Will Peace and Process Cost Us the Earth?

At this point, it’s safe to say that trust in the system has not merely left the building. It has fled the planet. There have now been 25 summit meetings of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) since the first, COP1, took place in 1995. Despite grave pronouncements of “alarm and concern,” none has managed to do much of anything to curb humanity’s thirst for fossil fuels. Meanwhile, the bind of the climate crisis has only tightened, the cliff’s edge of disaster only drawn nearer. After a short, steep slump due to the pandemic — when engines were cut, plane tickets binned, supply chains severed, and the world briefly ground to a smog-lifting halt — demand for coal, oil, and gas is expected to all but recover in 2021 and lead to the second-biggest annual jump in CO2 emissions in history. Few will have forgotten that the last couple of years have seen a historic spate of storms, floods, droughts, wildfires, and heatwaves as well as some of the highest temperatures on record — all disquieting harbingers of what’s to come. The number of those who haven’t yet felt the heat firsthand is dwindling daily.

With that in mind, heads of government walked away from COP26, hosted in Glasgow in early November, having promised to cut down on methane and move to end deforestation but largely abstained from touching combustibles. An eleventh-hour intervention made sure that parties agreed to “phase down” rather than “phase out” coal, the number-one source of CO2 by fuel type, as well as “inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.” (Incredibly, this marks the first mention of the words “fossil fuels” in any COP communiqué, though naturally what is meant by “phase down” and “inefficient” isn’t specified.) Even before the proceedings began, it was clear that the world’s wealthiest countries had fallen well short of coming up with the $100 billion they had agreed a decade ago to give the poorest, so that the latter might have a shot at staving off the worst of the gathering swelter — plainly, undeserved punishment doled out by the former. Incidentally or not, at over five hundred strong, the fossil-fuel lobby outnumbered any one country’s delegation to the Scottish summit. In the words of John Kerry, it was environmental diplomacy’s “last best chance,” seemingly squandered.

It gets worse. According to a report by Climate Action Tracker, the net-zero consensus formed in the lead-up to COP26 is hugely inadequate, putting the rise in global temperatures on track to handily surpass the Paris Agreement’s hard upper limit of two degrees Celsius by century’s end. That’s assuming, however, that national governments make good on their pledges. If you read the fine print, you’ll find that in order to offset the roughly 140 million tons of greenhouse gases spewed into the atmosphere tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, they count on the feasibility of large-scale carbon-capture technologies. The problem is, those don’t yet exist. All the same, governments and corporations the world over have cited the mere wish for these quick-fix gimmicks to justify an approach to “net zero” that essentially amounts to “burn now, remediate later.” (Even Amazon has gotten on board, having made its vow to go carbon-neutral by 2040 in the first year of Covid-19 — the same year its annual emissions rose nearly 20 percent.) To trot out an already much-used phrase, it’s all just a kick of the can down the road to dusty death.

Original Spin

Between the urgency of the crisis and COP’s unreadiness to act, faith in the process now demands either profound gullibility or plain ignorance. Yet was there ever any good reason to believe? In truth, signs of trouble could be seen from the start. For one, the bureaucratic nature of the UNFCCC (as with any intergovernmental body) was bound from the beginning to make change slow-going to the point of tedium. But if time ever seemed in decent supply, today the bottom of the well has been all but reached. For another, the interests of the fossil-fuel industry “remain stitched into global networks of power directly descended from the age of imperialism,” as Adam Tooze puts it. The force of the industry’s presence in Glasgow, and the nearly seven percent of global GDP ($5.9 trillion) it received last year in subsidies, are stark reminders of its unyielding supremacy.

Last, for all their self-congratulatory fanfare and high-minded rhetoric, the COP summits have never amounted to much more than just that: fanfare and rhetoric. Mostly, they have served as neat opportunities for governments to launder their environmentalist credibility and affirm their geopolitical standing while doing nothing to address the perilous economic incentives underlying the crisis. In this deluded paradigm, talk is as good as action, the fossil-fuel industry is a tameable beast, and the stock of “next years” is inexhaustible. At its core lurk the fatal logic of capitulation and the deadly promise of doomsday.

So, exactly what, if anything, has COP accomplished? Its signal achievements are the Kyoto Protocol (adopted at COP3) and the Paris Agreement (adopted at COP21). The second’s existence suggests the failure of the first. The US refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, the Senate having unanimously resolved to reject any climate treaty that would either mandate emissions-reduction commitments for “developed” countries but not for “developing” ones, or do “serious harm” to the American economy. When it formally withdrew its signature, in 2001, the US was the world’s top emitter. As developing countries, China and India (then the world’s number-two and number-five emitters, respectively) were exempt from the Protocol’s binding targets to reduce annual emissions to five percent below what they were in 1990 — targets to be reached in the four short years between 2008 and 2012. When the time came to reaffirm the treaty, many developed countries didn’t take on new targets, while Canada (then a top-ten emitter) dropped out altogether. By 2012, emissions worldwide had gone up by almost 55 percent relative to 1990. The need for a new and truly global charter was then not only plain but paramount.

Coming into force four years later, the Paris Agreement effectively supplanted Kyoto and is the reigning climate treaty to this day. Its nearly 200 parties have sworn to undertake “ambitious efforts” to fulfil their “nationally determined contributions,” which (unlike Kyoto) are non-binding targets self-determined by each participating country. Yet even if all signatories were to live up to their current NDCs, which most are failing to do, they still wouldn’t go nearly far enough to hold the increase in temperature “well below” two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels — one of the Agreement’s signature goals, designed to “significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change” or, in plain terms, avoid the total collapse of civilization. At this point, seeing that goal through would require a herculean curtailing of emissions: a cutback of 45 percent (relative to 2010) by 2030. Now, halfway towards that due date, emissions have gone not down but up, by four percent. As things stand, we are poised to see the mercury climb nearly three degrees by the end of this century (or just over two degrees if, against all odds, all the shirkers and truants together go far above and well beyond the status quo). Whatever the Paris Agreement has achieved thus far, it has been neither to keep fossil fuels below ground nor to forestall the mounting heat, to say nothing of spreading the misery fairly. It certainly hasn’t compelled the carbon-tipped-pencil pushers to stick to their word.

The Fire Next Time

If hope no longer dwells within the building, might it linger, seething, just outside the doors? With COP26’s deliberations underway, one hundred thousand people marched in the streets of Glasgow in the name of climate justice. “The message is that the system of COPs … isn’t working. So we need to uproot that system,” a young activist affiliated with Fridays for Future told the BBC. “The message is you need to listen to the people in the streets, the young people, the workers.” Needless to say, despite their numbers and their earnestness, those in the streets were decidedly not heeded by those nodding off in the conference hall. Stand by for the uprooting of the system.

Indeed, in a quarter-century of summits, COP has done a stellar job of ignoring the pleas of demonstrators. Milling among fellow activists playing dead in the middle of a thoroughfare, “protesters in UN delegate costumes carried signs saying ‘Blah-Blah-Blah’ and did nothing,” recalls a certain Swede. “On signal, we marched to the [conference venue] and tried to prevent the delegates from leaving by locking ourselves to the gates … all the while chanting: ‘No more blah-blah-blah … Action now!’” This had nothing to do with Extinction Rebellion (XR). It had nothing to do with Fridays for Future, or with Greta Thunberg either. In fact, Greta wasn’t there, or anywhere: she hadn’t been born yet. “This happened in 1995. The scene was COP1,” writes activist and scholar Andreas Malm. “The delegates snuck out through a backdoor … In the twenty-five years after [they] left, more carbon was released from underground stocks than in the seventy-five years before they met.”

Malm has travelled the civil-disobedience path further than most (not least alongside German coal-mine occupiers Ende Gelände). “We march, we block, we stage theatres, we hand over lists of demands to ministers, we chain ourselves, we march the next day too.” Over the years, the crowds have grown bigger and bigger, and the rhetoric has become more desperate: “we talk of extinction and no future.” All the same, “business continues very much as usual.” How long can this go on for? When, if ever, will environmentalists consider other means, other strategies to achieve their aims? How high do the flames have to get before we reach for the axe on the wall? In brief, “At what point do we escalate?”

This question is at the heart of Malm’s rigorous and seriously considered book, How to Blow Up a Pipeline. To be clear, it isn’t an instruction manual, nor is it a reckless provocation. It’s a carefully reasoned, historically informed, and principled case for forms of resistance beyond non-violence, in the face of an immovable fossil-fuel hegemony. In Malm’s eyes, it’s only when all peaceable means (appeals to reason, dialogue, demonstrations) have been exhausted that the first tentative step in the direction of escalation is justified. Consider the futility of thirty years’ worth of intergovernmental summits and always-accompanying protests. Might the time to up the ante have come already? “To say that the signals have fallen on the deaf ears of the ruling classes of this world” — those who have the money, the political might, and the law at their backs — “would be an understatement,” Malm declares. (In his other writing, he has argued that fossil fuels are so deeply imbedded in the logic of capitalism as to be inextricable.) “After the past three decades, there can be no doubt that [they] are constitutionally incapable of responding to the catastrophe in any other way than by expediting it.” The better question is, given the urgency and the scale of the present crisis, “Is there a good reason we have waited this long?”

What’s most striking in all this, as Malm points out, isn’t even so much that he takes this radical tack. After providing a brief history of politically motivated pipeline vandalism, he puzzles as to “why these things don’t happen — or rather, why they happen for all sorts of reasons good and bad, but not for the climate.” It isn’t a matter of technical difficulty. As Pipeline and Gas Journal conceded in 2005, amid hard-bitten resistance to the US-led occupation of Iraq, the titular infrastructure is “very easily sabotaged. A simple explosive device can put a critical section … out of operation for weeks.” Rather, the remarkable rarity of this kind of action is explained by “the general demise of revolutionary politics,” no thanks to neoliberalism’s dissent-stifling triumph, and “insufficient politicisation of the climate crisis.” In other words, though many might agonise over humanity’s impending doom, “they rarely see a means for fighting back.”

Resistance Is Futile

In Malm’s account, this state of anguished resignation is largely due to a self-imposed limitation on tactics. While the stakes have steadily risen, a quasi-theological commitment to non-violence has only taken faster hold of the climate movement. He distinguishes between this tenet’s two major strains. Moral pacifism (à la Bill McKibben) “says that it is always wrong to commit acts of violence,” whereas strategic pacifism contends that, whether right or wrong, “violence committed by social movements always takes them further from their goal.” Belief in the efficacy of strategic pacifism is closely clung to by creeds such as XR, which claims that absolute peacefulness has shown itself historically to be the only admissible route to social transformation. Violence, on the other hand, “almost always leads to fascism and authoritarianism.” From the suffragettes to Gandhi, the civil-rights movement to Nelson Mandela, the non-violent “civil resistance model” has proved not only morally but tactically superior to any other means — violent confrontation above all.

So the story goes. But does it stand up to scrutiny? As Malm takes some pains to show, it would be a mistake to read such strict pacifism into these struggles. The suffragettes? “Their tactic of choice was property destruction.” Indian independence? “Subaltern violence marked the route to India, from the mutiny of 1857 to that of 1946.” The civil-rights movement? “Herbert H. Haines recaps the dialectic: ‘Nonviolent direct action struck at the heart of powerful political interests because it could so easily turn to violence.’” Nelson Mandela? “Sabotage remained the main modus operandi” of anti-apartheid militants but, by Mandela’s own account, “if sabotage did not produce the results we wanted, we were prepared to move on to the next stage: guerrilla warfare and terrorism.”

The point here isn’t to suggest that non-violence is impotent, that violence is glorious, or that violence alone can solve the problems of our time. (Malm is quick to assert that “non-violent mass mobilisation should … be the first resort, militant action the last” and keen to celebrate all that has been done without taking up arms.) Instead, it’s to ask “whether it is possible to locate even one minimally relevant analogue to the climate struggle that has not contained some violence.” If not, then the historical basis for the doctrine of strategic pacifism, long and inflexibly upheld, must be put into question. As to the climate, how far has it gotten us until now? In the struggle to reel our species back from the brink of annihilation, how much more time can we afford to waste in niggling over what Malm sees as false niceties?

Steady Loving Hands

The answer, of course, is less than none. So, what’s to be done? This is the smouldering question facing today’s climate existentialists. Malm’s answer is to “announce and enforce the prohibition” of CO2-emitting devices. “Put them out of commission, pick them apart, demolish them, burn them, blow them up.” Send the message to investors that henceforth the filthy flow of profits will cease, to the rich and profligate that their luxuriating at the cost of a liveable future will no longer be suffered. “Property destruction,” however, “doesn’t have to come in the form of explosions, projectiles, pyromania.” Note that hurting people doesn’t come into it either, let alone the bogeyman known as terrorism (credibly defined as “the deliberately indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians for the purpose of instilling terror”). The word of the day is “sabotage,” and it “can be done softly, even gingerly.”

What’s less clear is what it would do to the climate movement. Clearly, not everyone is bound to be on board with blowing up pipelines. Malm looks askance at “total tactical conformity” and speculates that support for intensified resistance will only grow as the ecological noose tightens. He admits that “climate militancy would have to be articulated to a wider anti-capitalist groundswell” and acknowledges that a tactical escalation of the kind he proposes risks provoking not only mainstream vilification but a crippling crackdown from on high. (As in the case of Jessica Reznicek and Ruby Montoya, who, after “exploring and exhausting all avenues of process,” proceeded with “steady loving hands” to tamper with the Dakota Access Pipeline. Pleading guilty, they were indicted on charges carrying a sentence of over a century.) Yet he presupposes that a radical flank within the movement will, more likely than not, be capable of pushing past these obstacles and recalibrating the conversation around a more proactive midpoint. Exactly how this might happen, though, “cannot be known beforehand. It can be found only through immersion in practice.” Adam Tooze likens this attitude to “a revolutionary cadre hedging his bets.” It places a lot of faith in the persuasive power of the deed.

Yet even if militant action were met with censure and repression, even if it became obvious that it had arrived too late to accomplish anything of substance, Malm maintains that it would still hold symbolic, even transcendent, value. He compares this sort of foredoomed defiance to the Jewish resistance to the Nazis. “Beyond the immediate outcome of the struggle, which most often was inevitable, their combat was for history, for memory,” he quotes approvingly from Alain Brossat’s and Sylvie Klingberg’s Revolutionary Yiddishland. “This affirmation of life by way of a sacrifice and combat with no prospect of victory is a tragic paradox that can only be understood as an act of faith in history.” As the analogy pertains to the climate crisis, Malm reckons that if “it is too late for resistance to be waged within a calculus of immediate utility, the time has come for it to vindicate the fundamental values of life, even if it only means crying out to the heavens.” As it happens, making “that statement would require some forceful type of action.” It’s not hard to imagine what he has in mind.

Before we’re left with no option but to go out in a blaze, the chance remains that peaceful protestors might have their way; that the powers that be listen to the kids, get their act together, and make some semblance of good. Undoubtedly, it’s the scenario most would prefer to see happen, even Malm. In light of the catastrophic shortcomings of all-hands efforts like COP26, however, the likelihood that things could actually go down in this manner appears increasingly meagre. Yet there do exist unplumbed ways to proceed that sidestep the perils of succumbing to despair — that is, of giving in to suicidal fatalism. Malm makes a compelling case for one plausible, if pause-giving, approach to breaking up the moral, intellectual, and political deadlock currently seizing the climate struggle. His penetrating analysis alone is nigh-on essential to a clear-eyed understanding of the present dilemma. Can our species save itself by any means short of revolution? That depends — alarmingly and against all precedent — on the willingness of those commanding some of history’s most propulsive forces to dismantle the very conditions that have seen them behind the world’s control panel for the past 150 years. Regardless of whether you find his conclusions palatable, Malm has dared prompt the most pressing question of the hour, the inward challenge everyone must meet at this fateful juncture in the human story. In the face of terrible urgency, and in the name of all you love, how far are you willing to go?

Text by Trevor Clarke

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