After New York, how should climate change campaigners approach Paris? (aka Naomi Klein vs the New Climate Economy)

Oxfam head of policy for food and climate change Tim Gore reflects on what happens next after the euphoria of New York (and asks you to vote, right)

First, the good news. After the Copenhagen hangover, the international climate change movement is back.Tim Gore

Over recent days in New York, we’ve seen the emergence of a new people’s climate movement, broader than anything that has gone before. Oxfam asked supporters to join us in the world’s biggest #foodfight, marching to stop climate change from making people hungry. It was thrilling to have massed ranks of demonstrators calling for ‘good food for all’ as we  surged down 6th Avenue, past Fox News and the offices of Bank of America. Ten years ago climate activists were chanting about oil; in New York progressive movements made the links to food, water, jobs, health, children and culture. Although yes, the polar bear costumes were still there too.

Ban Ki Moon said he felt like the Secretary General of the People. President Obama told his fellow leaders that they couldn’t ignore it if their citizens keep marching. More than 400 000 were on the streets, and it wasn’t to listen to a concert, or even a speech by a celebrity, it was just to walk together. The marchers and their demands weren’t owned or framed by any of the big campaigning organisations, but reflected New York itself in all its glorious diversity. The best speech made in those days was delivered by Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a mum from the Marshall Islands, whose poetry has given us all a new voice for our struggle.

Kudos to those who got the framing for New York so right. But where do we go next, and critically, how should we frame our next major show of strength on the streets of Paris in just over one year’s time?

In some ways, the UN Climate Summit that provided the back-drop to the People’s Climate March was an easy hit. Expectations were so low, the message of the march was never designed to influence its specific outcome, but to offer an alternative narrative to it. As one of its key organisers has said: “the ‘Climate Summit’ that took place in the streets on Sunday was… Far more powerful than anything that took place inside the UN”.

Do bears get read their rights?
Do bears get read their rights?

In Paris next year, where governments are due to agree a new international climate deal for the post-2020 world, the positioning will be much more challenging. Some groups will want desperately to see a new  deal secured. They may even talk down expectations, arguing that the multilateral system cannot bear another Copenhagen meltdown. Others will insist from the outset that no deal on the table will be strong enough. Some will want to point to the positives – the signals sent to investors and other influentials. Others will insist that no agreement is better than fooling ourselves with a bad one, and declare that the struggle continues.

These different strains of thought were already on display in New York in two books published in the run-up to the city’s big climate events. The New Climate Economy report was billed as the successor to the Stern Review – the new bible for those looking to make the case for climate action in the Ministries of Economics and Finance around the world. And it certainly does a decent job – providing talking points for policy wonks and savvy journalists. The best? Reduced fuel expenditures from renewable energy (which as a source is free) compared to fossil fuels will save around $5 trillion by 2030, more than compensating higher up-front capital expenditures (oh, and health costs of GHG emissions in the most polluting countries are 4-10% of GDP!)

The vision it paints is of a low-carbon world within our grasp, requiring just a few tweaks to our current economic model. Internalise the price of carbon here, shift some subsidies there, and the magic of an otherwise largely neo-liberal market economy will take care of the rest. The We Mean Business coalition came out with their own version a few days later. For some in civil society, they have charted a new path that can convince the bastions of economic power in our world to alter their course just enough to avert climate catastrophe.

As the title of her new book – This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate – suggests, Naomi Klein served up a more wholesale model of change. Here the vision is one which links the climate crisis to soaring and historically unprecedented inequality, driven at its heart by the same failed economic model. She does not set out to convince civil servants in finance ministries, but to spur people to tear down their walls. She was a headline speaker for those who tried to Flood Wall Street the day after the mass protest march.

So how should we approach Paris? Which vision of change will serve us best? Is this the moment to grab what we can – the results of a year’s renewed

The other Tim Gore
The other Tim Gore

campaigning on the back of New York – or to raise the stakes higher? If we walk-out of the Paris COP, as many of us walked-out of Warsaw last year, will we inspire millions of people to more impassioned climate activism around the world, jolting leaders to finally get real about the scale of response this crisis demands? Or will we be dismissed as dreamers, or malcontents who will never be happy, as our new supporters drift away again to focus on their daily lives and struggles. Would the poorest and most vulnerable countries walk with us, or take the deal on the table? What would you do if you were in the position President Nasheed of the Maldives found himself in at Copenhagen, painfully depicted in The Island President?

These are some of the questions that now confront our movement. We must challenge ourselves to answer them together, wherever possible in solidarity not in discord.

One thing that should be different in Paris compared to most other UN climate meetings, is that the big march will be planned for the end – not the mid-way point – of proceedings. This should give civil society the final word, framing the outcome, rather than hoping to influence it – in recognition that whatever comes out of Paris, the struggle against climate change will be far from over. All groups should thus be able to focus on driving greater ambition from the next day. Some will do so having rejected the Paris outcome as the latest example of green-wash. Others will amplify what they can, even as they demand much more must yet be done.

In New York civil society spoke with one very loud and – while disparate – largely united voice. Our challenge now, even as we deepen our particular models of change, is to ensure that the next time we speak we do not allow our differences to undermine our impact. Having spent more than six years stalking the halls of UN climate talks trying to secure tweaks to text, I know one thing: insider advocacy alone cannot deliver us the political agreements we need. Building this movement on the streets and outside the corridors of power is the only way we will win, our strategies must be centred on achieving that.

And to help Tim work through his dilemma, here’s your chance to vote on future climate strategy – see poll, right. 

Update: After first 50 votes, the poll is pretty much tied – I’d be interested in hearing your reasons for voting one way or the other

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13 Responses to “After New York, how should climate change campaigners approach Paris? (aka Naomi Klein vs the New Climate Economy)”
  1. Pete

    I’m not sure if I’d prefer to get a pragmatic deal in Paris or to hold out for something better. But I am sure that it makes no sense to me to hold a big march at the end of proceedings. Surely the aim is to influence the politicians and those in power before they make their very real decisions?

    The crowds should be out a few weeks in advance to give strength to those they are supporting in the negotiations. Turning out after the event in order to ‘frame the outcome’ would be like going to Scotland now to wave a flag for independence.

    Deciding now that the march should be after the Paris meeting sounds like the protest organisers have already decided that they can’t get what they want, and I doubt that level of despair is helpful or the most productive way forward.

      • Duncan Green

        Hmm, I do remember Seattle Sam – I was there as an NGO delegate. The talks collapsed for lots of reasons, but I think the main ones were inside the conference hall, not outside (despite the best efforts of the spectacularly incompetent Seattle cops). It then got rewritten as an exclusively ‘people power’ story. Mayhem alone actually has a pretty poor record of achieving change (Occupy, anti-Iraq war protests) or even if it does, sustaining it (Tahrir Square). In my book (figuratively, and literally), it’s the combo of insider and outsider movements, the alliances with progressive fragments of states and others in power, the importance of critical junctures etc etc that determines the outcome.

        • Andrew Wells-Dang

          I was at Seattle too, both inside and on the streets – the combination of pressure and “mayhem” effectively stopped a new WTO round and multilateral investment agreement. With the climate talks, the dynamics seem different: we are trying to influence a positive action, not stop a negative one. The case for confrontational tactics is therefore a lot weaker (how will messy direct action convince leaders to do something necessary that they already have a hard time finding the backbone for?). In this context, putting the big march at the end really does make sense. We should make maximal, “all or nothing” demands inside at the negotiations, back this up with a show of positive public support outside, and then haggle as hard as we can to save the planet.

          (Duncan, I’d add to your contingent insider-outsider approach a shout to Charles Tilly’s four features of effective social movements: Worthiness, Unity, Numbers, and Commitment. That’s what we need to show now!)

  2. Sam Gardner

    Of course, a Pragmatic deal in Paris, and afterwards a Pragmatic deal in Berlin, and then a pragmatic deal in Bangkok, every 6 months a New Deal.

    A meeting is one benchmark, the minimum for the next meeting.

  3. Alex

    We won’t get anywhere without both narratives. If we can create more political space around all the edges of the climate discussion with these narratives, the zone of possible agreement grows. Yes, it’s true that you can’t negotiate with chemistry and physics. The reality is that nothing is going to convince all parties in Paris to commit to massive cuts in emissions tomorrow, but we need to start now with a high enough ambition that at least gives us a chance to avoid 2+ degree warming, and I do think that is still barely possible. The New Climate Economy narrative helps us get a deal; the This Changes Everything narrative keeps us honest.

  4. Tess Newton Cain

    My question is how come in this piece of writing the presidents of the USA and Maldives and the SG of the UN all have names but Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner is a ‘mum from Marshall Islands’?

  5. Sam Gardner

    Yes indeed, Seattle was not the best example. The protesters were outside, and their opinion was marginal inside.

    Climate change is closer to more weighty moments in our recent history. Like the thirties. Or the environmental laws signed by Ronald Reagan. Or, in Belgium, the universal single vote (no women) as a result of the search for unity to enter the 1st world war in Belgium. But the best example seems to be M.L.King or Gandhi: Breaking the law on a massive scale, causing mayhem for an issue where there is a wide consensus about the moral high ground. And with every bullet the bully losing.

    There is a growing realisation in society that continuing in the same direction will not work. The “powers that be” must make the choice between risking all and staying the course, or making fundamental change, including new options. They postpone

    Do we really believe in Climate change? In general most leaders/people don’t, judging by their actions, but they do say they believe. Is going green feasible? Probably even with low running costs, although with a high cost for the current utilities and power generators. (see also )

    Within most western countries, the current Powers, very much linked to a system of Power generation, try to hold out. In most countries the hidden subsidy for petrol is higher than the visible subsidy for green.

    China seems to have taken a turn, although they still build a lot of Coal Power Plants (centralised Power goes well with centralised Power), they seem now to be taking the move towards distributed power (no capital p).

    So there seems to be a situation where in the long run, everybody accepts the inevitable (but will it be eco-fascism with only the rich with a permit to pollute, or eco-democracy?). Meanwhile, in the short run, the balance of power seems to be in favour of the status quo, as we can claim there are more pressing issues (economy, terrorism, war).

    So a few points:
    – international agreements are only an instrument to strengthen in-country consensus. Otherwise it does not work. The fight is about the national legislations, not about the world deciding and then trickling down. It are the national (and European) governments that must change track. The international agreement is only a symbol of commitment.
    – Within the western world, the short time pain of staying course until it is too late (fracking anyone?) is too low. There are still too many elections before the frog will be cooked. The frog must realise it is being cooked. Some shock is needed.
    – Advocating according to whatever strategy will have limited effect: all the data and strategies are on the table.

    Now is the moment to convince the leadership their interest is with change. This means proving that the consensus for change is large, and the advocates are not just clicking on websites, but ready to forsake some of their wealth for this issue.

    Bringing me back to M.L.King. There is a wide support for an issue that is towering on the high ground. The narrative is about the morality. The costs of the transfer are apparently limited, but the main point is: we shall not be moved. The main point it emotional choosing for the future (see Scotland: bean-counters against dreamers).

    Concluding: what happens in the room will depend on the heat our own leaders feel. Heat is not seminars and opinion pages. Heat is letters hand-written by millions, manifestations that are out of control due to sheer size. Is indeed manifestations running wild and the wider public condoning it.

  6. Antonio Hill

    I voted “no” — we shouldn’t pursue an “all-or-nothing” strategy to deliver climate action in Paris — and here’s why: I don’t see COP21 in Paris as either the endgame or the primary target for global climate action in the 15 months ahead.

    Paris will an important moment, for sure, but mostly for those of us wonks who have spent years or decades stalking the UN climate talks through countless conference centres. But it will only be important if the gathering climate movement focuses its strength on a series of national targets well ahead of Paris.

    Unlike the run-up to Copenhagen, the advantage we have looking ahead to Paris is that political leaders are already engaging with the challenge — 15 months, rather than 15 hours, ahead of the closing plenary. Having been induced to talk about climate change in New York last week, it’s really important that they continue to feel pressure to deliver over the coming year. That will require a show of strength that’s even more distributed (geographically and thematically) and better targeted (both nationally and globally) than New York was. The most urgent question, then, is how can people power exert maximum pressure on specific national policy / political debates with global relevance ahead of Paris?

    The extent and ways in which we swing the balance in the coming 15 months remains to be seen. But the power demonstrated in NY would be squandered if it were focused from now on the last days of Paris. That’s not to say a march on the final days of Paris shouldn’t be part of the journey, just not the biggest show of strength in the year ahead.

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