“Political realities”, protest, and the preemptive deflation of expectations at COP21

As Prime Minister Justin “We don’t need emission targets” Trudeau heads to Paris for the COP21 climate summit, his Minister of the Environment and Climate Change is already trying to negotiate down expectations for the final outcome of what has been billed as humanity’s last chance at averting catastrophic global warming.

If you’ll recall, there was a lot of fanfare when it was announced that “climate change” was going to be tacked on to the Environment Minister’s title, but I pointed out at the time that this was pure spin – the Liberals campaigned actively on being a more effective champion for the oil/gas/pipeline industry than the outgoing Conservatives had ever been, and that substantive commitment far outweighed any superficial change in tone.

Now, I hate to be right about this, but I’ve gotta say, I was right…

Canada on Friday backed the U.S. approach to major climate change talks in Paris, saying any carbon reduction targets agreed to at the negotiations should not be legally binding.

The announcement by Environment Minister Catherine McKenna could irritate host nation France, which wants any deal to be enforceable. That would be politically impossible for the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, however, since it is clear the Republican-dominated Congress would not ratify any treaty imposing legally binding cuts on the United States.

“Everyone wants to see the United States be part of this treaty,” McKenna told reporters on a conference call before flying to Paris. “There are political realities in the United States … they cannot have legally binding targets. We don’t expect that the targets will be internationally legally binding,” she said.

In other words, it’s unfortunate that oil-funded Republican corporate shills in the U.S. Senate essentially hold veto power over a comprehensive, legally-binding climate change agreement that will preserve a livable future for our planet, but what can we do? That’s the “political reality”, after all…hell, even Thompson Reuters agrees, in an objective neutral journalistic tone, that it would be “politically impossible” to push a legally binding agreement through the U.S. Congress.

Contrast that with the hardline stance taken on the extremely contentious Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is a legally binding agreement which requires the approval of skeptical Republican in Congress. Advocates of the deal are lobbying hard to get this deal approved, calling in all kinds of political favours and using all the political clout they can muster. Why? Because, if approved, the TPP will be extremely lucrative to the leading corporations in a handful of industries. They have a lot to gain, and so they’re fighting hard for it – and they might well win.

So when McKenna basically shrugs and says “Republicans will be Republicans!”, she’s preemptively surrendering an incredibly important battle because it’s hard. When Thompson Reuters calls such a deal “impossible”, they’re essentially washing their hands of the future of the Earth as we know it. It’s too bad, really, but that’s politics!

But these overwhelmingly white, male, and wealthy U.S. politicians only get to have veto power over a global effort to avert the worst effects of climate change if we let them. Their power depends on our tolerance of their power. It is not literally impossible to get a legally binding emissions-reduction agreement through the U.S. Congress, merely politically impossible. That “impossibility” is socially constructed and it can be socially destructed. The biggest limiting factor to accomplishing this is the discourse surrounding how difficult, how impossible, the process would be, which discourages any efforts before they’ve even begun.

Similarly, and pivotally, we see the organizers of major protests at COP21 continuing to plead and beg for their right to be disruptive, as though civil disobedience is impossible without the approval of the authorities. Take a look at this widely-circulated petition:

[M]any of us are coming to Paris in the next fortnight to demand world leaders begin the radical transformation to a low carbon economy, with serious financing to assist less industrialised countries to build societies without resort to fossil fuels. We understand that the challenge is huge. It isn’t possible for politicians to carry out the changes needed without massive movements and mobilisations creating political space and will.

For this reason we are deeply concerned by the decision of your government to prohibit the mobilisations in Paris during COP21. This will make it extremely difficult for ordinary citizens of the world to make their voices heard and to create the political space necessary to build a brighter future. We believe this strips the COP process of its legitimacy.

We urge you to reconsider the decision to prohibit the demonstrations in Paris. We understand the need to keep citizens safe, including those mobilising on climate change. It must be possible to find a way to do this short of banning our demonstrations. Many other mass events and gatherings continue to happen in Paris on a daily basis. We would also like to ensure that the police treat us with dignity and that you send a clear message that our civil liberties be respected.

“We urge you to reconsider”? Asking to be treated with dignity by the police? Seriously?!

Look, the way that COP21 has been structured makes it clear that the participation of ordinary folks is not important to those organizing this process. The voices of industry have been systemically privileged and granted insider access to negotiations – Vandana Shiva goes so far as to assert that agri-corporations are attempting to “hijack” the process – while marginalizing the frontline communities which are most urgently effected by climate change.

In other words, the state doesn’t give a fuck about your right to protest.

And so you shouldn’t give a fuck about their ban.

You don’t ask for permission to be disruptive. If it’s important to be disruptive to make your voice heard, then you disrupt, period. Saying “Let us protest, please” puts you in a position of weakness. You don’t need to negotiate for permission. The very notion that you need the state’s approval itself undermines your right to protest.

That’s not to say that there will be no consequences for defying France’s blanket ban on protests, as several activists found out a few days ago when they were placed under pre-emptive house arrest. The move, which is only permissible under France’s draconian state of emergency laws, has affected at least 24 activists, including legal advisors.

It’s an indication of the zeitgeist of the moment that the IBTimes feels comfortable calling these activists “militants” despite the complete inappropriateness of that term.

So yes, taking to the streets in the current political environment is dangerous – but so is the alternative. The conflation of activism and terrorism must be resisted, and it won’t be pushed back by petitioning the state for mercy; it’ll be pushed back by proving that the right to protest does not depend on the tacit approval of the state.

Besides, this conference is a big deal, at least according to the major environmental orgs, which were just weeks ago promising the largest climate-focussed civil disobedience actions of all time. If it merited that level of protest prior to the November 13 killings, it certainly still does today.

This protest ban is only meaningful if it is respected. If hundreds of thousands of determined protesters flock to Paris to protest tomorrow, no decree in the world will stop them from taking the streets and making their voices heard.

We don’t need to believe the officials with important-sounding titles and backroom access when they tell us that a necessary goal is impossible, or that our rights are contingent upon their approval. We don’t need to buy into their “political realities”. We can create our own, if only we have the courage to do so.


Solidarity Saturday is a weekly examination of activism and protest in Canada and (occasionally) around the world. You can reach me at matt@thealfalfafield.com or leave a comment below.

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