstances, the inability to disrupt has a more fundamental cause: climate summits do not allow themselves to be disrupted. There are historic counter-examples, like the Battle of Seattle, in which movements have shut down summits, but this is an exceptional case. What is more, climate activists are limited with regard to ‘shutting down’ COPs. While the WTO clearly advances a neoliberalism that global justice activists oppose, the UNFCCC and the climate movement in principle share the basic goal of mitigating climate change. Shutting down a COP therefore sends a very ambiguous and problematic message. Offering a critical note to the summit outcome therefore seems a more reasonable alternative, yet Paris has proven that COPs’ momentum – the one that allows the movement to mobilize its resources in the first place – seems too strong to allow for much disruption from the streets.

But what would have happened if circumstances had been more favourable, and the Red Lines action had managed to place a critical note to the celebratory newsfeed, or if it had even properly overshadowed it? Would the general public have become more critical, and would they have realized that it was time for immediate climate action? A recent study by Zorzeta Bakaki and Thomas Bernauer (Environmental Politics, 2016) suggests that no, such coverage would have made little difference to people’s public opinion. Using an experimental design, they find that coverage of climate summits does raise audiences’ awareness about the issue, but it does not change their opinion about the issue – regardless of whether they are served positive or negative coverage of the event. In quoting Bernard Cohen, they conclude that “the mass media may not often be successful in telling people what to think, but they are successful in telling readers what to think about.” So it seems that whether or not disruptive protest is included, media coverage of climate summits will at best increase awareness about climate change. And here we are back at what Carl Death warned against: even the most disruptive protest functions to underscore how serious this global governance event is taking the issue at hand. It is very hard to really disrupt that image.

Conclusion: It is very difficult to disrupt the mainstream media story of climate summits through mass actions that promote an alternative story. And even if media coverage can be altered, this arguably has limited consequences for public opinion and the general public’s engagement.

The after-party

Another frequently mentioned goal was that the COP21 mobilization was not (just) about Paris, but about using the momentum the summit would generate to build a movement for the long climate struggle that would come after Paris. Indeed, the entire framing and strategy of the mobilization was designed to manage unrealistic hopes about a positive outcome and to prevent hangovers and depressions by building a movement on the basis of realistic expectations.

However, throughout 2015, most of the movement’s energy seems to have been invested in coming up with strategies that allowed the movement to ignore COP21 while in Paris. Taking the movement into 2016 and beyond was an often-quoted aim, but received much less attention than the COP21 strategy, and was generally not operationalized in very concrete terms. It is therefore unsurprising that the main coalition that was built up towards COP21 did not seem to have profoundly shaped a global climate movement of 2016.

Let us consider first the organizational level. Certainly, the mobilization for COP21 stood out for its unseen ability to bring together organizations who had until recently been in sometimes open conflict with each other. Actors from both sides of the climate justice divide managed to join in a diverse coalition (Coalition Climat 21) to coordinate their mobilization – albeit at times in a precarious way and along new cleavages. And they coordinated actions with the more radical, grassroots action groups united in Climate Justice Action. But as remarkable as this unification of the climate movement was, as quick was its dissolution. Indeed, without the common goal of the COP21 mobilization, Coalition Climat 21 quickly fell apart – despite considerable efforts of some to keep it together.

Climate Justice Action did manage to stay together. This is probably because it is geographically (European), organizationally (grassroots) and politically (anti-capitalist) more homogenous, which by extension means that it has limited influence on the construction of a broad global climate movement. Efforts to keep the coalition together may have started too late (only during COP21, except for a small meeting during a CC21 meeting in Paris in June). However, taking into account how packed the preparation meetings for COP21 had already been, shifting more attention to what came after COP21 could have been hard to pull off. In a sense then, this situation also suggests that COPs do not allow that too much attention is payed to business that diverts attention away from it.

With regard to the individuals the movement had managed to mobilize into the movement around Paris, it is really very difficult to draw precise conclusions. There are for example no survey data that can link participants in the COP21 mobilization to participation in some of the climate actions that took place in 2016. Hence, we can only guess about the movement’s ability to take the mobilized masses from Paris to the ‘beyond’. Actions like Ende Gelande in May 2016, as well as the wider Breakfree 2016 campaign, at face value appeared to have benefited from some of the momentum generated around COP. Yet it is hard to assess how important the COP21 mobilization was in this regard, or more precisely, whether the investments made in the COP21 mobilization were an efficient way of getting people into these actions and the wider movement.

Maybe these are simply the risks involved with complex strategies, yet a clear strategy to make this link seemed to be missing. Despite claims that ‘it was not about Paris’ but about what came beyond, organizers focused mainly on, and invested most energy and resources, in Paris. Again, I believe this to be an unavoidable consequence of the fact that summits do not allow you to use their momentum without getting proper attention in return.

Conclusion: Summit mobilizations require full attention. Focusing on the development of strategies to carry the built momentum beyond summits appears limited, thus increasing the risk that built alliances will soon dissolve. Mobilizing people at one moment to call upon their participation at a later stage is hard to control, measure, and therefore risky.

Conclusion: there is no alternative (yet)

So how successful was the COP21 mobilization? To the extent that it managed to prevent some of the mistakes made in Copenhagen, one could say it was a success. Important internal conflicts were (temporarily and partially) appeased, expectations were managed, strategies were diversified, and actions were in place for the movement to focus on after the summit.

But how successful was the mobilization beyond preventing the harmful effects that Copenhagen had had on the movement? Either not very successful, I would argue (disrupting, having the last word, mobilizing to target other actors, bringing organizations together beyond COPs), or very hard to determine (getting people engaged in the long run). What this means for future mobilizations depends on the function one ascribes to summit mobilizations. For those who see it as a necessary evil (‘we can’t afford not to go’), the COP21 mobilization may have shown a method that at least prevents the potential harmfulness of summit mobilizations that Copenhagen demonstrated. For those seeking to invest their scarce resources in the most effective strategies (i.e. for having substantive impact on achieving climate justice) summit mobilizations seem inherently limited.

This sombre conclusion should at least in part be attributed to the exceptionally unfavourable context that the state of emergency created. It is hard to tell how many people would have participated in the original plans for the False Solutions and Red Lines actions, what their experience would have been, and how the media and politicians would have responded to them. It is probably fair to expect that both actions would have turned out more effective. Nevertheless, the core of my argument is that there is a fundamental flaw in the idea of mobilizing around arguably ‘weak’ summits: even if one develops strategies in recognition of the limited nature of these summits, the summits still demand attention, and the Paris mobilization has taught us the valuable lesson that this tension can hardly be overcome. Thus, if Copenhagen showed that there was a need for expectation management and a reduced emphasis on the summit outcome itself, then Paris showed that going to a summit with the intention to disrupt or ignore it is unlikely to be successful. By trying to lift off ‘planet summit’, its gravity became truly noticeable for the first time – a necessary but falsifying experiment.

Finally, does this piece come too late? Since the election of Trump, it seems we will not see another high-profile climate summit anytime soon – especially not one with a high chance of delivering a substantively meaningful outcome. ‘To summit or not to summit?’, may therefore be a question of the past.

Nevertheless, a lesson that can be learned from Paris, and which is perhaps only underscored by Trump, is the importance of finding ways for the climate movement to become globally coordinated beyond summits. Effectively mitigating climate change requires a globally coordinated effort, and so does the redistributive principle underlying climate justice. This is not a new idea, and attempts have already been made towards such independent global coordination, such as through the World Social Forums, or through globally coordinated campaigns like Breakfree 2016. In this sense, my conclusion echoes Bullard and Mueller’s (Development, 2012) call for the development of the movement’s own ‘globality’.

Conclusion: The Paris mobilization was innovative, and explored the margins of summit mobilization, thereby showing above all, the need for innovative strategies to move beyond summits, and to develop strategies for global coordination in the movement’s own ‘globality’.

All photos by Joost de Moor. Used with author's permission.

How to cite:
De Moor J.(2017) COP21: the climate movement’s last summit?, Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements, 18 February. https://opendemocracy.net/joost-de-moor/cop21-climate-movement-s-last-summit
About the author

Joost de Moor is a postdoctoral Research Associate at the School of Politics, Philosophy, International Relations, and Environment (SPIRE) at Keele University. Here, he works for the Centre for Understanding Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP) where he focuses on how grassroots movements pursue sustainability through prefigurative strategies. Joost’s research focuses on activism within the environmental movement, the climate movement, and the squatting movement, with a particular focus on the relation between strategies and political contexts.

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