Archive | January, 2010

Lessons from Copenhagen

17 Jan

Lessons from Copenhagen

By Cliff Cawthon and Contributed to by Bobby Gillett.

Special thanks to Tom Barlow, Ben Lear, and Bobby Gillett for their accounts of events.

The 7-18th of January 15th U.N. Conference on Climate Change (COP 15) was the most important conference in recent history; like the Bretton Woods, Potsdam, or Seattle WTO conferences the experiences differed for the 100,000 activists calling for a real alternative. In the aftermath of the trial by fire of Copenhagen, the movements came out stronger with a programme and solutions that was embodied in the “peoples’ declaration”, which was adopted at Kilma Forum 09’. According to activist, Tom Barlow the effort “[united] people from across the globe for a bottom up approach to solving the problems of Climate change – as well as recognising the real cause and the real losers”.

The movement on the streets

The two-weeks-long demonstration centred on the conference at the Bella Centre in Copenhagen and the message was that the world couldn’t afford to wait. Activists from dozens of countries descended on Copenhagen, and many activists from Manchester went with Climate Justice Action.  The initiation of the conference was met with a 100,000 large NGO protest which included a bloc of “system change, not climate change” activists; according to mule writer and activist, Robbie Gillett, “The Danish police try out there new draconian protest legislation ( and mass arrest 700 people (, towards the back of the march.  Nearly one thousand people ( were arrested that day in total.  Only four were charged”.

On the Monday 14th December, the No Borders organization demonstrated at the Ministry of Defence in light of the harsh and racist immigration system which crystallizes itself in the famous carry-off scene of the police (the state) pulling the COP 15 inflatable globe one way and the protestors struggling to yank it away from them and reclaim it, a contest between David and Goliath, a historical contest that the underdog needs to win again.

The costs and the losers

The losers Mr. Barlow was speaking of are the billions previously mentioned (us), especially the millions that will be effected. According to the Environmental Justice Foundation, in Africa it is estimated that 10 million have migrated or have been displaced by “environmental degradation or desertification” (“No Place Like Home: What Next for Climate Refugees”, 2009); the aforementioned tragic situation was brought to the steps of the Bella Centre via the involvement of African NGO’s and activists. In the recollection of the events, Mr. Barlow also talks about the severity of the climate crisis of the global south through the narrative of an African activist from Uganda:

“It was such a remove from our world …… more moving was her description of home and how she had never imagined such shops, or food, or transport before, her day to day life being taken up getting water and food for the family”.

In Naomi Klein’s report from Copenhagen “Sudden death” is how Nnimmo Bassey Nigerian poet, activist and chair of Friends of the Earth International, described the crisis; which, will excacerbate the 46% poverty rate of the continent’s inhabitants in addition to create a greater rivalry for resources. As Klein correctly cites, the oil companies [in the Nigera] were still ravaging the Delta and violence was (and still is) spiralling out of control”.

Africa emits the lowest amount greenhouse gases per capita, yet its inhabitants will face the consequences: 1) by 2050, rainfall in Africa will decrease by 10%; b) Agriculture will decrease by 50% by 2050 due to the lack of rain for its 70% rain-fed agricultural base; c) between 2002-2003 a 3.3 tonnes food deficit left 14.4 million in need; d) according to a cited UN study the horrors of the Sudanese civil war and genocide in Darfur were “the first war linked to climate change”.

Africa will be one of the most dire casualties in the climate catastrophe’s upcoming climax, nevertheless this is a global issue, which the UK is not exempt from either. Manchester is notorious for its rainfall but imagine if the historic river through Manchester were to flood; the United Kingdom like other island (albeit much bigger) states is in danger from inundation via flooding, however, unlike the small island states it will not disappear. Millions of people live in small island states that are expected to disappear if Global temperatures rise above 2 degrees Celsius.

Police & state reaction to popular action

Despite the popular nature of the protest and universal danger of the climate catastrophe the police acted brutally, bluntly, and with authoritarian efficiency. The ascribed description is a generalization; however, the new laws confirmed by the Danish parliament gave the police pre-emptive arrest powers; which they exercised on Wednesday 17th December, according to the Guardian.

Climate Justice Activists were subject to these new protest laws, for example the Danish police infamously arrested 1000 people during a march. Ben Lear, a Manchester Climate Justice Activist described the police’s actions in tactical terms:

“The police weren’t (contrary to many accounts) as brutal as previous mobilisations such as the G8 in Genoa or Seattle.’ ‘They were very efficient and the preventative arrest laws were very useful for them.’ ‘A willingness to Mass arrest and the liberal use of tear gas and pepper spray made successful direct action (and even peaceful and legal demonstrations) difficult.”

In Christiania, Europe’s longest ongoing squat, the police blockaded it at 10pm on the 14th December ahead of a reclaim power party. The squat had always been ignored and even tolerated by the Danish government, despite their recent attempts to enforce property rights in a cooperative- against the resident’s wishes.

The blockade was intended to facilitate a raid on Christiania. The brutality of the raid was summed up in detail by Tom:

“When they raided an area of the city the size of Northern quarter, shooting tear gas everywhere and using flash bang grenades, beating women and teenagers you couldn’t believe it. They were using flash grenades on people once they were arrested to stop them from crying or screaming. They were in such pain because they had been beaten, pepper-sprayed and tear-gassed. It was a dark nightmare in the night and I watched a line of arrested people being beaten on the ground.”

194 people were arrested as the police used all of their weapons available to them. The arrests resulted in some deportations of CJ activists, which Ben and Tom avoided. This violent repression happened after hours, once most of the press has gone to print, and after having to show restraint on the No Borders demo.

The movement outside of the UK

Despite the physical removal from Copenhagen or the interpersonal barriers that individuals faced, like Seattle in 1999, Copenhagen was a globalized protest. The Non-for-profits and NGO’s that took part in the protests were joined by Climate Justice Activists from all around the world, which culminated from activists and narratives from every corner of the globe.

One question I asked Tom and Ben was, “What were your exchanges like with the activists/ campaigners from the Global south”? Tom described the activists from the Mediterranean as “a lot braver with dealing with the police and a lot more prepared and unfazed by their brutality”.

The Latin American delegates were exceptionally cooperative with NGO’s and NPO’s, and the President Evo Morales was a staunch advocate for “system change, not climate change”.

The activists also came from various ethnic groups, and most notably the Indigenous Peoples of Canada. The Indigenous and Climate Justice activists focused on Canada’s mining of the Alberta Tar Sands. In the coverage from the U.S. independent news show Democracy Now, Eriel Deranger campaigner from the Rainforest Action Network raised the issue of the damage of the mining of the Alberta tar sands as a major cause of cancer in indigenous communities; which, has been reflected in a study done by the Edmonton Cross Cancer Institute (Democracy Now, 15/12/09).

In the end, Ben observed that, “there were political and cultural differences between us [the activists] but, we were trying to bridge these”.

The people fight back

On 16 December, the police (as usual) harassed activists on their way to the Bella Centre to hold a ‘peoples summit’ in the middle of the UN section of the Bella Centre.There were four main contingents to the action:

The Bike Bloc was formed of small affinity groups who ‘swarmed’ around different points throughout the day, blocking and slowing police vehicles here and there and providing decoys and distractions.  One biker pushed his bike under a cop van and then ran off.  As the van went to chase after him, it rode over the bike and damaged the engine.  Others used the ‘horse move’ where they would rear their bike up on its back wheel and use it vertically to fend off police baton attacks.

The Green Bloc met at another point but was much smaller.  Despite some valiant efforts and fast running, the Green bloc got intercepted by cops as they moved towards the Bella Centre.  Around 250 people were arrested.

The Blue Bloc

We were in the much larger blue bloc and thus had safety in numbers, As we approached the Bella Centre, the march became an action – with people climbing the fence, others blocking police vehicles and others constructing a bridge out of inflatable mattresses.

The action was successful in delegitimizing the whole Copenhagen process when multiple delegations walked out of the COP 15 conference. Delegations from the Global South walked out of the COP 15 and attempted to join activists from the people’s summit; some of these countries included: Bolivia, Haiti, the Maldives, and Bangladesh. Regardless of their status, the delegation members were ruthlessly beaten back by the cops, thus the whole COP 15 process was further delegitimized. Video of the walkout is available, here.

The final days of Copenhagen

In the closing days of the conference on the 17th December, activists reorganized and reassessed the trajectory of the movement. Danish activists recommended that the organizations release press statements and releases because, of the domination of the story by the police. It is not uncommon for the mainstream media misconstrue the events of protests and demonstrations when the police and involved, and it ends up glorifying and vindicating those that repress and brutalize others unjustly; in the words of one activist, “this is important to me, because COP15 has been used as an excuse to turn the country I live in into a police state.”

On the 18th of December, before the demonstrations broke, a demonstration against police repression was planned for the afternoon. In the wake of two-week-long demonstrations and organization for an alternative Climate agenda, the establishment did not work out any global agreement.

An interim agreement, or rather, just a commitment to an agreement was worked out behind closed doors amongst the BRIC countries and the United States, so Obama came in riding on a white horse but, he and our planet came out battered with a black eye.

However, the COP15 marked a new level of global unity and the maturity of a global social justice movement with people from around the world joining together to fight for system change, not climate change.  Instead of looking to the market to solve the problem, we were looking to a more fundamental shift in who runs our economies and turning from a system based on systematic greed to one based on human development & needs. What the failure of the ‘Copenhagen Accord’ shows is that we need to continue building our own solutions from the bottom up instead of relying on the indifference and nepotism of the political establishment, and corporate elites thriving under their green-chutes and fair-trade farces. The mandate that the movement of movements got that day was indeed for “system change, not climate change”.

The Camp for Climate Action in the UK is now taking a long look at its strategies for the months and years ahead.  There is a Northern Regional Gathering on Sunday 24th January 2010 at Bridge 5 Mill, MERCI, where all are welcome to reflect on what’s happened and discuss the where next for the climate justice movement.