Occupy climate change! Why? Because the transformations that Occupy seeks in social and economic life are the same as those needed to sustain conditions suitable for human and non-human life on our planet. So the phrase “occupy climate change” is correctly understood to mean “the political economy of sustaining the biosphere and the cultural imaginary.” This hybrid form might be called “prosperity without growth,” a way of life that promotes the greatest collective well-being without raising either fossil fuel consumption or standard models of gross national product.
The official UN climate change talks held in December at Durban (South Africa), known as COP17, maintained the status quo, undertaking merely to begin setting an emissions framework in 2015 to take effect in 2020. Like the police so much in evidence these days, such governance says to us “move on, there’s nothing to see here.”
In response, indigenous and first nation peoples joined with climate and social justice activists to occupy the convention. Barely mentioned in mainstream US media, the Occupiers issued a statement read at Liberty Square, New York, on December 3, Global Climate Justice Day: “The same financial, corporate and political institutions that caused the financial crisis are poised to seize control of our atmosphere, our forests, our agricultural lands and water. We will fight for our survival and not allow the elite to enter into a suicide pact for future generations.”
It is both striking and ironic in a humorless way that Brookfield, the owners of Zuccotti Park/Liberty Square, are also planning the pipeline to bring Canadian tar sands oil to the US, an action that NASA scientist James Hansen has described as “game over” for the atmosphere.
The one percent tells us that climate is a future concern, but the present must be devoted to public austerity and private profit. We retort: climate change is here, it is now, and it is the action of the one percent.
Climate change is here: the climate system is planetary in ways that humans are still learning to understand. While current predictions show that those most responsible for emissions, such as the US and China, will not be systemically affected as much as Africa and the Pacific Small Island Nations, no one is escaping the rise in intense weather events.
During Hurricane Irene, it emerged that a storm surge of only four feet over normal highs would inundate lower Manhattan. The effects of the gradual sea level rise caused by climate change render such high intensity events likely to be annual, rather than once a century. Soon, the only way to occupy Liberty Square will be to swim.
Climate change is now: 2010 saw the single greatest rise in warming gas emissions in human history. The International Energy Authority, big oil boosters in the ordinary way, have calculated that, because of new power plant construction already underway, we have until 2017 to stop the increase in emissions. The rhetoric across US politics that climate change is something we should worry about for the sake of our children or even grandchildren is, then, disastrously misplaced.
Paradoxically, the moment of eviction is the perfect time to occupy climate change. The more that our ideas, rather than our encampments, are the center of the movement, the more they need to think about the connections between the local and the global. It’s estimated that there will be some 250 million climate migrants. Across the Pacific Small Island States from Kiribati in the West to Tuvalu in the South and the Carteret Islands in the East, people are already abandoning islands and settlements.
Some are flooded, others made uninhabitable by the salination of the soil. We stand for their right to occupy their homes, the places where they choose to be, just as we support the right to occupy the commons.
Indeed, the political invisibility of climate change within the current system, even as the actual consequences of ongoing climate change become more and more apparent, is the refusal to accept that the planetary majority has an equal claim to the right to existence. This is the first claim in the Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth made at Cochabamba, Bolivia, in 2008 by the World People’s Conference on Climate Change as part of their campaign for the “decolonization of the atmosphere.”
The failure of the UN process has led to the perception of an emerging climate apartheid, in which a small minority both generates the plurality of emissions and suffers the least consequences from the resulting climate change. That is to say, it’s not a question of “making” climate change a political issue: it already is one, embedded in the patterns of global underdevelopment and oppression.
The standard developed nation mainstream reaction to such events is a ‘more in sorrow than anger’ shake of the head: and then we carry on, there’s nothing to see here. What Pacific small islands, developing nations, indigenous peoples and the global majority living on less than $2 a day have long known is that for the abstract form of finance capital we are all, to cite the Micronesian activist Juan Aguon, “disposable humanity.”
Now, after the evictions, we need to turn around, to see that the space we are contesting is an island and the waters are rising. The refusal of the global one per cent to recognize the existence and relevance of such claims is not a denial or a delusion but a political strategy and a choice. As so many have come to realize, the last best hope is the global occupy movement. It’s the G 7 Billion not the G 20 who can make the changes necessary to sustain the biosphere. No election, no cleverly worded document, no demand, no image will forestall this decision to press on regardless. It’s up to us now: then again, it always was.
NOTE: a slightly different version of this piece was published in Occupy!