What's the Matter With GCAS?

Protesting a conference dedicated to climate action may seem odd to some. But the conflict between Jerry Brown and his constituents has yielded valuable lessons.

You could be forgiven, watching last week’s protests outside of the Global Climate Action Summit on TV and online, for thinking they were taking place outside of an Exxon Mobil shareholders’ meeting. The relentless protests and targeted direct actions were so frequent and dramatic that they received coast-to-coast media coverage and provoked the ire of climate centrists such as Michael Bloomberg, who likened their tactics to the construction of a wall on the Mexican border.

To some, the protests may be dismissed as counterproductive, another instance of “purity politics” operating beyond the parameters of feasibility. We disagree. Regardless of whether the protesters’ demands are met—namely, action taken by Gov. Brown to end all fossil fuel extraction in California—the analysis of the crisis they present rings true, and has important lessons to teach any practitioner of leftist climate politics. Here are the three takeaways we think are most important.

Takeaway One: A centrist climate strategy unfairly accedes to undemocratic corporate control over the global energy transition.

Throughout last week’s protests, there were multiple protests and actions centered around the message of “ending climate capitalism” and prioritizing “people over profits.” Indeed, GCAS provoked controversy with its exclusive, invite-only attendee list, which placed corporate stakeholders front and center. CEOs from Exxon, Starbucks, and other carbon behemoths were notable presences at the event, highlighting the increasing role of the private sector in transnational climate governance.

The rationalization behind GCAS’s inclusion and promotion of these firms, as made clear by the organizers, is the idea that we need to build as broad a tent as possible. Private sector involvement in policy making may not be ideal, they admit, but it is an unfortunate necessity if we are going to move at the speed necessary to avoid catastrophe.

The central contention of the protesters is that this calculation is overly conservative. It is entirely possible that corporations such as Walmart will follow through on their commitments to reduce supply-chain emissions given favorable subsidies and the repeal of regulations. But as leftists, we aim for something better than a corporate compromise to reduce emissions. A world that sees decarbonization happen only by the terms of global capital—namely the pillaging of public coffers, the erosion of labor power, and the destitution of the Global South at large—is hardly a desirable prospect. But the possibility of something better requires reasserting control over state institutions and adjacent power structures.

The reluctance of GCAS sympathizers to confront powerful corporations is understandable. They have accepted that capitalism, despite what we might want, will continue to predominate the global economy, and by extension the climate system. By underestimating the potential to change the status quo, they fulfill their own prophecy by declining to invest in mobilizing sympathetic allies that would, once active, present a real and substantial political threat. Moreover, this sycophancy comes at a steep price: private industry stands to gain from blocking meaningfully equitable policy and generally pushing the conversation away from democratic, state-centered solutions. Businesses like Exxon, which actively created this crisis, are getting away with murder and reinforcing systems of oppression while extending their profitability through ventures into the renewables market.

Protesters presented a clear and realistic alternative. They demanded that decisions over energy and capital be made collectively: in effect, they demanded democracy. As recent polling has shown, it is their ideas—and not the pet solutions of GCAS attendees—that have mass popular support. Any serious exponent of a just transition should take note of this and act accordingly.

Takeaway Two: As constituents of a wealthy, powerful democracy, our responsibilities towards climate justice involve not only demand-side reduction but fighting for policies that end extractivism and afford the global poor low-carbon development.

From cap-and-trade to feed-in tariffs to veganism, climate solutions discourse in the United States and Europe centers around policies directed towards reducing carbon consumption, or what economists refer to as “demand-side” measures. The underlying logic behind this focus is that whether taken as individual consumers or nations, we bear responsibility for the climate choices chiefly through our carbon footprint.

The Brown's Last Chance (BLC) campaign brilliantly and cogently contested this point. Leading up to the summit, they relentlessly targeted Governor Brown for issuing 20,000 oil and gas extraction permits during his time in office, and called for a hasty end to domestic production. Their demands have solid empirical backing: a recent report from Oil Change International, echoing many others, outlines the immediate necessity of a managed decline in American oil production in order to meet Paris targets.

Brown has offered two defenses of continued extraction, both of which were cogently refuted by BLC messaging. The first is that if California wells don’t provide oil to the global market, other producers will. This is misleading at best and false at worst: a higher price caused by a Californian drilling ban might bring some other producers back online, but it will also incentivize some movement towards efficiency and renewable energy substitutes. Developing-world consumers will temporarily see higher prices, yes. But this merely points to the imperative we have always faced as citizens of a rich, carbon-lavish country: provide the Global South assistance required for low-carbon development. Otherwise we trap them in an unwinnable dilemma: destitution now, or later?

The second, more insidious defense is a textbook case of the demand-side mentality. In interviews with journalists over the past year, most notably leftist favorite Kate Aronoff, Brown has repeatedly responded to questions about extraction by rhetorically jabbing: “How did you get here? Did you use oil!?” While Brown means to sniff out hypocrisy, what his question really amounts to is an elision. Yes, of course we bear responsibility to decarbonize the supply chains that lead to our door: such a project is central to the goals of BLC. But beyond this, we also have a duty to nip carbon emissions in the bud whenever we can, given their unconscionable social and moral costs.

It is on this that the protesters have been most effective. In their favor on the supply-side, they have strategically focused on something Brown cannot address: the local costs of extraction. By placing the people and communities most affected by the ravages of oil drilling front-and-center—particularly indigenous nations—BLC has cogently demonstrated that these wells are imposing social debts they cannot pay, thus meriting their immediate shutdown. In line with efforts such as Blockadia, GCAS observers would do well to consider how embracing the supply-side advances justice on measures well beyond the price curve.

Brown is not the only or even a particularly egregious offender when it comes to demand-side myopia. This attitude is endemic, thanks to the framing effects of neoliberalism as a cultural force. As climate leftists, we need to recognize and confront it within ourselves, and challenge it out in the open wherever it exists.

Takeaway Three: Premature celebration is tone-deaf and rhetorically damaging.

Central to the messaging of GCAS itself is a commendation of emissions-reduction accomplishments to date; most simply, the summit’s website states the intention of the summit in part is to “celebrate the extraordinary achievements of states, regions, cities, companies, investors and citizens with respect to climate action.” We charitably assume this gesture by the organizers is more strategic than genuine: celebration was employed because it (and climate optimism more generally) is seen as essential to building durable, inclusive coalitions. We can’t just criticize actors, the reasoning goes. We also need to provide carrots when they move in the direction of emissions-reduction, as a gesture of trust-building and affirmation.

However plausible this argument might seem to some, it is equally possible that it can breed complacency, rewarding actors for minimal effort and removing threats to their reputation that might actually motivate substantial change. Furthermore, from an optics point of view, narratives of purported success seem in extremely poor taste as global emissions continue to climb and the annual climate death toll ranges in the hundreds of thousands. For the sake of global solidarity, we must consider how we present ourselves not only to skeptical corporate executives, but the millions of people around the world whose lives are immediately and materially at risk. Elites in positions of relative security can self-congratulate, but the effects of their inadequate efforts are felt everywhere else.

It could also be argued that celebration can simply act to draw attention away from further work itself. While climate action at GCAS focused on green technology adaptation and international collaboration towards decarbonization, there was a notable absence of indigenous populations or discussion of immediate local solutions. Facing exclusion from this debate, indigenous leaders collaborated to host an alternative “Solidarity to Solutions” summit to discuss these issues. The treatment of these constituencies, as unconscionable as it is, looks even worse when juxtaposed against the back-patting of their polluters for marginal reductions to their footprints.

None of this is to say that the tactics of GCAS protesters were perfect, or perfectly executed. As with many leftist ventures, they perhaps placed too much emphasis on spectacle and demonstration: a volunteer strike, for example, could have been a more powerful way of exacting concessions from Brown on the day of his self-coronation as climate champion. But if we are serious about real climate action, we would do well to listen to the points they made in their messaging, and incorporate them into our own.

Johnathan Guy is a graduate student at UC Berkeley studying wealth inequality, social relations, and decarbonization. He is active in Sunrise Movement and the Democratic Socialists of America. He tweets @johnathanjguy.

Ishana Ratan is a PhD student at UC Berkeley. Her research interests focus on trade barriers and their role in the rapidly globalizing international economic landscape. 

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