Frontline Index





World Leaders Fail the Planet

The UN summit on climate change in Copenhagen ended with an agreement that fell far short of what is needed to save the planet. Liam Young looks at what happened at the Danish meeting and how the grassroots movements are responding.

The failure to reach agreement on how to deal with the problem of global warming at the UN summit in Copenhagen, has of course been received negatively by most observers. As the conference broke up in accusations and counter accusations, the reasons for inaction have become less clear. As the leaders of the biggest polluters blame each other for the lack of a deal, it is important to emphasise the proposed agreement was resisted by many governments representing some of the poorest people on the planet. It is this divide between rich and poor nations that some, such as climate secretary Ed Milliband, seek to avoid discussing by blaming China for the failure.


Copenhagen has also seen the radicalisation of many environmentalists as the vested interests that require to be challenged in order to prevent further degradation of the planet have been brought to the fore. There is a rising grassroots movement that identifies the dividing line of the environmental question, as between those that want to put an end to the exploitation of nature to accumulate wealth, and those that want to continue “business as usual,” regardless of the effects it may have on the planet. With over 100,000 demonstrators on the streets of Copenhagen demanding climate justice, plus the alternative conference ‘Klimaform09’ issuing the statement “system change not climate change” it is apparent that there is growing discontent with how the establishment is tackling the environmental crisis. As Hugo Chavez stated “Copenhagen is not the end, but a beginning: the doors have been opened for a universal debate on how to save life on the planet.”

Rich and Poor

World leaders that assembled for the UN summit on climate talks were attempting to reach a binding agreement on limiting CO2 emissions to prevent global temperatures from rising above 2c. Before the conference had even started, the talks were in disarray due to a leaked document suggesting the rich developed nations were seeking an agreement consolidating their power and watering down the role of the UN in future negotiations. The so-called Danish text proposed that any monies released to developing countries would have strings attached demanding that they de-carbonise their economies. This was seen as a reversal of the principles of Kyoto that regarded financial contributions as compensation for the damage done by the CO2 already emitted by the developed nations.

The deal that was on the table at Copenhagen sacrificed the needs of the majority of the world’s population in favour of protecting the current system of economic growth. The Danish text that had been drawn up secretly by the UK, US and Denmark sought to maintain global inequality by allowing developed countries to continue emitting 2.67 tonnes of CO2 per capita. While under the threat of financial aid being withheld poor countries would be limited to 1.44 tonnes. The World Bank would set up a carbon trading system that would encourage the type of financial speculation that in the last few years has played havoc with global fuel and food prices.

Disaster Track

Referring to the introduction of these carbon trading schemes the world’s leading climate scientist James Hansen said “We’ve got the developed countries who want to continue more or less business as usual and then these developing countries who want money and that is what they can get through offsets [sold through the carbon markets].” Before the conference started it is significant that many environmentalists and scientists had low expectations of what the summit would produce. Hansen actually suggested that it would be better for the talks to collapse than the proposed deal to succeed “I would rather it not happen if people accept that as being the right track because it’s a disaster track”.

According to scientists the emission cuts being proposed in the failed deal were still far short of what was required. Many of the poorest countries demanded that cuts should actually be aimed at maintaining a rise below 1.5c; anything above this would make billions homeless and leave them suffering from food and water shortages. Greenpeace campaigner and Plane Stupid member Joss Garman said “The UN is admitting in private that the pledges made by world leaders would lead to a 3c rise in temperature. The science shows that could lead to the collapse of the Amazon rainforest, crippling water shortages across South America and Australia and the near extinction of tropical coral-reefs, and that’s just the start of it.”

Copenhagen Accord

The final Copenhagen Accord that was drawn up by a handful of world leaders including the United States and China in an attempt to save face failed even to gain recognition as the consensus of the conference. This was due to the resistance of Venezuela, Cuba and many other developing countries. The accord offers little even by the low expectations that many held before the summit, falling far short of the conference’s original goals. It has no interim targets and has failed to adopt a legally binding climate agreement. There is also an absence of any firm emission reduction targets for 2020 and 2050, despite this being a key aim of most countries beforehand. It only asks individual countries to submit voluntary targets by the end of January 2010, which won’t even be reviewed until 2015. On a brighter note it does contain a general aim to limit global temperature rises to 2c by the end of next century. However, when taking the rest of the accord into consideration this basically amounts to a “closing our eyes and wishing it were so” approach to global warming. Commenting on the last minute deal Evo Morales said “If there is no agreement at this level, why not tell the people.” He went on to say “Who is responsible?” and answered “the responsibility lies on the capitalist system — we have to change the capitalist system.”


The failure of the establishment to come up with a serious proposition to prevent runaway climate change has inevitably caused a backlash and raised the question of the way forward for those conserned with the environment. The last year has seen a mass movement begin to emerge internationally against global warming, the type that will be required to challenge the vested interests that seek to protect the current system. In December we saw demonstrations of over 8,000 people on the streets of Glasgow, 50,000 in London and outside the Copenhagen conference over 100,000 people. In a speech to the conference Hugo Chavez made reference to the demonstrators, “There are many people outside, you know? Of course, they do not fit in this room, they are too many people. I’ve read in the news that there were some arrests, some intense protests, there in the streets of Copenhagen, and I salute all those people out there, most of them youth...It’s capitalism, the people roar, out there, hear them. I have been reading some of the slogans painted on the streets, and I think those slogans of these youngsters, ..... two of which I noted. You can hear among others, two powerful slogans. One: Don’t change the climate, change the system. And I take it onboard for us. Let’s not change the climate, let’s change the system! And consequently we will begin to save the planet. Capitalism is a destructive development model that is putting an end to life; it threatens to put a definitive end to the human species.”


There had been a mood in the lead up to Copenhagen that either the summit would come up with an agreement that could make a difference, or there would have to be a radical re-assessment of what was required to bring about change. At an alternative conference organized by a broad coalition of environmental movements named ‘Klimaforum09’ a statement entitled “Change the system not the climate” was released. The statement demands food sovereignty, ecological agriculture, democratic ownership and control of the economy as well as energy sovereignty which calls for public ownership for the grid. The statement says “People are calling for system change, not business-as-usual” and talks of “an urgent need to build a global movement of movements”. This is to be made up of “a broad alliance of environmental movements, social movements, trade unions, farmers and other aligned parties”. The intention is to bring together these different elements to fight locally and internationally to transform the situation.

On December 20th, Evo Morales announced that Bolivia would host a world conference of social movements in response to the failure of the summit in Copenhagen. The conference will take place on April 22nd International Day of Mother Earth and symbolises a shift in the struggle to prevent environmental destruction. This is indicative of a movement that is becoming more conscious of the role played by the capitalist system as it undermines the material basis of life on the planet. Historically much of the campaigning on environmental issues has been restricted to concerned lobbyists and pressure groups. The destruction of forests, overfishing of local fisheries, polluting of rivers, expansion of agri-business and the generalization of poverty and inequality has forced many to enter into struggle simply to sustain their way of life. Whether it is movements such as ‘Via Campesino’ that demands food sovereignty over the interests of Agri-business, or the natives of North Alaska whose livelihood is threatened by rising water levels, many of these peoples have no choice but to fight or be condemned to a life of poverty.

End of Illusions

While the defeat of global summitry at Copenhagen may have initially appeared negative, for many it has finally have put paid to any illusions that the current system can be reformed. The economic and environmental crisis that capitalism has unleashed on the world has placed the question of change on a revolutionary scale back on the agenda. Hugo Chavez said “I will not tire of repeating to the four winds: the only possible and viable alternative is socialism. I said it in each of my speeches to all the world representatives gathered in Copenhagen, the world’s most important event in the last two hundred years: there is no other way if we want to stop this heartless and debased competition that promises only total annihilation.”

All over Europe post Copenhagen meetings will be taking place to debate how the struggle to prevent global warming moves forward. As it becomes clear to increasing numbers of people that the situation will not be resolved by governments negotiating, it is imperative that Socialists contribute to the building of such meetings here in Scotland. How we participate in the discussion and debate will be crucial in shaping the developing movement that is beginning to emerge. The building of a movement that can draw together the different emerging strands of resistance to capitalism must now be seen as an historic role for socialists in the 21st century. This of course is nothing new for socialists but as the degradation of the environment increases so too does the importantance of this task.