Why we need a more explicitly anti-capitalist and feminist ‘climate justice’
Reflections for the First National Congress of the Philippine Movement for Climate Justice
By the Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino (BMP)
We at the BMP join the PMCJ in celebrating our National Congress. In the spirit of comradely discussion, we would like to share our reflections on how to further advance our struggle:
Since its beginnings, PMCJ has contributed to the struggle for climate justice by challenging the taken-for-granted terms of the national and global debates on climate change. Against the dominant discourse which reduces the climate crisis into a narrow and technical “environmental” problem, having to do with finding the most “efficient” ways to reduce carbon emissions, PMCJ re-defined the crisis as a broader moral political and social problem, having to do with finding the most egalitarian ways to organize our societies.
Thanks in part to the efforts of PMCJ and other climate activists around the world, we hold our Congress in the context of a changed political and ideological terrain: To put things schematically, reformists, or those state managers, business executives, foundation officials, moderate NGO activists and other dominant-class intellectuals from both developed and developing countries who seek to ‘solve’ global ecological problems by subjecting capitalism to “global management” and by providing limited concessions to dominated groups—have essentially capitulated to the conservatives, or those elites from all countries who oppose even their mild reformist measures, by conceding to non-binding reductions “pledges” and by offering “flexibility” through market-based schemes such carbon trading.
On the one hand, this combination of conservative intransigence and reformist acquiescence significantly bolsters the ability of businesses from both developed and developing countries to push for even weaker, more unjust “solutions” to the problem. On the other hand, however, this also significantly discredits the ruling classes and demonstrates their inability to provide moral and intellectual leadership in the face of this global crisis. The world’s elites are struggling to secure hegemony or popular support for the system—a situation that paradoxically creates more conducive conditions for more effective and more just, because more radical, solutions to the climate crisis.
Redefining climate justice
In this context, we at BMP think PMCJ could better advance the struggle by further clarifying and sharpening our vision of climate justice: that is, by more explicitly linking it to questions of class, gender, and other social antagonisms, and by more unambiguously using it to challenge capitalism and the patriarchal and other forms of domination with which it combines and which it reinforces.
“Climate justice” is of course one of those intrinsically contested terms and even among PMCJ members or supporters there is perhaps no single uniform definition that commands universal agreement. But it is possible to discern a dominant definition by examining the content of our discourse and practice. For the most part, PMCJ seems to have been using a predominantly ‘nationalist’ definition of “climate justice”: i.e. that those ‘most responsible’ for climate change are the developed countries and that they are obliged to pay their ‘ecological debts’ to the developing countries. The term “developed countries” here has been ambiguous: it is understood by some as shorthand only for developed-country governments, elites and/or corporations, but certain texts or pronouncements indicate that they refer to the entire population living in developed countries. The latter is what is suggested, for example, in one formula that some advocate as a concrete way to determine how climate justice could be operationalized: the amount of emissions reductions and financial and other transfers that countries are obliged to contribute (or receive) are calculated using the total emissions of entire population of countries, without breaking down or differentiating these emissions by class or other categories. Hence, for example, the “climate debt” of the United States is computed by adding up the emissions made by say, the Kochs, a conservative billionaire family, with the emissions made by an African-American working-class family.
From a certain perspective, we can see how this nationalist conception of climate justice could be justified: “developed countries” have indeed been seeking to evade their responsibility in the negotiations and holding them “responsible” is useful for fostering unity among “developing countries” seeking to resist them, as well as for broadening the PMCJ’s constituency domestically. It justifies and enables PMCJ efforts to form a “united front” with Filipino and other Third World elites, middle classes, or with more moderate individuals who could also potentially benefit from the financial, technology, and other transfers demanded from “developed countries.”
But we at BMP have also become increasingly concerned about the dangers of this dominant definition—and the underlying strategy it may be associated with—and we hope to have a broader conversation about its implications on our efforts to affect the social balance of forces today.
The dangers of ‘climate justice’
First, we fear that, intentionally or not, such a definition obscures—or does not do enough to highlight—the issue of class and gender “responsibility.” In suggesting that entire populations are responsible or blameless, aren’t we being constrained from highlighting the fact that it is the dominant groups of these populations in both developed and developing countries that have actually been disproportionately contributing the most to “their” country’s total emissions? Aren’t we failing to counter the problematic view that the nineteenth-century African slave is just as liable as the American billionaire for causing climate change because both happen to be “Americans” or that the Ayalas are just as “blameless” as their construction workers because both happen to be “Filipinos”? Aren’t we unwittingly reinforcing an understanding that may pave the way for a different kind of climate injustice: the African-American working-class mother being made to pay for the “excesses” of the male Filipino CEO who flies around the world using his private jet?
Second, we fear that thinking of climate justice in terms of countries or populations obscures the systemic causes of climate change because it does not do enough to counter the interpretation that we are suffering from the problem because the population of particular countries were just “too greedy” or excessively “consumerist”—rather than because a particular class in all countries have been driven to foster consumerism and to over-produce due to the pressures of market competition, something unavoidable under a historically-contingent set of property relations which ties up with and reinforces patriarchal, racial, and other relations of domination. Aren’t we reinforcing the view that the problem has to do simply with individual morality or with people’s “lifestyles” rather than with the historically-specific way by which we organize production, one in which those who control the resources for production are forced to accumulate or maximize profits endlessly in order to survive market competition, thus driving them to intensify their exploitation of nature and create the socio-ecological conditions that ultimately lead to global environmental problems? Aren’t we being constrained, in short, from highlighting that it is capitalism and the other forms of domination that ultimately breeds climate injustice?
Third, we are concerned that conceiving of climate justice along nationalist lines obscures the real social divisions and antagonisms among the world’s peoples in the face of climate change: Doesn’t this understanding reinforce the notion that the “principal enemies” are still just the developed countries or developed-country elites or corporations and that, against these “principal enemies,” developing countries or developing-country elites or corporations can somehow be our “friends” or “allies”? Does this not impair our ability to underscore how our real allies are the working classes and other oppressed groups in developed countries: the African-American working-class mother rather than the male Filipino tycoon? And, as shown by the lack of support for, if not outright opposition to, demands for paying “climate debt” as they understand it (i.e. as resources that will go to governments) even among working peoples in the North, isn’t this putting up an unnecessary barrier that stands in the way of cross-border solidarity among workers everywhere?
Finally, we are concerned that our current conception of climate justice obscures certain courses of actions or strategies that could be more helpful in advancing our struggle. In putting all or most of the blame on “developed countries” rather than on dominant classes everywhere, are we not ending up focusing too much of our limited energies struggling with “external” forces and consequently directing less of our attention and resources on countering the “internal” forces (local elites and their corporations, including their ‘external’ partners from abroad) who are perpetrating forms of climate injustice concretely affecting working people in the country? Why, for example, have we as PMCJ not done more to connect the violence that people experience daily in our unjust public transport system to the question of climate change and climate justice? Why are we not at the forefront of the campaign for a more convenient and more dignified public transport system as a way of countering climate change and of achieving climate justice? There are no doubt many valid reasons, among them our resource constraints, but might it also be because we think “climate injustice” is something done to us from the “outside” by “developed countries” rather than here “inside” by Filipino and non-Filipino members of the global ruling class?
Perhaps our concerns above could be assuaged by assurances that demanding “climate justice” from developed countries at the global level does not necessarily stop us from demanding it from dominant classes or groups at the national level. “We need to stand with our government at the UN but we can and should fight with them at home” is an argument we have often heard, and indeed PMCJ has commendably stood at the forefront of challenging Filipino elites’ promotion of dirty energy, for example. But we still have apprehensions with this line of reasoning: Does this not impose an artificial division of our struggles at the “global level” and at the “national level”—as if the two levels can be separated in practice? Can there really be a harmony of interests between capitalists and workers at one “level” and conflict at another? Do Filipino workers really have no choice but to demand that reparations from the rich countries go to “their” government, knowing fully well that “their” government is systematically dominated by capitalists and is likely to mobilize all their power to keep those ‘reparations’ in their hands? And shouldn’t we be prioritizing “united fronts” with all oppressed groups in all countries before, or rather than, with our country’s elites?
Besides, if what we really mean when we demand ‘climate justice’ is for reparations to end up in the hands of oppressed groups everywhere, then why don’t we just say so? Why, in short, do we not just articulate the principle and the demand in the following terms: ‘We demand that those most responsible—i.e. the dominant classes and groups in all countries—pay back their climate debts to those least responsible—i.e. the dominated classes and groups in all countries”?
From our perspective, this unambiguously internationalist definition of climate justice does a better job of helping us avoid some of the dangers we outlined above: First, it foregrounds the issue of class and gender responsibility in that it leaves absolutely no room for holding working-class and other oppressed groups in developed countries liable for climate change. Second, it promotes discussion on the systemic causes of climate justice in that it raises questions about why dominant classes and groups have been driven to engage in ‘over-production’ or encourage ‘over-consumption.’ Third, it highlights the fundamental division between the exploiters and the exploited in all countries and it stands a better chance of exciting and gaining the support of working peoples across the planet. Finally, it does a better job of drawing our attention to the many different ways by which climate injustice is being experienced by working people—in the lack of decent public transport, housing, health care, etc.—and alerts us to the kinds of locally-grounded grassroots struggles by which we can make “climate justice” less abstract to the people we seek to mobilize.
Why is this redefinition of climate justice so important today? How does using it to think about our strategy and to define our relations with others—such as the Philippine government and other NGOs and social movements—help us in our daily struggle? We think it is crucial because, at a time when more and more people are desperate for fresh and out-of-the-box solutions, the ideas we have been offering are increasingly being coopted by dominant groups in the service of failed, ineffective and unjust solutions to climate change: by reformists from all countries who support calls for inter-national redistribution but are averse to any discussion of the systemic causes of and the systemic solutions to climate change—those who only want to change the system in order to keep it the same—on one hand, as well as by conservatives from all countries who cynically instrumentalize the demand for climate justice to perpetuate the existing order. And for as long as we do not clarify what distinguishes us from these two more powerful camps, we only end up serving yet again as “warm bodies” to their mobilizations and as transmission belts of their ideologies, unable to offer alternatives and to attract people to our own autonomous camp.
What would be the point of building ‘united fronts’ if, in order to do so, we have to dilute our message, fail to counter dominant ways of thinking, and therefore fail to foster anti-capitalist and feminist attitudes or subjectivities? What would be the point of our demonstrations, of our campaigns, and of our popular education efforts if we only end up echoing and unwittingly being used to support those determined to prop up the very system that causes climate change?
Towards an anti-capitalist, feminist conception of climate justice
We at BMP believe that, with the more explicitly internationalist, radical, and feminist conception of climate justice we favor, with its sharper critique of class, gender, and other forms of domination, and with its clearer stance against capitalism and the patriarchal and other relations of domination it combines with and reinforces, our movement would be much less vulnerable to being hijacked in support of the very system we are struggling against—a system that is intrinsically driven to prioritize profitmaking over the welfare of people and the planet.
By pointing to those ultimately responsible for causing climate change and for blocking just and effective solutions, by highlighting the systemic, patriarchal origins of climate injustice, and by pointing to unapologetically socialist, feminist, and radically democratic solutions to achieve climate justice, we might have a better chance of countering the dominant ideologies that prevent people from supporting our cause and, thus, of developing the kind of attitudes or subjectivities needed to forge a radical anti-capitalist, counter-hegemonic global mass movement: still the only social force that could counter the power of those who stand in the way of climate justice.
Building such a movement is not as unrealistic as pessimists in the movement think. Indeed, thanks in part to PMCJ and others’ efforts to change the terms of the debate, this movement is already stirring. In Copenhagen in 2009, in Lima last year, in Paris this December, and in many other places around the world, more and more people are rallying behind the call: “System-change not climate change!” Further strengthening this movement is not something we can keep postponing. Faced with a planetary emergency, we simply have no time to waste being coopted in support of false solutions such as the idea that climate justice could be achieved by “greening” capitalism.#