The people’s climate summit in Cochabamba: A tragedy in three acts : Tadzio Mueller


Most of the article below was written a year and a half ago, almost immediately after the end of the event described therein – the Global Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth – that was held in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in April of 2010, some four months after the disastrous failure of the ‘COP15’-climate summit in Copenhagen. Given that it was written only a few days after returning from Cochabamba, most of its conclusion necessarily remained speculative, as in: this or that might happen, alas, we don’t know yet whether it will. To republish it now largely as it stood then, with a new final act, is not primarily a function of the author’s laziness. Rather, it is intended to show the distance travelled since then by the global climate justice movement (such as it is), the change in strategic perspectives, its turning away from the kind of globality produced by global summits, counter or otherwise.

The situation then was rather different from the one social movements face in the world today. The slogan ‘we are the 99%’ had not yet captured the world’s headlines, there was no Occupy-movement, no Arab spring, no Mediterranean summer, no American autumn. The second ‘dip’ in the double dip recession was not yet just around the corner as it is today. ‘Climate change’ had not been pushed quite as far off the political agenda as it is now and dreams of kicking off another round of Seattle-style protests around the issue still lingered in the movements. China, South Africa and Brazil had not yet been able to gloatingly remind the US and the EU of the need for ‘prudent macroeconomic policies’ in the wake of the latters’ respective downgrades by the rating agencies – the shift in global political power-relations had not yet become as obvious.

Think, then, of this Prologue as the Chorus in a play by Shakespeare. Its function is to draw you, the reader, into the story that is about to be told, to set the stage as it were: ‘A movement and a government, both alike in dignity, in fair Cochabamba, where we lay our scene’… Well, there’s a bit more context to it than that. In order to understand the events of Cochabamba, we must first turn our eyes to:

Act I: The run-up

Copenhagen, Denmark, December 2009. The failure of the ‘COP15’ UN climate summit manages to underwhelm even the already low expectations of the emerging global climate justice movement. Once it becomes obvious that none of the major emitters, neither the US nor the EU, neither Japan nor Australia, has committed to the necessary dramatic emissions reductions, the so-called ‘Copenhagen Accord’ is being negotiated outside the official processes under the leadership of the United States. (And why should the major emitters reduce their emissions? In a fossil-fuel based capitalist economy, reducing emissions implies a politically unpalatable reduction of economic growth.) The Accord claims it wants to limit global warming to 2° Celsius, but in pursuit of this ambitious goal it proposes only voluntary emissions reductions, without any mechanisms for enforcing these commitments, or for penalising those countries that fail to meet their commitments.1 It is the resistance of governments from Venezuela, Sudan and Bolivia that ultimately stops the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) from officially adopting the Accord. Instead, the text it is merely ‘taken note of’ – as is the quality of the catering at the summit. The worst-case scenario feared by many in the movements and in critical NGOs, that a bad deal might be greenwashed, thus does not come to pass. Only the politically colour-blind could see the Accord as being genuinely green. The supposedly ‘last, best chance’ to save the planet (Obama) thus passes, after a two-week summit during which the prospect of the disappearance of entire island states under water and the evacuation of their populations had become a new normality that people accepted without flinching.

Yet, not only to those who would prefer no climate deal at all to even a weak one, the two-week summit is far from a complete disaster. Many in the emerging global climate justice movement, especially those who from the beginning took the hope for a ‘fair, ambitious and binding deal’2 as pie-in-the-sky, can point to successes of their own: the demonstration on Saturday 12.12.09 was probably the single largest explicit ‘climate change’ demonstration ever (though its political intentions were fuzzy at best, ranging from the ‘do something about climate change, please’, to the traditionally anticapitalist ‘shut down capitalism, now!’); over a two-week period, more than 50,000 people attended Klimaforum09, the counter-summit in Copenhagen, which produced a widely disseminated final declaration that effectively brought together the various political positions in the movement; while the last major action, Reclaim Power, expressed a new relationship between movements on the streets, NGOs and governments, between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, in a way that augured in a new phase of global movement politics (De Marcellus, 2010). In that sense it mattered that Hugo Chavez, in his address to the UNFCCC, quoted the slogan that the movements had been articulating for weeks in their workshops and chanting in the streets: Change the system, not the climate!

Given the obvious failure of official climate change politics on the one hand, and the possible emergence of a new social force on the other, Bolivia’s president Evo Morales lays an interesting wager. He calls for an alternative climate summit – more precisely: a ‘Global Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth’ – to gather all those progressive forces that want to develop an explicitly anticapitalist climate politics. The meeting is to take place in Cochabamba, a city made famous ten years ago in the global movements by the Guerra del Agua, the ‘water war’ that brought together rural irrigators and campesinos, urban factory workers, unemployed miners and cocaleros (coca leaf growers), who successfully overturned the contract that had privatised the municipal water system and threw the US-based multinational Bechtel out of Bolivia. Much is at stake: so far, the left’s response to the failure of official climate change politics consists of little more than the usual moralising appeals and demands, but lacking sufficient social force to implement them. Put differently: it may be technically correct to say that ‘capitalism’ is to blame for climate change, but it doesn’t help us much in light of the continued expansion of the fossil-fuel system – attempts to institute a kind of ‘green capitalism’ notwithstanding (Mueller and Passadakis, 2010). What might an anticapitalist climate politics look like? How can it be implemented? And maybe most importantly: by whom?

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