The Paris Climate Summit and the power of the people

Since international climate negotiations began a quarter of a century ago, annual greenhouse gas (GHGs) emissions have increased by 60%. As we approach yet another climate summit this November in Paris, the question for the climate protection movement is not just, can some kind of agreement be reached, but how can we reverse the continuing climate catastrophe over the next quarter-century?

Last November the two largest GHG polluters, the US and China, reached a widely-touted deal. The US would reduce its emissions by 26-28% by 2025; China would cap its emissions around 2030. Cambridge University number cruncher Chris Hope calculated what this will mean for the climate. He concluded that if the EU countries cut emissions by 40% by 2030 as they have pledged, if the rest of the developed countries follow the US commitment, and if the developing countries follow China’s promise, the most likely result will be a global temperature rise of 3.6C in 2100. The chance of staying below the 2 degrees C increase – which scientists say is the maximum compatible with human civilization as we know it – is barely one in a hundred.

Those are big “ifs.” Climate negotiators have given up on reaching a binding agreement and the record for fulfilling non-binding international agreements is dismal. But if the world’s governments agree to the US-China pledges, and if they carry out their agreements, the result will most likely be a 6.5 Fahrenheit temperature rise within the lifetime of many people now living.

One conclusion is clear: The governments of the world are prepared to destroy the basis for human life on earth unless the people of the world stop them. I will argue here that the people have the power to stop them; that we have the right to stop them; and that the time from now through the Paris summit can play a special role in developing the will to stop them.

The power of the people to protect the climate

Climate protection is straightforwardly in the interest of virtually all of the world’s people. Yet we have been unable to impose that interest on the world. In a fairytale version of the world we life in, the people of each country should be able to elect governments that send delegates to international climate negotiations with mandates to impose a plan to protect the earth’s climate. Why not in reality?

The political systems of the most powerful countries are dominated by fossil fuel interests that want to go on emitting GHGs. They are supported by institutions, corporations, and constituencies that fear the consequences of a transition to a fossil free world. National governments suffer a “democracy deficit” that makes conventional electoral politics and lobbying appear fruitless for ordinary people. National governments fear global climate protection may interfere with their pursuit of wealth and power. The dynamics of capitalism make climate protection policies appear a threat to prosperity. The world’s dominant economic ideology, neoliberalism, condemns anything that might interfere with the pursuit of private profit. And the institutions that supposedly represent the world’s people, notably the UN, are in fact dominated by national governments and those who control them. Call it the world order of climate destruction.

The world order of climate destruction has so far proven to be insurmountable for climate protection strategies that operate exclusively within the framework of conventional electoral politics and lobbying. But finding ways to act effectively when conventional representative institutions fail is what social movements do. From the Abolitionists to the civil rights movement to Polish Solidarity to the Keystone XL pipeline blockades, when democratic channels have been blocked social movements have used “people power” direct action to do what people needed. How is that possible?

Gandhi once wrote, “Even the most powerful cannot rule without the cooperation of the ruled.” The powers that are responsible for climate change could not continue for a day without the acquiescence of those whose lives and future they are destroying. They are only able to continue their destructive course because others enable or acquiesce in it. It is the activity of people – going to work, paying taxes, buying products, obeying government officials, staying off private property – that continually recreates the power of the powerful. A movement can be powerful without weapons or violence if it withdraws that cooperation from the powers that be. Fear of such withdrawal can motivate those in positions of power to change.

Of course, a collection of frightened, isolated, confused individuals will find it difficult to engage in such concerted action. So in order for “people power” to express itself effectively, people must organize themselves, gain the conviction that their action is necessary and right, and discover their power in action. That requires a social process that joins people together in a social movement, clarifies common interests, exposes the false arguments of the opposition, establishes a claim to moral and legal legitimacy, and engages in actions that reveal the potential power of the people.

We can already see this process beginning. It was exemplified by the global climate actions last September, when people in 162 countries joined 2,646 events to demand global reductions the GHG emissions that are generating climate catastrophe. An estimated 40,000 marched in London; 30,000 in Melbourne; 25,000 in Paris. Some 400,000 joined the Peoples Climate March through the center of New York City. The climate protection movement had come a long way since 2006, when a march of 1,000 through Burlington, Vermont, proved to be the largest climate protest in American history, or since 2013, when a 40,000-strong protest was the largest US climate demonstration up to that time.

Continued exponential growth is essential, but people power is not just a question of numbers. The movement worldwide has turned to direct action using the tactics and traditions of civil disobedience. Thousands of people have engaged in hundreds of civil disobedience actions around the world, from sit-ins at the White House against the KXL pipeline to the 2013 occupation of a Gazprom Arctic oil drilling platform by the “Arctic 30” protestors from 18 countries. By adopting civil disobedience, the climate protectors have moved beyond conventional political and lobbying “pressure group” activity to risking arrest to save the planet.

The right of the people to protect the climate

The governments that will be meeting in Paris rule the world – but they do not own the world. Under international law the earth’s shared natural resources belong to the world’s people and their posterity as the common heritage of humanity.

This fundamental principle is embodied in the laws and constitutions of countries around the world. It was codified in the Institutes of Justinian, issued by the Roman Emperor in 535 A.D., which stated “By the law of nature these things are common to mankind — the air, running water, the sea and consequently the shores of the sea.”

Under constitutional principles recognized in the law of many countries, known in the US as the “public trust doctrine,” governments are required to act not as owners of essential natural resources but as trustees for the real owners – the people. They have the highest level of duty to protect those assets. They have no right to authorize their destruction. While courts established by governments that are dominated by fossil fuel interests are likely to deny it, there is a common sense constitutionalism that makes this clear. In the US and other constitutional systems, powers not given to government are reserved to the people – and what constitution in the world grants government the right to destroy the natural conditions on which human life depends?

Claims that government actions are in fact illegal have played an important role in empowering social movements. For the civil rights movement, the US Constitution’s guarantee of equal rights meant that sit-inners and freedom riders were not criminals but rather upholders of constitutional law – even if southern sheriffs threw them in jail. For the activists of Solidarity, the nonviolent revolution that overthrew Communism in Poland was not criminal sedition, but an effort to implement the international human and labor rights laws ratified by their own government.

The public trust principle makes it possible for the climate protection movement to turn the tables on the governments that purport to represent the world’s people and to have the authority to rule the world. It asserts that they do not have the right to destroy the climate – and that the people have the right to stop them.

Any agreement governments sign at the Paris climate summit is likely to authorize the continued destruction of the global public trust. Yet they have no right to provide such an authorization. Indeed, they have no more right to authorize its destruction than the trust office of a bank has to loot the assets placed under its care. Conversely, the people of the world have a right to our common heritage. We have a right, if necessary, to protect our common assets against those who would destroy them.

Sparking a global climate insurgency

As the November Paris summit approaches, climate activists all over the world are considering how to relate to it. If they denounce the international climate negotiation process they are likely to weaken the one arena dedicated to long-term global solutions to the climate crisis. But if they support the process they are likely to be endorsing outcomes that still will mean the devastation of the planet.

While some will no doubt lobby the delegates and others may try to disrupt the negotiations, many are organizing to confront governments around the world with the demand of the people for climate protection. One prong of this effort, building on the success of the People’s Climate March and its joint actions around the world, will conduct a series of mass events that will show how many people are concerned about climate change and want a fossil free alternative. Another prong, following the approach of the Keystone XL pipeline campaign, will strive to halt the many new fossil fuel infrastructure projects now being planned — and seeking government permits — in the US and worldwide. A third prong will organize escalating direct actions around the world designed to cascade into a peak of disruptive confrontations.

The constitutional duty of governments to protect the public trust and the right of the people to make them do so can be a valuable tool within this effort. Indeed, it could play much the same role the US Constitution’s right to equality played for the civil rights movement and the Polish government’s legal commitment to human and labor rights played for Solidarity.

In fact, the public trust principle is already being incorporated into climate protection action. On Earth Day, 2013 Alec Johnson, a.k.a. “Climate Hawk,” locked himself to a construction excavator in Tushka, Okla., as part of the Tar Sands Blockade campaign to stop the Keystone XL pipeline. In a statement he prepared for the jury, he proclaimed “I wasn’t breaking the law that day – I was enforcing it!”

In American law there exists the concept of the public trust doctrine whereby the state serves as trustee on behalf of present and future generations of U.S. citizens. The government has an obligation to protect public natural resources on which we all depend. In its role as trustee the state has a strictly defined “fiduciary duty” to the citizen beneficiaries. Trustees of public commons, like our atmosphere, have to act solely in the citizens’ interest, a duty they must discharge with the highest duty of care.

The fact that TransCanada was permitted to lay pipe in the ground where I chose that day to obstruct their construction efforts is proof that both the state of Oklahoma and the United States government were in dereliction of their obligations under the Public Trust. I was not in dereliction of my duty, my sacred obligation as a parent, and stand before you proudly innocent of the crimes I’ve been charged with.

Although Johnson could have been sentenced to up to two years in the Atoka County jail, he in fact received no jail time and a fine of just over $1000. Johnson commented, “Together with the jury’s very light sentencing the whole trial experience felt like a victory.”

In response to climate destruction we are witnessing the birth of a global nonviolent constitutional insurgency. Global because the world order of climate destruction it seeks to change is global. Nonviolent because it is based on the power of the world’s people to withdraw their acquiescence and cooperation from those who are destroying our planet. Constitutional because it is based on the fundamental constitutional principle that the earth’s shared resources belong to the people and that governments have no authority to destroy them. Insurgency because it denies that established state authority is legitimate and asserts that its own actions are.

As world leaders descended on the United Nations in the aftermath of the Peoples Climate March, across the street representatives of climate-change impacted peoples from around the globe assembled for a Peoples Climate Justice Tribunal sponsored by the Climate Justice Alliance. After hearing their testimony, a judicial panel of respected movement figures declared, “Based on the evidence we have heard here today, the nations of our world are in violation of their most fundamental legal and constitutional obligations.” Citing the public trust doctrine, it called on governments “to honor their duty to protect the atmosphere, which belongs in common to the world’s people, and halt their contribution to climate destruction.”

Based on the evidence it heard, the panel concluded that “those who blockade coal-fired power plants or block tar sands oil pipelines are committing no crime.” Rather, they are “exercising their right and responsibility to protect the atmospheric commons they own along with all of present and future humankind.” They are acting to prevent a far greater harm — indeed, “a harm that by virtue of the public trust doctrine is itself a violation of law on a historic scale.”

The global climate protection movement does not need either to support or to block the Paris climate summit. It needs to raise the pressure on the governments and institutions of the world to stop authorizing the destruction of the climate. Through mass demonstrations, meetings, and marches, through civil disobedience, and perhaps even through a proliferation of popular tribunals, the climate movement can utilize the power of the world’s people to begin forcing climate protection on the powers and principalities of the earth. Will it be able to do so? As Gandhi once said of India’s struggle to free itself from British rule, “The matter resolves itself into one of matching forces.”

Historian Jeremy Brecher is the author of the just released Climate Insurgency: A Strategy for Survival (Paradigm/Routledge 2015) and a co-founder of the Labor Network for Sustainability.

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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

Let’s Save Each Other

Let’s Save Each Other

Illustration by Stephanie McMillan. Used with permission