How to take on Trump and win climate justice

August 4, 2017

Long-time South African climate justice activist and author Patrick Bond is professor of political economy at the Wits School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand.

Ethemcan Turhan and Cem Iskender Aydin spoke with Bond on the need for an international climate justice movement to target the Donald Trump administration.


Let’s start with a reality check six months into the Trump administration. What meaning should we make of the situation and what should we expect from the climate justice movement?

We are speaking after the Labour Party made surprising progress in Britain. Moreover, Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in Holland, the Alternative for Germany and other proto-fascist electoral threats anticipated in the past couple of months seem to be contained.

In this landscape, Trump has also failed to build a fascist coalition in the way that we worried might emerge. First, he doesn’t have full control of the US state. Second, his core support base on the hard right seems to be both shrinking and ineffectual.

Third, corporations are more divided than we thought they would be, although there are some fractions of capital, especially in the real estate and construction, military, fossil fuel and banking sectors, which are anticipating improved profits.

Neoliberal authoritarianism fusing with protectionist and nationalist political undercurrents could still become dominant in the immediate future, but it is less a threat today than I thought it would be. One reason is that dissident groups have developed some surprising capacity to resist Trump on various fronts.

We haven’t quite begun that process of generating solidarity in the international level, for example, by imposing popular sanctions against Trump and US corporations. I think this is long overdue. The whole world should be doing what we have seen in the BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions targeting Israel] movement for Palestine’s liberation, which follows South African anti-apartheid activists’ similar success.

One start was the vigorous protest when Trump visited Belgium, and the huge anti-G20 protests in Hamburg. Stronger international reactions to Trump’s proto-fascist threat combine with the fact that we are all much more aware that climate change is accelerating. There can hardly be any remaining pretence that the Paris Climate Agreement is a solution.

This raises two fundamental questions for climate justice. First, are we ready now to start coordinating and fighting much harder for the very different values, programs and direct-action blockades that will be required? Second, are we ready to fight not only Trump’s polluting industries but also the green capitalist threat?

Pro-market ideologues tell us that they have the solutions: cheap renewable energy, driverless electric cars, carbon trading, genetically modified climate-resilient crops and nuclear energy. Many of these are false solutions if based on markets and technology, from a climate justice perspective, which takes class analysis seriously.

How do you feel about the short-term future of the climate justice movement against a green capitalist takeover?

The forces backing climate justice lost ground from the more hopeful 2007-2009 peak period when the Climate Justice Now! movement broke away from the Climate Action Network at the Bali UN climate summit. Diverging and atomistic tendencies in our movements are partly to blame.

I think that too much emphasis on localism with autonomist politics is the general dilemma of the left critique of neoliberalism, as witnessed in the Occupy movement’s limits. I hope we have learned from the reluctance to adopt more democratic yet centralised politics.

It seems to me that the ultimate challenge will be whether climate justice activists will link across scales, establishing more effective national and international networks and avoiding the tendency in which climate justice is used merely as a buzzword. The major dilemma here is co-optation of a radical vision.

For example, Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement means that the call for a popular sanctions campaign by allies like Naomi Klein and Joseph Stiglitz in North America require more international solidarity. And yet tellingly, the main statements from the Climate Justice movement organisations — ranging from indigenous rights to the larger environmental NGOs — merely condemned Trump without any strategic way forward.

Trump recently visited Saudi Arabia and Israel, and he seems to have encouraged an alliance to form against Qatar. Do you think the oil-producing countries of the Gulf and beyond will affect the future of climate politics?

Oil has caused so much military and geopolitical conflict that it is easy to predict more chaos and turmoil in the Middle East and other oil-producing regions. But on the other hand, taking a longer-range view into the future, the US doesn’t import substantial oil now, since its fracking industry is up and running.

Trump’s paleo-conservative ideology — in which “paleo-” implies a dinosaur age, that is, a tradition of isolationism identified with Ron Paul and Pat Buchanan as well as the “alt-right” gutter press — was justified by his electioneering attempts to criticise the vulnerabilities of over-extended US imperial power.

This ideology seems to have stalled, although it may be revived by the people around [White House chief strategist] Steve Bannon. Instead, the neo-conservative foreign intervention agenda set by [former US president] George W Bush and largely continued by [former US president] Barack Obama continues apace, with Trump murdering thousands of civilians already in his attempt to crush militant Islam.

But the general trend appears to be a shift in the foreign policy interests of the US. Some of the biggest cracks in this coalition also come from allies like Turkey, Philippines and Pakistan. These departures confirm how difficult it is to keep US empire intact.

It seems there will be more attention to the rise of China as a leading climate policy maker, bringing together other countries. India and China already pledged to stay in [the Paris Agreement]. What does this mean?

It’s not just a matter of climate. I see the emergence of the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) network not as anti-imperialist but as a sub-imperialist group in accommodating the needs of the US-led empire.

Let’s take a few sites of contestation. One would be the International Monetary Fund’s 2015 vote re-allocation, in which four of the BRICS nations won substantial increases in power — as did Turkey — but South Africa lost 21%, and Nigeria and Venezuela lost 41%. The BRICS countries stand higher in the IMF, but only by stepping on African and Latin American heads.

The same is true in the World Trade Organisation, where BRICS agri-corporations lobbied to end food sovereignty, joining the US and Europe in 2015 at the Nairobi summit.

Another was the failure to agree on binding emission cuts in the Paris Agreement. This was a break from the Kyoto Protocol, which was binding.

It was a strong objective of Obama’s government and especially his chief climate negotiator Todd Stern to ensure neither common-but-differentiated treatment nor binding emissions cuts would remain after Kyoto. The same goes for climate debt liability, which was specifically prohibited as a strategy for climate victims claiming compensation for loss and damage.

These are some of the objectives that Stern regularly reported to [former US Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton, which we now know thanks to State Department cables and emails posted at WikiLeaks.

The US sabotaged climate politics by first weakening the Kyoto Protocol with carbon trading at the outset in 1997, then by not ratifying Kyoto, and ultimately in 2009 by setting up this alternative strategy with BRICS in Copenhagen. So the US has achieved some clear objectives already.

Therefore, when Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement even corporations like Exxon Mobil were not in favour. After all, the Paris Agreement has no accountability mechanism, re-opens the door for carbon trading and prohibits liability lawsuits for loss and damage due to climate change, also known as climate debt.

In contrast, a much stronger climate justice sentiment can be found in the solidarity movement with Native American activists fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline, and similar struggles over land and water.

But what kinds of strategies link up the dots of resistance? [Canadian activist and author] Naomi Klein made a call for people’s sanctions against the US. Nobel economics prize winner Joseph Stiglitz agreed that it makes sense to have a carbon tax against US products.

Those are the sorts of things that we need to begin to say to US powerbrokers: because of your failure to address climate properly, we are turning now to people’s power. Climate justice movements need to hit Trump where it hurts most, in his and allied corporations’ wallets.

In your book BRICS: An Anticapitalist Critique you refer to the idea of BRICS from below. Is there a way to do that in an age of BRICS leaders Modi, Putin, Zuma, Temer and Xi?

Yes absolutely, because this is not ultimately a network aimed at driving out leaders, even corrupt ones — as in Brazil and South Africa — whose grip on power is weakening. More durably, we see resistance to BRICS in the regions where their extractive industry firms penetrate. A quarter of the 2200 struggles recorded at the Environmental Justice Atlas are against BRICS firms.

For example, one of the largest firms originating in India, Vedanta, is also taking over the assets of Africa’s biggest mining house, Anglo American. Russians are particularly anxious to spread nuclear power.

A South African firm, Sasol, is moving into China with oil-from-gas and oil-from-coal investments. Chinese capital looted Zimbabwe’s diamonds, with even Robert Mugabe admitting last year that US$13 billion of $15 billion worth of the stones are unaccounted for.

There are exploitative BRICS companies in Latin America creating the anti-extractivist forces there. Most spectacularly, in the struggle to conserve the Yasuni National Park in Ecuador and to leave the oil in the soil, the enemy is a Chinese company.

BRICS from below critiques in these hinterland struggles need to be as tough as struggles against western multinational corporations. One example is a global campaign against Brazil’s Vale, the world’s second-largest mining house.

But BRICS often has even weaker systems of accountability. Moreover, the BRICS New Development Bank will soon be ready to step in where even the World Bank doesn’t want to engage, such as in nuclear energy lending.

Therefore, I believe the conditions are ripe for a systematic critique from the bottom up. For example, Turkish anti-coal-fired power plant activists might in future team up with anti-mining activists in South Africa, as these struggles are in essence connected.

Organisations like Global Witness document an increased number of environmental activists killed each year. Recently, two environmental activists fighting against stone quarries in Turkey were killed in their homes. Similar violence happens regularly against labour movements in extractive industries, such as the Marikana massacre of striking workers in South Africa in 2012.

Neoliberal authoritarianism’s rule means the state often answers the corporation’s request for violence against critics, as we saw in the case of the Marikana platinum mine massacre, where 34 miners were killed within an hour. The man who is now the deputy president in South Africa was also the main local shareholder in that mine company, Lonmin.

The Marikana massacre was an extraordinary moment in South African history, which caused a dramatic decline in the ruling party’s union support, leading to a split.

The workers’ demand for a $1250 a month living wage came just as platinum prices began falling. One of the responses to shareholder demands for sustained profits even when commodity prices crash, is more intensive exploitation.

When profits are harder to earn due to lower prices, one response is cutting costs: less environmental protection and social investment in the surrounding communities, and refusal to pay a living wage and ensure occupational safety and health standards. 

Violent corporate and state responses to resistance can be traced to places where companies have decided to respond to falling prices by increasing the volume of output.

What are the potentials for environmental justice struggles in different spaces and at different scales to respond to this worsening uneven development?

Struggles limited to local demands without international solidarity are sometimes co-opted, so linking as much as possible makes sense, and climate is one vehicle for this.

Klein argues in her book This Changes Everything that we need to not only strengthen the defensive capacity of local movements for water, land and air, but also talk about a just transition to a different mode of production. Linking labour movements to these struggles will be essential.

The climate crisis can help us rethink how we produce not just energy and transport but also urbanisation patterns, agriculture, and our inherited production, consumption and disposal systems. Western middle class norms need to be questioned. 

These make up a huge political agenda that might be called the ecosocialist strategy. And that will require local, autonomous politics to gain sufficient confidence, to make macro structural demands.

The main fear I have is that the world’s youth have been slow in developing a healthy dose of anger and rage. People like me, over 50 years of age, have abused our right to the environmental commons. Our greenhouse gas consumption has reduced the capacity of future generations to use fossil fuels. So I hope youth get into climate justice politics including direct action, but with more anger and then strategic vision about the larger socio-economic structures.

Related to this, what potentials and pitfalls with the new left-wing wave of parties – from Latin America to Southern Europe – do you see? Can we get past talk left, walk right?

The Syriza experience [whereby the Syriza government in Greece, elected on a left-wing anti-austerity platform, eventually accepted austerity after a campaign of financial blackmail] did not ultimately challenge the predatory financial system.

There are also disappointments with the Pink Tide in Latin America partly on grounds of the new ruling parties’ addiction to fossil fuel. After all, [late Venezuelan president] Chavez, [Bolivian President Evo] Morales and [former Ecuadorian president Rafael] Correa governed with all sorts of “resource curses” resulting from over-reliance on global markets.

If the oil price had stayed high instead of falling to as low as $26 a barrel last year, [Chavez’s successor, Venezuelan President Nicolas] Maduro might have prevented some of the social unrest. The lesson Venezuela teaches is that we definitely need to take state power, but then question the underlying system of capital accumulation.

In South Africa, [the ANC was] assimilated into what is now termed “White Monopoly Capital”, instead of fighting it.

If the British example is anything to go by, it is not simply [socialist Labour leader Jeremy] Corbyn’s popularity thanks to his return to social democratic promises that gave hope, as did Bernie Sanders’ US presidential campaign last year. Also, [several British unions supporting Corbyn] have an interesting strategy called “One Million Climate Jobs”.

If the new wave of support for Corbyn can be translated into anything concrete, I hope it’ll be in this direction, so that when Labour does win back state power, the spirit will be ecosocialist, not the neoliberalism of Tony Blair.

[Slightly abridged from Entitle Blog.]

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