Copenhagen: a turning point for the movement

Posted December 19, 2009

[This article by Terry Conway and Thomas Eisler originally appeared in International Viewpoint.]

On Saturday Dec 12, 100,000 demonstrated in the streets of Copenhagen outside the COP 15 summit demanding urgent action against global warming – more than double the numbers that organizers had predicted – or even dared expect. While of course a high percentage of demonstrators came from Denmark itself and from neighboring countries Sweden and Germany (where there is somewhat of a tradition of mobilizing for each other’s events) – this was a truly international demonstration.

One of the biggest delegations from outside Denmark was the 850 strong special train organized by the Belgian organization, Climate Social Justice, which brought activists not only from Belgium but from France and Britain too in an epic journey which took more than 12 hours each way but facilitated a broader participation – and more international discussion – than would otherwise have been possible.

While the delegations from the countries from the Global South were necessarily smaller than those from the Europe their presence was warmly welcomed – and the popular slogan of Climate Justice Now was clearly seen by most protesters as meaning the leaders of the rich countries needed to listen to the demands of the global south – and was also seen as one of the essential demands of the day.

Indeed the radicalism of the slogans which dominated a mobilization which involved most of the large non-governmental organizations as well as more radical sections of the climate justice movement was noteworthy.

The dominant placards on the march were those distributed by Greenpeace – though they didn’t carry that organizations logo – or reflect their politics! The organization conducted an unusual experiment and asked people to suggest slogans via their website and then produced the most popular. These included: “Nature does not compromise”, “There is no planet B”, “Bla Bla Bla .. Act now”, “Change the Politics not the Climate” and “Climate Justice Now”. There were also loud chants led from the platform against the greenwashing of offsetting, while slogans raised by the radical left such as “our planet not your profits” had a warm response well beyond our ranks.

Political parties, trade unions and peasants organizations were also present in this colorful, radical and truly internationalist demonstration through the bitterly cold streets of Copenhagen to the fortress of the Bella Center where the summit itself was taking place. If the majority of the official negotiators seem to have no answers to the threat of climate chaos, those on the streets have many.

Police repression

The repression of protesters by the police has become a big issue. During Saturdays march, almost 1000 demonstrators were encircled by the police and prevented from moving. Many had to wait up to 5 hours seated directly on the tarmac – hands on the back – before being taken to the detention center. All but a few of those arrested were released without charge within few hours.

Actions by a small group of “Black Block” supporters was used by the police as justification for their action. At the former Stock Exchange and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stones and fire crackers were thrown. But the police intervention happened almost 1 km further along the route of the demonstration making it completely arbitrary who was in fact detained. The Danish parliament had hastily approved the “Scoundrels act”, a package of new laws that include right for the police to hold people for 12 hours (it was previously 6) in preventive arrest without the right to appear before a judge in the run up to the summit.

People’s climate summit – klimaforum 09

The COP15 has also become the occasion for the convergence of many thousands grassroots activists to debate the challenges and solutions to global warming. The main centre for the debates is the Peoples Climate Summit. A common declaration has been agreed which we print below. In the same way as the slogans of the demonstration, the declaration also poses a radical approach to climate change, as shown by its title System change – not climate change. It points toward the need for “a just and sustainable transition of our societies to a form that will ensure the rights of life and dignity of all peoples and deliver a more fertile planet and more fulfilling lives to future generations.” It takes a stance against market mechanisms such as carbon trading and offsetting and for atleast a 40% reduction in emmissions by the developed countries by 2020. Klimaforum 09 – Peoples climate summit : The protests – as well as the crack-down by the police and the lack of answers from world leaders have continued since December 12 but smaller numbers of activists have taken part in these direct actions. Not only have more arrests followed, but some from Greenpeace and Via Campesina in particular have had their passes from the Bella Centre withdrawn for attempting to organise acts of solidarity between those inside arguing for binding limits of 1.5% warming – and for climate debt to be paid for by the north – and who walked out of the talks on Tuesday – and the protestors outside.

Inside the Bella Centre, Hugo Chavez from Venezuela has echoed much of what has been raised by the activists and saluted them for being on the streets. “If the climate were a bank, they would have bailed it out already” was one of his most pertinent comments, in a long and powerful speech which drew applause from many who heard it. The Bolivian delegation has also made a strong and powerful intervention from the inside.

But it is what happened on December 12 that sums up the real step change for the movement for Climate Justice. That mobilization itself was of course proceeded by significant demonstrations in many individual cities and countries across the globe as the summit began on December 5.

But certainly the number of demonstrators on the streets of Copenhagen is a proof positive that it is possible to develop mass mobilizations on the issue of global warming.

Given that it was the largest demonstration on any question in Denmark for more than 20 years, it will undoubtedly give a massive boost to what has been up til now a relatively weak movement on the question of climate change in that country. Other demonstrations on this question have only involved a few hundred people.

But beyond this, at an international level it shows that there is a new movement being born and being radicalized across the globe. Naomi Klein, in an article for “The Nation” on December 12 entitled “Copenhagen: Seattle Grows Up” makes many comparisons between the movement for climate justice and the battles against free trade symbolized by Seattle and what came after. But she also makes the crucial point that what weakened that movement was that while it was clear what it was against it was less sure what it was for. She is right – Climate Justice activists are clear – there is an alternative and we are determined to build it!

Terry Conway is one of the editors of International Viewpoint and a leading member of Socialist Resistance, British Section of the Fourth International

Thomas Eisler is a member of the national leadership of the Red-Green Alliance as well as the leadership of SAP – Danish Section of the Fourth International.


One response to “Copenhagen: a turning point for the movement”

  1. Dianne Avatar

    I got this over email and it’s not clear where this first appeared, but I thought it was great and wanted to share it with others on this list.

    Copenhagen 2009: The Predictable failure

    Michael Löwy

    We – I mean the Marxists, the ecosocialists, the radical climate justice activists – were quite pessimistic about the so-called United Nations Conference on Climate Change: we predicted that Copenhagen would end in a failure. We argued that the capitalist system doesn’t know any criteria other than more accumulation, greater expansion and higher profits, and therefore is unable to take the minimal measures necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change. And since we knew that the vast majority of the “world leaders” present in Copenhagen are nothing but faithful servants of capitalist interests, we thought that the conference would limit itself to vague promises about a 50% reduction of CO2 emissions by 2050. In a word, we believed that the Copenhagen mountain would give birth to a mouse.

    Well, I must admit that we were wrong. We were not pessimistic enough. The Copenhagen conference gave birth not to a mouse but to a cockroach. Kyoto was already a big failure, since its aims were ridiculously low – a reduction of 5% by 2012 – and the methods proposed to get there, such as the “market in pollution rights”, absolutely unable to achieve any significant progress. But Copenhagen is much, much less than Kyoto, which at least acknowledged the need for internationally agreed commitments.

    What happened? China accused the US of not committing itself to any meaningful measures to reduce emissions; the US accused China of not accepting any international commitment to reduce emissions. Both insisted that they couldn’t do anything if the other didn’t move. Europe explained that they couldn’t take any initiatives without the US and China. The only thing they all agreed, and happily, was on the urgent need to do nothing.

    So all we have got is an ugly cockroach, called “The Copenhagen Agreement”, concocted by the “world leaders” before hurriedly leaving the conference by the back door. It is a completely vacuous document saying that, as everybody knows, temperatures should be stopped from rising more than 2°C. Not a word about limits on gas emissions, no mention of percentage of reductions, not even as a wish expressed for the remote future. Nothing. Nix. Zero content.

    So, what hope is there? The only hope is in the 100,000 people who demonstrated in the streets of Copenhagen, coming from Denmark and elsewhere in Scandinavia, Germany, Europe and the whole world, demanding radical measures, denouncing the irresponsibility of the “responsible leaders”, claiming climate justice, and proposing to “change the system, not the climate”. And in the thousands, who peacefully marched up to the doors of the conference, trying to open a dialogue with the “official” representatives, only to be met by teargas and police clubs, and to see their spokespeople – like Tadzo Müller – arrested for “incitement to violence”. And in the thousands who took part in the discussions of the alternative KlimaForum, which adopted a resolution denouncing the pseudo-solutions of the system (“carbon trade”, etc.). There is also hope in political leaders like the Bolivian President Evo Morales – among the very few exceptions – who showed solidarity with the Climate Justice movement, and denounced capitalism as the system responsible for disastrous global warming.

    To conclude: many years ago, the poet and singer Joe Hill, of the International Workers of the World (IWW) in the USA, said, just before he was shot by the authorities on trumped up charges: “Don’t mourn, organize.” We must return to our countries, and organize people, in the fields, in the factories, in the schools, in the streets, to build a large international movement fighting against the system, to impose radical change, to save, not “the planet” – it is not in danger, but life on this planet from destruction.