Cochabamba Conference: Climate Radicals Leave Much to Ponder

The climate crisis and efforts to tackle it have witnessed unprecedented mobilisation of popular movements, NGOs, think tanks, experts, intellectuals and activists, as was evident at the Climate Conference in Copenhagen last December.  Of course, this “civil society” activism has embraced a very wide spectrum of opinion.  Amongst the most vociferous, at various gatherings as well as on the internet, have been those who may be termed climate radicals for want of a better term.  Over the past few years, there has been a quite dramatic “green-red” convergence of anti-capitalist, radical environmentalist and anarchist or at least non-organised movements.  The position of this tendency was best captured by the slogan of “system change, not climate change”.  At first glance, the idea that climate change cannot be combated unless and until its systemic causes are overturned may appear unexceptionable.  On the other hand, most progressive movements believe that, given the advanced state of runaway climate change, it may not be possible to wait for system change before tackling the crisis and that the problem needs a multi-pronged approach.  However climate radicalism, which is of course not monolithic, has come to adopt many such extreme positions.

Events and pronouncements at and around the recently held World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth held on April 20-22 near Cochabamba in Bolivia bear this out.  But first, some background.


The Copenhagen Summit failed to reach an internationally binding agreement within the Kyoto framework.  Ostensibly to save the Conference from ending in a total blank, a so-called Copenhagen Accord, driven by the US, was arrived at by a group of high-emission nations including both developed and developing countries such as China, Brazil and India.  The Accord was not endorsed by the Summit, both because of its content (widely seen as undermining the Kyoto Protocol) and due to the way it was arrived at (behind closed doors by a select few countries and totally bypassing the UNFCCC Working Groups process).

Opinion has been deeply divided on the Copenhagen Accord which has nevertheless, and in the absence of any other agreement, been signed by 110 countries so far.  As of now, the US and some of its allies are pushing to give the Accord de jure status while there are definite signs that India, China and other large developing countries are pulling back from their earlier support for the Accord.  Several countries, notably Bolivia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Cuba (from the ALBA grouping of countries), Sudan and some small island states have expressed their total opposition to the Accord.  President Evo Morales of Bolivia denounced the Accord’s terms and the non-transparent process that produced it.  He also hailed the activists massed and holding parallel discussions outside the Conference venue for moving more meaningfully towards tackling the root causes of climate change, which he identified as capitalism, over-consumption and the destruction of a holistic relationship with nature.  President Morales later announced that he would be convening a Conference in Bolivia to take these ideas and alliances forward.

Climate radicals not only rejected the Accord outright but also the entire UN process as part of the global capitalist system which caused the climate crisis.  Such groups favour an alternative grassroots process aimed at both formulating alternative solutions and shaping a new social system.  This tendency welcomed Bolivia’s call for a Conference.

The World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba was attended by over 30,000 people with around 9,250 from outside Bolivia from 142 countries.  Most of these latter were climate radicals, possibly with the exception of some groupings such as (a network calling for GHG stabilization at 350 parts per million rather than 425 ppm as called for by IPCC) which was labeled “liberal” by radicals.

A “Peoples Agreement” was arrived at and announced on April 22 which had been declared International Mother Earth Day by the UN last year at the instance of President Morales.  The Bolivian government also made a separate formal submission to the UNFCCC in the form of a draft for the two Working Groups, attaching the Peoples Agreement and incorporating many of its points, but with significant changes in language.

Despite this apparent coming together of progressive Latin American governments and climate radicals, events and statements issued at Cochabamba, and discussions on the internet both before and after, bring out sharp differences and also pose many issues for other progressive movements and climate campaigns to ponder.

Climate Issues

The declaration of the Peoples Assembly calls for a global agreement to “return the concentrations of GHGs to 300 ppm [and] therefore the increase in the average world temperature to a maximum of one degree Celsius.”  This position had been taken earlier too by several developing countries especially in Africa, the Caribbean and some island states but its basis has never been clear, nor has the IPCC agreed.

Of course, a 2 degree rise of temperature would mean huge damaging impact especially in poorer countries.  But at the same time, there is almost universal agreement among scientists that average temperatures in the world are already at almost 1 degree C above pre-industrial levels and, even if drastic steps are taken immediately, temperature rise of 2 degrees C is virtually inevitable.  GHG concentrations of pre-industrial 300 ppm levels and temperature rise of 1 degree C are simply wishful thinking, impossible to achieve even in the medium term (although actions over several decades involving sucking up huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere are remotely conceivable in the long term) and provide no practical guide to national or global emissions control regimes.

So maybe one should view this only as a tactical slogan to push developed countries to a more achievable target.  The declaration’s demand that developed countries should reduce their emissions by 50 per cent without offsets during 2012-17 should also perhaps be seen the same way, since the IPCC only recommends 40 per cent reduction by 2020 and even the EU has offered only 20-30 per cent by 2020, both with offsets.  All indications are, however, that radical groups are not really engaged with the UNFCCC global negotiations and view them with a jaundiced eye.  At Cochabamba, as one sympathetic correspondent noted, “when UN representative Alicia Barcena took the podium. . . , she was met with a chorus of hisses and boos.”  So these maximalist demands need to be taken at face value and any compromise would doubtless be seen as surrender.

The Declaration even asserts that the current discourse on climate change has been shaped “in complicity with a segment of the scientific community” as “a problem limited to the rise in temperature without questioning the cause, which is the capitalist system.”  While much analysis may not identify capitalism as such or use the term, the IPCC Reports, representing the broad consensus of the scientific community and endorsed by over 180 governments, elaborate in some detail various social-structural factors such as patterns of industrialisation and industrial agriculture, use of fossil fuels in private transportation, lifestyles especially in developed countries and, overall, the escalation of the climate crisis since the commencement of industrialisation around 1750.

Progressive groups and campaigns around the world mobilise and pressure national governments and the negotiations process on the understanding that these are indeed consequences of the capitalist path of development and that systemic changes will indeed be required if emissions reduction targets are to be achieved, in the full knowledge that not all these demands will be met.  As with other movements, there is an ultimate goal and various stages in between.  For climate radicals, though, nothing short of an immediate system overthrow is acceptable or worth pursuing.  So what kind of system change do the climate radicals want, what alternatives do they have in mind?

Socialism Equals Statism?

The alternatives as articulated at Cochabamba, and in the debates on the internet, have a few notable strands.

Both Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales in their speeches clearly stated that the alternative to capitalism is socialism.  But the word “socialism” is itself conspicuously absent in the Peoples Agreement, not due to the sensitivities of moderates but rather to the deep-seated suspicion of the term among the radicals.  In fact, tensions between the climate radicals and the progressive Latin American governments were visible throughout the conference.  The Cochabamba conference was attended by a very few government leaders, from Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Ecuador besides Bolivia, with Hugo Chavez being the only visiting head of state.  Yet the suspicion of even these governments was such that some radical groups and indigenous peoples movements from Bolivia and nearby regions set up a parallel conference venue: the Peoples Assembly had 17 discussion tents on as many themes but “Mesa 18” saw sharp criticism of the Bolivian and other governments present and at one point police observers were posted near it!

Tadzio Mueller of Climate Justice Action grudgingly admitted that “while ten years ago the alter-globalisation movement had a very strong critique of institutions such as . . . governments” today they had decided that Bolivia for instance was “not permeated by neo-liberalism and was an actor they could work with” (quoted in the Huffington Post, 29 April 2010).  Many other radicals strongly disagreed.

Edith Piaff commented in one e-mail exchange that the “conference was itself something of a legitimisation exercise for . . . President Morales.  Talks about resistance to mega-projects such as dams and the exploitation of mineral resources in Bolivia were marginalised from the conference.  Bolivia’s socialist project has caused problems for many indigenous peoples through a development model that departs from traditional, more sustainable ways of life and marginalises people who have mineral resources under their lands.”  In response to a criticism of her stance citing Evo Morales’ call for “communitarian socialism” she reiterated that “capitalism is just one problem of the general problem of domination.”  Another prolific blogger, adding a sharper critique of the Bolivian government, said that “whatever Evo’s thinking, ultimately victory will come not from him but from the grassroots, including other anti-capitalist types from within the pink-tide states, the de-colonial left . . . against the rising pink tide and neoliberalism,” the phrase “pink tide” being an oft-repeated and rather derogatory reference to the new leftist governments in Latin America.

Other Alternatives

The alternatives envisaged have other dimensions too even if all are not fully articulated.  The concept of Mother Earth Rights has many connotations for the radicals, whatever President Morales’ conception.

Any system that replaces capitalism should of course have equality between people and also ecological sustainability or, as the declaration has it, “harmony with nature”.  But the formulation goes considerably further and speaks of “the right [of Mother Earth] to regenerate its bio-capacity and to continue its vital cycles and processes free of human alteration” (emphasis added).  The idea is elaborated by stressing the need to embrace and promote sustenance-based farming methods and other “ancestral models and practices” of indigenous peoples and rural farming peoples.  There is much talk of “food sovereignty” but no discussion of how sustenance-level farming will produce surpluses to meet the food security of vast populations who today live and work away from the food production base.  The nature-level production systems of indigenous or tribal peoples are clearly central, and also to some extent explain the radicals’ disappointment with Evo Morales Ayma, the world’s only indigenous head of state, who was roundly criticised for his support for mining and other policies of an “extractive state”.  One delegate was quoted as saying “both socialism and capitalism are resource exploitative ideologies that put the human before the earth.  An indigenous perspective avoids this pitfall.”

There is a curious distinction between the Bolivian government’s formal submission and the speech of the Cuban vice-president on the one hand, and the Peoples Assembly Declaration on the other.  The former talks of damage caused to the planet and the threat to human life, while the latter repeatedly speaks of the threat to Mother Earth itself and even calls for reparations to Mother Earth for the damage done to her.  The planet has existed in different eras, much before the advent of human beings, at different levels of equilibrium, and will doubtless continue to do so even if humanity dies out due to climate change.

The climate radicals also display deep distrust of human social organisation, including of progressive governments, except for some idyllic past or a utopian non-state.  Even the declaration’s call for climate debt reparations by developed countries to developing nations prompted considerable debate (correspondence April 26-30 in  Why should developing country governments, mostly representing the richer classes in these nations, receive these funds?  Why should the poor in developed countries be forced to pay through taxation?  Is not the “real contradiction between the poor and the rich of the world, some of whom live in the global South”, rather than between developed and developing nations?  Imperialism and States, both vanish in this discourse.

It is therefore not surprising that the call went out in Cochabamba for “global greenhouse emissions to peak by 2015 latest and decline thereafter”.  A global peaking year, whatever the date, in the absence of detailed carbon budgets spelling out emission levels for developed countries, has been repeatedly rejected by China, India and many other developing countries because this will only mean a cap on development for countries of the South while maintaining the obscene differential in living standards between North and South.

The Cochabamba Conference, bringing together several progressive Latin American governments and climate radical activists and groups has made an important contribution to the debates on climate change.  Yet given the narrow range of opinions represented there, its impact on the international negotiations is likely to be limited.  Further, the perspectives of “green-red” radicals appear to be getting more extreme, deviating even further away from those of other progressive movements.  Perhaps the alliance witnessed in Cochabamba may not last as long, or be as effective, as those working towards the broadest possible alliance of progressive forces would hope for.

D. Raghunandan is a member of Delhi Science Forum.  This article was first published by Delhi Science Forum on 22 May 2010; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.

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