Green Left and the long fight for climate action

People gather in Bolivia for the World People's Conference on Climate Change.

As approaches its 1000th issue, more than 20 years after it first hit the streets, we will be looking back at some of the campaigns it has covered and its role as an alternative source of news. This week we look at climate change.


When Green Left Weekly first hit the streets in 1991, the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica was the biggest climate-related worry for most people. Twenty-three years later, most people accept that climate change is, to quote Kevin Rudd, the biggest moral challenge of our generation.

GLW began to sound the alarm in its first year. Issue 4 featured detailed reports on the work of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the second world climate conference, held the previous November. GLW was already warning that whole populations could become “environmental refugees” if nothing was done.

GLW reported from the first Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992 that the US was obstructing discussion and refusing to sign some of the conventions. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that was agreed to at the summit was particularly disappointing to activists.

It didn't set legally binding targets or timetables for substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions; the George Bush administration refused to even consider CO2 emission cuts. Instead, signatories agreed to “voluntarily” reduce their emissions to 1990 levels by 2000.

Greenpeace's Earth Summit coordinator, Josh Karliner, as reported in GLW, summed up the feelings of many: "Given Bush's increasingly destructive role, we feel that the Earth Summit would have been better off if he hadn’t come to Rio. The truth is that for President Bush, green is not the colour of environmentalism, it's the colour of money."

Five years later, the Kyoto conference was called after the Rio signatories decided that stabilising emissions at 1990 levels was "not adequate". GLW reported that “to achieve stabilisation, global greenhouse emissions must be rapidly cut by a minimum of 60% from current levels, irrespective of population and economic growth. Anything less will not stem global warming.”

Eventually the Kyoto Protocol, which set emissions targets for developed countries that are binding under international law, was signed. The US did not sign the protocol because, even though the First World was responsible for more than 80% of past emissions and 75% of current emissions, it wanted the target to also apply to the undeveloped world. As GLW pointed out, under the US plan, the world's poor are being held responsible for global warming. “Cheap resources, cheap labour and maximum profits are the goal. The US position ensures that imperialism will continue to dominate industries in the Third World rather than fund the modernisation of potential competitors.”

In 2001, delegations from more than 160 countries met to decide the rules for the Kyoto Protocol in Morocco. The treaty agreed to commit 38 industrialised countries to reduce their greenhouse emissions by an average of 5.2% by 2012.

As GLW’s Norm Dixon said, if this were a movie where the world faced a cataclysm, the planet’s leaders would come together, find a solution, act on it and the world would be saved. But it is not a movie and countries acted in their own interests to effectively gut the treaty of any meaningful content. Australia, under the John Howard government, was the only signatory to refuse to ratify the Kyoto Protocol because developing countries did not also sign. The Kevin Rudd government eventually ratified it in 2007.

As if to underline its hypocrisy on the greenhouse front, the Howard government refused to accept environmental refugees from the Pacific nation of Tuvalu, which has a population of about 11,000. As Paani Laupepa, assistant secretary of Tuvalu's ministry of natural resources, energy and environment, told GLW: "We have coastal erosion, droughts, and in the last decade we have also experienced an unusually high level of tropical cyclones. Salt water intrusion is becoming a problem, and this has affected our traditional food crops. Perhaps the most pronounced effect of climate change that we are actually seeing is the flooding of low-lying areas."

New Zealand agreed to accept the exodus of Tuvaluans. Laupepa said: "While New Zealand responded positively in the true Pacific way of helping one's neighbours, Australia on the other hand has slammed the door in our face. Its justification is to compare Tuvaluans with the asylum seekers trying to enter Australia illegally."

In 2008, GLW organised the first of a series of Climate Change Social Change conferences to bring together people who recognised the need for serious change in the way we produce and use energy, our transport systems, food production, urban design and forestry practices if we are to avoid unstoppable climate change.

In 2011, more than 500 people gathered in Melbourne at the second Climate Change Social Change conference, entitled World at a Crossroads. The conference brought together activists, academics and unionists from Australia, Asia, North America and the Pacific to share ideas and experiences on the issue of climate change.

By 2009, when the UNFCCC circus moved on to Copenhagen, climate activists had given up hope that the various treaties could prevent the climate catastrophe and decided to take direct action. GLW’s eyewitness account told of 100,000 protesters braving near freezing temperatures to demand climate justice.

One bright point was the presence of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at the conference. GLW reported that Chavez, who received a standing ovation for his speech, said the process in Copenhagen is "not democratic; it is not inclusive". In particular, he criticised the attempt by rich countries to overturn the Kyoto Protocol. He also applauded the initiative of the protesters outside the summit calling for serious measures to stop catastrophic climate change.

"I have been reading some of the slogans painted in the streets ... One said, 'Don't Change the Climate, Change the System!' And I bring that on board for us. Let's not change the climate. Let's change the system! And as a consequence, we will begin to save the planet. Capitalism is a destructive development model that is putting an end to life; that threatens to put a definitive end to the human species."

In April 2010, GLW’s Federico Fuentes attended the World People's Summit on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Bolivia. Up to 30,000 people from six continents took part in the summit in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba. The final “people's agreement” adopted by the summit — the Cochabamba protocol — warned that climate change puts the future of humanity in danger.

The protocol said: “The corporations and governments of the so-called ‘developed’ countries, in complicity with a segment of the scientific community, have led us to discuss climate change as a problem limited to the rise in temperature without questioning the cause, which is the capitalist system.”

Capitalism is the problem because it “has imposed on us a logic of competition, progress and limitless growth. This regime of production and consumption seeks profit without limits, separating human beings from nature and imposing a logic of domination upon nature, transforming everything into commodities: water, earth, the human genome, ancestral cultures, biodiversity, justice, ethics, the rights of peoples, and life itself.”

The summit also adopted a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth. The declaration seeks to “establish … measures to prevent human activities from causing species extinction, the destruction of ecosystems or the disruption of ecological cycles” and to “promote economic systems that are in harmony with Mother Earth”.

The message to the world was clear in the People’s Agreement. “Humanity confronts a great dilemma: to continue on the path of capitalism, depredation, and death, or to choose the path of harmony with nature and respect for life.”