Coping with Copenhagen, Parrying Paris etc

So, the climate activists are a bit stuck, now that the French state has said ‘non’ to their planned “manifestations” at the next climate talks.

“We respect the decision of the state, but we are trying to find ways to keep on mobilizing and taking the streets in one way or another during the COP in Paris, in order to make sure that we have an impact on the negotiations and contributing to our movement,” Nicolas Haeringer, campaigner for in France, told ThinkProgress.

While it’s currently unclear what form those activities might take — Haeringer suggested something as simple as banging pots at a particular time each day during the talks — organizers expect to release concrete details within the day. (emphasis added) source

I am not making this up.

Is it really only six years since the Copenhagen debacle?  It feels simultaneously like the day before yesterday and a thousand years ago. Have we learnt so little? Or do we just have so few tools in our tool box?

We COULD have “mobilised” for Copenhagen differently.  We could have organised rolling actions at a national level on key themes (adaptation, agriculture, aviation) with creative non-violent direct actions and less-arrestable stuff for others, throughout the two weeks of that horror-show.  But instead all the NGOs spent all year trying to get people to go on the most epically stupid march of all time. And the so-called radicals, who had been heard as recently as three years before that abjuring the hopping of summits? They went summit hopping, biensur.

And in the intervening six years, we’ve learnt nothing, it seems.  Looking for something else on my hard drive, I stumbled across something I wrote a couple of months before Copenhagen, after I’d spent months being told that it was wrong to treat adults like adults (telling them that Copenhagen would be inadequate/a failure) because this would discourage them from going on the march, and the march was The Most Important Thing Ever.  This came from people who think they should be listened to on the subject of strategy and movement-building.  But who are STILL encouraging people to go on this march in November, and had NOTHING to say in their 10 minute nonsense recently about the failures of the movement and what could be learned.  FFS.

Here it is.

Copen-bloody-hagen and the Rorschach test

Climate Change is the easiest and hardest thing in the world to campaign about.

On the easy side; what greater motivation than the ‘end of the world’ and the destruction of the current wealth and future prospects of every man woman and child on the planet?

At first glance, there’s all you need for a successful campaign;

  • global fairness poverty/development/injustice, check
  • animals and rainforests threatened, check
  • human rights threatened, check
  • jobs threatened, check
  • prospect of increasing militarisation and war, check

But if it were that simple, there’d be marches of 500,000 every single month, not an annual march that will be considered a massive success if it gets 50,000 this year.

Climate change is the hardest damn thing to campaign on because (and this list is not complete);

  • it is happening slowly (picking up speed nicely, but still distant),

  • it’s happening in far-off countries of which we know little,

  • it’s all a bit too scientifical

  • it’s hard to square the ‘save the planet’ and ‘keep growing the pie, only distribute it more fairly’ rhetoric of most of capitalism’s opponents.

  • Potential campaigners feel guilty over the impacts of their lifestyles, and reluctant to give up some of the things they have come to enjoy (meat every day, flying, the treadmill of consumption that gives them part of their identity)

So it gets thrown – by both individuals and campaigning groups – into the “too big” basket, and people hide behind (mostly manufactured) uncertainty or other forms of denial.1

This year, 21 years after the birth of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (, climaxes with the spectacle of a huge international conference in Copenhagen, running from December 7 to December 18. The idea is that the world leaders who attend will sign a deal to replace the Kyoto Protocol, the only legally-binding international Climate Change agreement.

In order to pressure the UK Government and to Show We Care, a march has been called for Saturday December 5th in London, with another march taking place in Copenhagen on December 12th.

This article tries to sketch some recent history, look at the motivations of the participants and the likely outcomes, and suggest other ways forward and beyond. It’ll probably fail in most people’s eyes to do these things adequately, but as the liberals always say, ‘if it Sparks a Debate, then that’s a Good Thing.’

History lessens

Cast your minds all the way back to the distant days of 2006. North Korea exploded its first nuke, Google bought Youtube and Leona Lewis had a Christmas number one with “A Moment like this.”

August saw was the very first Climate Camp, at Drax power station.(

The end of the year saw march of ten thousand or so from the US Embassy (back when you could use the US Prez as a pantomime hate figure) to meet a similar number of people rallying in Trafalgar Square, under the joint auspices of Campaign against Climate Change (, hereafter “CaCC” and the “Stop Climate Chaos” coalition. (

Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” came out, as did the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change. The following February the IPCC’s fourth assessment report announced what anyone with a brain knew already- we were in deep shit. (And that report, was, within a year, widely acknowledged as an underestimate of the precise depth of the shit2).

Suddenly, you could barely move but for climate change stories in the paper and on the idiot box, conferences and gatherings and everyone was green. Salvation was surely at hand.

Then what?
CaCC seems to have thought you could grow a movement by having the usual petitions, marches and an annual conference in London.

SCC basically disappeared off the national radar for two years

Climate Camp just kept on doing what it wanted- an annual camp at Heathrow and then Kingsnorth, never (it seems) pausing to think if it was achieving its stated goals, or merely providing opportunities for people to sit in a field surrounded by cops, take drugs, fuck strangers and proclaim that this was the eco-revolution.

And here we are in 2009.

Campaign against Climate Change, despite saying this was the Big Year for climate change (the author’s capitals, but CaCC’s sentiments) did not hold its annual conference this year, and is devoting more/most of its energy to its trades union activity.

Climate Camp, wrong-footed by the government over clean coal/carbon capture and storage, has not done its promised rolling campaign against new power stations. Instead it is having its fourth annual Climate Camp, this time in London. Given the Campers’ tactical nous, and the fact that the Metropolitan police are severely on the back foot after their thuggery was exposed at the G20 protests, it would be a foolish punter who bet against them pulling off something audacious. (What’s the rent on some marquees in Pall Mall; ‘Pass go, collect 200 campers and go nowhere near jail’?) Climate Camp is also talking about going off to Copenhagen to protest/demonstrate/shut down/meet new fuck-buddies.

Stop Climate Chaos, now a much wider (but no deeper?) coalition than it was in 2006, is organising a London march on Saturday December 5th, where everyone is to wear blue and therefore be part of “The Wave.” (

I doubt, if you talked to “key individuals” in each of these groups, that any of them is very happy with the slow slow progress – or actual regress- there has been since 2006. [Then again, I also doubt there has been soul-searching and effective post-morteming of why things haven’t gone according to hopes, but that’s another story.]

So much spilled ink!

The Copenhagen conference looms before everyone and is a useful “Rorschach test,” (those ink-blot tests that psychiatrists use, in which everyone allegedly sees what their underlying ‘personality’ wants/needs them to see.

For the liberals (most of the Stop Climate Chaos coalition)

The march will be a measure of success, a useful focus of “lowest common denominator” action to get the coalition moving again. Some members of the coalition, believe it or not, are uncomfortable even with something as dangerous and activist-y as a march. So, for SCC, this is a brand relaunch after a couple of years in the doldrums.

The revolutionary socialists (primarily Campaign against Climate Change, now a tattered front for the SWP, with various lip-biting socialists from other sects)

They love marches. For some reason the author has never fathomed, marches give them goose-bumps. Perhaps they squint really hard and see it as a prelude to them storming the Winter Palace. And of course, it’s in their comfort zone, they can spend energy and time booking coaches, selling tickets. Once folks are on the bus and at the march, it’s a chance to sell papers, and for their leaders to make rousing speeches. Job’s a good ‘un…

There will also be, presumably, some (well-hidden?) residual resentment that the liberals are coming in and hijacking ‘their’ march, and so they’ll throw themselves into it in order to keep/claim the moral high-ground afterwards

The NVDA /non-hierarchical crowd

Some will go on the march, but for those who also go to Copenhagen, they get to relive (or live for the first time) the glory days of June 1999 to August 2001, when each summit hop was bigger than the last, when we thought we were everywhere, and we could even plausibly claim that we were winning.

And for the author of this piece? Well, obviously he gets to indulge his intellectual arrogance and patented exasperation, before rolling over a few times in fragrant pool of doom and gloom.


How “it” will probably play out


It’s not clear if the standard guesstimate technique of numbers will be accurate (find out the police estimate and double it, find out the organisers estimate and halve it- there’s your likely range), because the police have recently started giving high estimates, presumably to justify their overtime claims. But frankly, who cares? I don’t give a monkey’s if it is 10 thousand or 60,000 (the outlying numbers in both directions, I’d say) because marches – the organising of and participating in- are horrendous ways of building a mass movement. If they worked, we wouldn’t be in this horrible mess. There is a basic confusion – among liberals, socialists and the nvda crowd – over the difference between mobilising and movement building.)

This march will have big numbers only if Londoners come out to support it. If it rains on the day, then all the free/cheap coaches from the provinces will not make a difference. Those coming from Brizzle, Sheffield, Manchester will largely come regardless- they’ve “invested” already. It’s the Londoners looking out their window in Walthamstow on the Saturday, who only have to swipe an Oyster Card (or not), who’ll give the numbers or not.

The marches and protests


They’ll be spinning the numbers upwards, and blaming the weather if the turn out is lower than hoped for. They’ll make sure to get their best and most telegenic speakers giving upbeat soundbites to the Beeb and Channel 4, and they’ll be twittering and facebooking and flickring about what a great and inspiring thing it was for days afterwards.


They’ll release an estimate of the numbers on the march even higher than the SCC estimate, and claim the credit for getting so many people out on the streets. Then they will, um… Denounce somebody for being the main blocker of a stronger deal. Probably the Americans (and probably rightly).

Climate Camp- some will make the trip to Copenhagen, on one or another form of zero clue caravan. They’ll meet up with old friends from various G8 and IMF/WB summits, and there’ll be a pitched battle or two with the EU’s finest. These will involve colour-coding, clever tactics and zero strategy. There will be ritual denunciations by the NGOs about the violence, and counter-denunciations about reformist sellouts.

There’ll be “lovely pictures” and war-stories, and websites will spring up, extolling the virtues of the Climate Resistance of Autonomous People. The author thinks its unlikely to be a replay of Prague or Genoa-

Firstly because the UK “movement” doesn’t seem as strong as it was all those years ago. The trees of Newbury etc are now a very distant memory, (and indeed a folk memory for many). In addition, the “are we actually wanting to shut this thing down?”question hasn’t been successfully grappled with, an answer merely fudged.

Secondly because the Danish police will have been role-playing a whole lot of scenarios, including Prague and Genoa. That said, given the experience, courage and tactical nous of the NVDA crowd, it would be a foolish punter who bet against them pulling off something audacious without getting good odds from the bookie.

The actual conference

There are, philosophically speaking, three possible outcomes;

A scientifically adequate deal to meet the challenges, an inadequate deal (on a sliding scale of shittiness) or no deal/delayed deal.

Maybe I am wrong. Maybe there’ll be a collective waking up, and the science will drive the conference, and we will get the 40% cuts by 2020 that are needed, peaking in the next 2 years or so, and the huge amounts of money needed for adaptation and resilience for both the minority and majority world will start flowing, and the developing countries will change their tune and come on board for imminent emissions reductions of their own. But that’s looking kinda unlikely. And the deal- whatever it is- is going to rely on huge amounts of carbon trading and dodgy accountancy about where emissions are consumed and produced (e.g. While the UK’s produced emissions have declined a bit, its consumed emissions have soared.3)

So what we will see instead is some variety of inadequate deal, ranging from fairly inadequate through to mind-numbingly, wrist-slashingly inadequate. (We’ll come to the “no deal at all” option later)

The inevitable spin cycle

But it won’t be in the interests of either those who sign it or those who urged them to sign it, to get too honest about the actual scale of inadequacy.

The governments are hardly going to turn around and slag the deal off, because their oppositions will just say “well why did you bloody sign it then? Why are we making sacrifices that aren’t worth it, eh? Why didn’t you hold out for the rich/poor/white/brown/yellow (delete as appropriate) so-and-sos to commit to more?”

The NGOs (I think here FOE, Oxfam etc) will not be too hard on the deal, beyond expressing understanding disappointment/ resigned realism because;

a) they don’t want to piss off the governments too much- there are long term relationships at stake here, after all.

b) they have to be able to sell Copenhagen – and their lobbying – to their constituents as a success. Never forget, these NGOs need direct debits and donations in order to survive, and keep doing the (largely good) work that they are doing. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just a fact of life.

And of course, both governments and NGOs will be looking at the struggle for ratification through national parliaments. It took Kyoto, far less ambitious, 8 years to get signed off by enough countries….

The revolutionary socialists and the NVDA crowd are in the “happy” position of not really needing to paint the Copenhagen conference as a success. Their constituencies are already predisposed (and the author agrees with them) to see this as a giant stitch-up where the rich will screw the poor, the present will say “to hell with the future” and the ecosystems of the world will continue to get exploited in imaginative and suicidal ways. “Success” around Copenhagen for these groups, the author contends, is going to be more to do with maintaining their own oppositional ncihes and their view of themselves as the people not fooled, the pure outsiders who the world has ignored. And a chance to sell papers or screw strangers, naturally.
Taking the bis?

There is a chance, I can’t really say how big, of the whole thing NOT coming to a deal, and a Bali Action Plan with bells and whistles on it being announced, with a follow-up meeting (known as a “bis” meeting) happening 6 months down the line. Which would be curiously deflating…

The dangers

A vast proportion of energy will go into getting 10 to 60,000 people tramping through London

At which point everyone thinks, hmm, that’s about a 50th of the number that marched on February 15th 2003 and THAT didn’t work. Is this all the people who give a damn…Christ, I feel more alone than I did before… And at the same time, some/many participants will think “I’ve done my bit, I’ve shown I care, now it’s up to my elected representatives to do their bit.”

Then, when Copenhagen is not an unalloyed success, this sort of thing will be going through people’s heads;

Hmm, Copenhagen wasn’t a success. My organisation strongly implied that it could be. Either

a) they were unduly optimistic, in which case, I don’t trust their judgement as much as I used to or

b) they knew the likelihood of a good outcome was low, but chose to keep that information from me, so I would go on their march. That isn’t very honourable. In fact, it is bloody patronising, and I am not sure I trust them anymore…”


In fluid dynamics, an eddy is the swirling of a fluid and the reverse current created when the fluid flows past an obstacle. The moving fluid creates a space devoid of downstream-flowing fluid on the downstream side of the object. Fluid behind the obstacle flows into the void creating a swirl of fluid on each edge of the obstacle, followed by a short reverse flow of fluid behind the obstacle flowing upstream, toward the back of the obstacle. This phenomenon is most visible behind large emergent rocks in swift-flowing rivers.

Another possible type of turbulence is the vortex. This notion is now applied to gases, which have the same properties as liquids. Here, no void is created, but only an area of lower pressure, but again, a backflow causes the gas to rotate.

If the liberals don’t prepare people for the reality- that the likelihood is a weak deal or no deal – then they will have to spin whatever emerges as a “success” to justify their own stated optimism, so as not to demoralise their supporters. This spinning will take time and energy, and always comes at the cost of credibility.

The obvious questions, that (maybe) only an outsider without responsibilities and a wage reliant on one of the organisations can ask, are

  • Why not be radical and tell potential participants the truth?

  • Do we think people can’t handle the truth?

  • Won’t telling the truth leave us in a more credible position for dealing with the realities of 2010 and 2011?

    Why not say “this is too important to be left to politicians, whether they are local or national or global. There are things we can do, here and now, to prepare for climate change and help developing countries. These things are fun to do. They are happening before Copenhagen, and they’ll be happening after Copenhagen.”

What could (still) be done

To hell with the wave- we need a hundred thousand eddies. Rather than crashing against the wall-like indifference of the British public in one spasm of splashy showing blueness, we need constant, smaller eddies that disturb the regular flow, and turn things around and around and around. People making waves in their workplaces, places of worship, on their streets, in the chambers of commerce and the chambers of their local council. Eddies that are turbulent, mix things, creating connections and interactions that wouldn’t otherwise be happening.

If the planning for the Wave explicitly, persistently and imaginatively creates the conditions for these eddies to come into existence locally before December 5th, and works out how to celebrate and support them afterwards, then it won’t have been completely wasted time and energy.

Further reading

“Beyond Copenhagen” piece, June 2008

Click to access copenhagen.pdf

On the limits of NGOs, and Umbrella Groups

Click to access umbrellagroups.pdf

Alex Evans and David Steven

Click to access DFID%20final%20version%20CIC.pdf

Climate Activists in Denial

Financial Times Monday 27 July

Gideon Rachman

1On denial, check out George Marshall’s blog and also the excellent World Bank-sponsored study Cognitive and Behavioural Challenges in Responding to Climate Change by Kari Marie Norgaard

2Especially on ice-sheets and sea-level rise. For links, consult

3Dieter Helm’s Tanner lecture 2009 is worth a read.…/TANNER%20LECTURE%20Feb09.pdf See the Guardian’s report here-



8 thoughts on “Coping with Copenhagen, Parrying Paris etc

Add yours

  1. The Paris mayor was not allowing the march to go ahead, before last Friday events, why?
    After reading your post earlier, I came across this post, which is a better reflection on Copenhagen 2009:
    Before Copenhagen 2009, I was at the launch of Richard Leese’s, ‘Manchester – A Certain Future’ I was sat near the front with Gayle O’Donovan and the compare stated he would take no more questions from ‘Greens’.
    And what has Manchester achieved in the years since, basically nothing. If anything, it has gone backwards, like this present Government. And this happened, despite all your ranting and raving.:-). They have even treated Kevin Anderson, with contempt, when he has spoken at council meetings.
    So, how do you think people should proceed then? How can we help you, bring about the change needed? What would you do differently? What do you think, is stopping the changes we need to make, happening?

    1. Patrick,
      you can find the ecohustler thing as good as you like, subjective judgement.
      a) it’s trying to do something else b) it advocates joining the Campaign against Climate Change
      b) Manchester has indeed achieved nothing. In that time I’ve submitted endless Freedom of Information Act requests, and taught others how to do so. I’ve attended many many council meetings, scrutiny committee meetings. I’ve co-ordinated the creation of reports about what Manchester could do and what the city council wasn’t doing. I’ve written many letters to the Manchester Evening News. I’ve made videos highlighting the work of other groups and individuals, and tried to get conversations about sustainability going in this city.
      You. I think you wrote some blog posts on your own site and used the class chip on your shoulder to dismiss everyone else, including the Greens. (I think they can be criticised for lots of reasons. Class is merely one of them). Not sure I ever saw you at a single scrutiny committee meeting. I could be wrong.
      As for what we should do? Well, if you’d been reading either this blog or Manchester Climate Monthly you’d be reading a frequent critique of how meetings are organised ALONGSIDE specific and implementable ideas of how they could be done differently. You’d have read suggestions about how to run skills audits, better question and answer sessions. You’d have read critiques of the middle-class white leadership of social movement organisations at a local and national level not (just) on the basis of their whiteness and invisible class prejudices, but ALSO the consequences of that, and how we can combat them. To be honest, I am a little exhausted by all this; this endless claim that I don’t posit alternatives. I’ve tried to do that with my example (People’s Environmental Scrutiny Team, Manchester Climate Monthly, being involved in the early days of Steady State Manchester).
      Thanks so much.

      1. Hi Marc, it is a pity we never had a decent discussion over a few pints. As you always had to leave before 20:00 Hrs, to go to the gym, allegedly.:-)
        Individuals, community groups and NGOs have a number of hurdles to overcome in Manchester. One major hurdle is the fact, Bernstein and Leese, along with most Labour councillors, feel utterly secure in their positions. The total collapse of the Lib-Dem vote (which did not transfer to the Greens), just makes them feel invincible. No matter what the ‘usual moaners’ and ‘usual suspects’ say. Their position is strengthened by the decreasing number of people voting, even registering to vote.
        Then we have organisation that reinforce the message, that they are doing things right. This includes Manchester being praised for Manchester – A Certain Future and the UN praising Greater Manchester on building resilience: The University of Manchester endorsed the application, ‘It is with pleasure that the University of Manchester recommends Greater Manchester’s bid to become a role model of resilient city as part of UNISDR’s Making Cities Resilient Campaign and to be a partner in this initiative’. Then we have the mainstream media blowing the trumpet for Manchester. Along with some publication, Lousy Planet or something singing praises. Despite Manchester being one of the most deprived Cities in the UK, with low life-expectancy and poor health outcomes.
        So how do we change things?

      2. There was no allegedly about it, I used to go to the gym. I also used to find the waste of time and talent and opportunity for genuine connection between individuals at meetings of the Green Party a source of extreme irritation and regret. The idea of facilitating interaction between individuals, rather than having a core of 3 or 4 people doing 80% of the talking with a few others chipping in and loads of spectators is just so wasteful and unintelligent, so I’d often walk with my feet. You knew my email, and we could have had a pint at other times.
        Never mind.
        As for what we do – well, it’s there in the post. Design meetings differently, build the skills and knowledge of individuals and small groups BETWEEN the meetings. Don’t get too stuck on the marches, or the reactive agendas of summit-hopping. Challenge the neoliberal dominance of Leese and Bernstein. Use the tools (FoIA, letters to paper). There’s all the neo-Gramscian stuff that could be deployed. But it requires skill and dedication and numbers of people…

  2. Marc,

    ‘we need constant, smaller eddies that disturb the regular flow’

    Well put.

    I’ll be stealing that, BTW.


    1. oops, sorry. Which ones in particular? I may be able to help (but the article was written in 2009, so stuff may be long gone).

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