My thoughts on COP21

After travelling with the University’s delegation to the Paris Climate Summit, the EUSA’s Vice President Services, Urte Macikene gives her own personal thoughts on the experience.

Last month, I attended the final days of the Paris COP21 conference through the university’s Social Responsibility and Sustainability department. Conscious that analysis of the policy process and final Paris agreement is being done by many with more information and expertise, this piece is instead a reflection on bureaucracy, decision-making, and political engagement that resulted from my two days at the conference.

After some trouble getting renewed clearance to go to COP following the terror attacks in Paris (many staff had cancelled their trips) I was still somewhat uncertain about going for completely different reasons. It seemed obvious that my presence was not only not going to influence the proceedings or results in any way. Given my lack of substantive expertise in the sector, it was also unlikely to result in any challenging or insightful questions to panel participants, nor any novel information to those outside the conference. What was I hoping to achieve? I suppose my answer would have been a split between a desire to learn from the experts at the conference, and wanting to get involved with the mobilizations of the climate movement happening around COP. This is, in a nutshell, the dilemma of my trip.

I was asked before I left if I was going to go to many of the civil society/community and activist events elsewhere in the city around COP.  I assured them that I was hoping to – what else was I going to say? – whilst feeling like I would likely be too busy with the ‘official’ proceedings to do so.  This dithering was consistent with a wider set of developments in my personal politics. As a student I was very active in left-wing activist campaigning groups around campus, including the Socialist Society, Feminist Society, the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, and related informal networks within the Students’ Association and the National Union of Students. These often focused on direct action and politicising other future activists, and were indeed key to my own development of political consciousness.

During my year as a sabbatical officer, which has involved being put in a position of authority with information and resources, I’ve been feeling more invested in my institution. I‘ve seen that there definitely are – and we must ensure there continue to be – committed, principled, influential people in institutional structures. I am proud of what I have accomplished in my job this year through repeated lobbying of key decision-makers, and making a strong case for social responsibility and sustainability to be embedded in every operational decision I have had influence in. Some of this I’ve only been able to do because I’ve had access to the right people in the right junctures of the university bureaucracy, and my job explicitly giving me that access.

Over this time, my faith in the grassroots politics I was doing before has declined. The recently established Marxist quarterly Salvage calls on the organised Left to consider the assertion that ‘hope must be abandoned before it can be salvaged’. It critiques the Left’s “combination of myopia and hyperactivity’, its obsession with countering oppressive forces with ‘relentless, reflexive, and thus evacuated hope and optimism’. I find this a very accurate articulation of my feelings. I still believe that the underlying structures of capitalism must be changed in order to truly enable a just society. I still believe in socialist policies within those structures. I just find it difficult to believe in the attitudes and strategies of many who prominently fight for them.

I’ve had a growing impression that the Left, particularly the Left in the student movement often reacts with an unformed ‘call to action’ on issues currently on the national political agenda without having undertaken any analysis of desired outcomes or points of leverage. This tendency sometimes combines with an obsessive rejection of hierarchy or organisational structure, so much so that no one is willing to be the person in charge of planning things like a communications strategy or long-term goals. A critical reflection on what shift in tactics may be necessary is crucial. Because despite the economic crisis, years into ideologically driven austerity policies ravaging the most disadvantaged, amid a crisis of legitimacy in democratic politics which could have opened up opportunities for new progressive coalitions of political power, it is still the Conservatives who have been returned with a majority, while Syriza and hope for radical populist parties have been decimated, and UKIP and the National Front continue to build their bases, whilst we keep going on demonstrations and electing a socialist here and there with few results.

So, should we be inspired or disappointed by COP? I don’t think it’s obvious, and neither triumphalism nor despair will serve us here. A partially binding agreement by all countries to move towards a carbon neutral economy has been arrived at: this is a momentous achievement. The agreement is, of course, far from ideal. Whilst it was always difficult to believe that a firm commitment to keep temperature rises below 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels (as opposed to the 2 degrees preferred by developed countries) was going to make it into the final version of the agreement, its absence is still a loss.

More so, clauses which could legitimately have made the final cut, such as references to net zero emissions by the second half of the century, and to the responsibility of developed countries to financially mitigate the loss and damage from climate change sustained by less developed countries have been replaced by cursory references to ‘peaking emissions as soon as possible’ and ‘the need to support developing country Parties’.  I don’t have a developed enough understanding of how the soft legal language in the Paris Agreement translates into national legal regimes, and how important vague references in the main text are to implementation, but the relegation of references to human rights, migrants, gender equality, and others to the non-binding preamble is dispiriting.

Whatever my feelings on this welcome headline but bleak small print, surprise isn’t one of them. The structure of the COP21 conference and negotiations is exclusionary, oppressive, and conservative (small ‘c’, as in predisposed to the supporting the status quo over change). The negotiating delegations are overwhelmingly white men who occupy very privileged social positions. Rich countries and corporate interests hold a disproportionate amount of negotiating power compared to less developed countries, indigenous nations, women, and minorities. To paraphrase one of the panellists at the conference, it is those groups which would be happy to walk away without an agreement who decide what goes into it in the end, because those who need an agreement to survive are not willing to risk its complete failure.

I left Paris on Saturday morning, having accidentally booked my train tickets too early in the day to attend the Red Lines march and demonstration attended by thousands in the centre of Paris, coinciding with the announcement of the agreement. This was the culmination of organisations which do real, impactful work to minimising the impact of climate change in their home countries every day, coming together to share experiences and learn from each other.

I was saddened by how easily I’d forsaken this to be an insignificant part of official proceedings, although not mystified: appreciation and validation of one’s status is a powerful magnet to which I am fallible. It is too easy, when in a position of some institutional authority, to feel that access to a greater number of facts and decision making structures renders one’s judgement superior based on a better understanding of ‘what is really happening’. But in this instance, this attitude amounted only to the tacit legitimation of a power structure which I knew was never going to result in an agreement I could unreservedly believe in, whilst simultaneously giving up any power I had to productively influence circumstances surrounding it. This is not justifiable.

On the train, I spent time outlining a mental commitment to myself that I will strive to never again uncritically legitimise a decision making structure without asking myself if my contribution would be valuable and valued, and how else I could leverage power or increase the power of other disadvantaged groups in the situation. This does not mean a commitment to go on every demonstration or occupation, but an aspiration to be critical and often pessimistic without being cynical, to allow for the positive presence of different types of power, even if not always of its actualization. If and when I choose to engage with an institutional structure which will inevitably be less diverse and limited by bureaucracy, I must actively take on the responsibility to maintain transparency and to include as many people as possible with me. This commitment I give to my colleagues and constituents for the remainder of my time as an elected student officer, and to myself for the rest of my political life.