"Can a finite Earth support an infinite project? The thesis of capitalism, infinite development, is a destructive pattern, let's face it. How long are we going to tolerate the current international economic order and prevailing market mechanisms? How long are we going to allow huge epidemics like HIV/AIDS to ravage entire populations? How long are we going to allow the hungry to not eat or to be able to feed their own children? How long are we going to allow millions of children to die from curable diseases? How long will we allow armed conflicts to massacre millions of innocent human beings in order for the powerful to seize the resources of other peoples?" — Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, speaking at COP15, December 16, 2009
Climate change is beyond an environmental issue. In Copenhagen, tens of thousands of ordinary people came together at the alternative climate summt, Klimaforum09, to discuss what the UN, governments and corporations cannot — to agree on and enact real solutions to the environmental crisis and all its associated issues, including food, land and water security for the Third World; compassionate responses to climate refugees; bridging the gulf of inequality between the global North and South, and the preservation of the rights of workers in unsustainable industries.
All these issues have been forced onto the global political agenda — for some time at least. Before Copenhagen, it was the global financial meltdown that put the word "capitalism" back into the everyday vocabulary.
Now in Copenhagen, many are explicitly discussing the issue of how to remove the causes of climate change — the capitalist system and its structurally unequal ownership and distribution of natural resources and wealth — root and branch.
In the words of one Klimaforum09 participant: "We need to think strategically about how to build a movement that can take power from a system that is completely unable to solve this crisis, a world that values its economic system over its ecosystem. We need to build a movement and a system that can give us all the things that they [the government leaders at COP15] can never give us."
Denmark 'worst possible host'
A session titled "Capitalism and the Climate Crisis: Left Alternatives" featured a range of left and socialist activists. Per Clausen of Denmark's Red-Green Alliance criticised his government's use of carbon offsets to falsely heighten its carbon emissions-reduction targets.
He said that emissions must be reduced in a real sense, "not drowned in a sea of quotas", and that despite Denmark's reputation as a "green" country, it "has proven itself to be the worst possible host of the climate summit. First, [Denmark] backtracks on the demand for a legally binding agreement. Second, [Denmark] has sold out on the demand that rich countries must reduce emissions by between 55 and 40% by 2020".
Marisa Matias, a member of parliament for Portugal's Left Bloc, criticised how the mainstream has adopted the language of the environment movement, but in a diluted manner, stripped of all meaning and divorced from a rigorous examination of the crisis' real problems, and consequently, the real solutions.
"Environmental crises are viewed as technical, as externalities — 'there's a problem in the water, in the soil, in the air' — and separated from their social origins", Matias said. "Over the last two decades, [the words] 'sustainable development' have been integrated into the discourse of every party, every government, but they have an empty significance.
"We must see environmental problems in the realms of social and distribution problems, and that means ecological and social justice as the solution. It makes no sense to talk about nature without talking about society and who has control over natural resources."
The "Left Alternatives" panel also included Ian Terry, a former Vestas employee and member of the British Socialist Workers' Party. Vestas is a Danish wind-turbine manufacturer that recently sacked hundreds of staff at a turbine factory on Britain's Isle of Wight.
Terry explained the signficance of the Vestas workers' campaign to save their jobs, and how it offered unique opportunities to make links between the erosion of the environment and workers' rights.
"We were told that our jobs were secure, the industry was booming and we wouldn't be worrying about the recession. Three weeks later they told us we were all going to lose our jobs. At the same time [Britain's Labour government] was claiming to be creating 400,000 green jobs. So we occupied our factory.
"What I experienced [during the factory occupation] was amazing, a coming together of environmentalists, socialists, trade unionists and the local community. And for me it solidifies the argument that capitalism is the same problem — for the working-class movement and for the environment movement.
"Although we didn't actually save our jobs, the media reported quite kindly and widely. It wasn't just the left media, everyone picked it up because it was an environmental issue ... What we're doing now is working on the million green jobs campaign. We've set out where we can create jobs in green energy, the insulation of houses and public transport.
"There are many people in the UK right now who are jobless. We've been able to build pressure, talk in workplaces, in factories that are closing with people about the links between capitalism and the climate. The workers movement must link up with the environment movement.
"After 'The Wave' [a 50 000-strong demonstration in London on December 5] and after Copenhagen, quite clearly there are a lot of people coming together [to demand action to stop climate change]", he said.
"It's not an abstract issue — we've had thousands of people on the streets. We're arguing for a socially just future, not just a future where we survive. That's where the organised left has got to play a part [in relating to the broader environmental movement]. The green jobs campaign does [make those links] by uniting trade unionists and environmentalists. We strengthen each other."
Another campaigner involved in the British Workers' Climate Action group pointed out that so-called "green companies" will, by their nature, be more interested in capitalising on a growing market opportunites and prioritising profit over the environment and their workers' rights — for Vestas, "wind turbines are just another commodity".
Market solutions rejected
Many conference participants labelled efforts to impose market solutions — such as offsetting carbon emissions in the first world with "carbon reducing" projects in the Third World that have been shown to trample on the rights of labourers — as a re-colonisation of the global South.
Another activist pointed out that in a recent study, two-thirds of the UN sponsored Clean Development Mechanism offset projects in Europe failed to reduce carbon emissions, and some even increased emissions.
However, carbon trading continues to be advocated as a solution to climate change by pro-business governments. The carbon market is worth US$1.2 trillion a year, according to British economist Nicholas Stern.
Instead of market-friendly solutions offered by the richest countries, which are refusing to equally redistribute wealth and resources, there was a consensus that genuine grassroots democracy could restore capitalism's chronic ecological and social imbalance.
Roberto Perez, a Cuban biologist and activist, spoke to Green Left Weekly about some of the ways in which Cuba has begun to mend the ecological rift while developing the living standards of its citizens. Having a collective rather than a private, market-based approach to agriculture has built a sense of community among people, and gone a long way to ensure the country's secure access to food.
"Our urban agriculture receives a lot of support from the local and central government. In 1990, when there was no food, it took us a while to realise that the most reliable way to get food was to grow it ourselves", Perez explained.
"Not many people reacted like that, they were thinking that something might come, that the market will come up with something magical. The market hasn't come up with any solutions in Africa. So the government said, 'let's organise this'.
"Government support came in the form of giving unused and underused land for agriculture, training more than 12,000 technicians and farmers, funding and the creation of 3000 agricultural clubs for children. Because education in Cuba is free, studying permaculture is free.
"Some of the lessons learned include the importance of equal distribution and access to land. In Cuba, most [industrial] property ownership is collective. We prefer to give access to the land and to production to the people everywhere — small scale, large scale. There was the political will and support, the Cuban government didn't have much money, but it organised a lot.
"Now we have small farms on workplaces that provide lunch for their workforce. We have 300,000 home plots of land. And we have the urban collective gardens.
"Many people think that as consumers, they have the power to choose. But what do consumers choose? What is in the supermarket. You can choose between brands A, B and C. But out of that, what can you choose? If you grow your own food as a society, that's power. There are many people who don't want people to recover that power", Perez pointed out.
Perez said he believes this model of sustainable growth can be replicated in other poor countries. "Cuba shows the scale you can do this on. [Our socialist, sustainable agricultural and social system] is not marginal, it's not an eccentricity. All the countries that are facing these crises can do this. We found a way. It's not perfect. We are growing, planting the future. The past is fossil fuels, the past is inequality."
The official Copenhagen process has backfired — rather than being a show of global leaders' political resolve, the talks ceaselessly teetered on collapse. A leaked UN report shows that the deal on offer [in the finals day of the talks] would lead to a disastrous temperature increase of three degrees Celsius.
On this final day of negotiations, the absence of an agreement that legally binds developed countries to warming of two degrees Celsius or less has rendered hollow the hardline rhetoric of leaders like US President Barack Obama, British Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Australian ALP Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.
These leaders' assertion that their actions and emissions pale in significance to those of large developing nations like China and India appears more withered, pathetic and inexcusable than ever before.
Copenhagen has revealed that the power of the rich — the power of the few — is shakier than it seems, that the planet and its people will not accept further inaction, and that the climate justice movement is increasingly prepared to step in where global leaders have failed.