Boycott Divestment Sanctions” (BDS) movements have been effective against Israeli apartheid and during 1985-94, splitting white business from the South African apartheid regime. BDS against the US could succeed if US progressives are motivated to call for a world boycott of the US government plus key Trump-related corporations. “Trump is known to like walls. Maybe a wall of carbon tariffs around the U.S. is a solution he will understand.” According to BDS-Israel co-founder Omar Barghouti (2011), “Boycott remains the most morally sound, non-violent form of struggle that can rid the oppressor of his oppression, thereby allowing true coexistence, equality, justice and sustainable peace to prevail. South Africa attests to the potency and potential of this type of civil resistance.”
Forthcoming in John Foran, Debashish Munshi, Kum Bhavnani and Priya Kurian (Eds), Climate Futures: Re-imagining Global Climate Justice: Shifting the balance of forces through sanctions against Trump and US carbon capital
Future climate scenarios are not only in the hands of state and corporate leaders; they depend upon the extent to which climate movement activists’ current political philosophies, analyses, strategies, tactics, and alliances either weaken or strengthen the prevailing balance of forces. The most important barrier to reducing climate change remains Washington’s philosophy, crudely expressed in 1992 when President George H. W. Bush told the Rio Earth Summit, “The American way of life is not up for negotiations” (Deen 2012).
In the same spirit, the Donald Trump administration removed the US from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement in June 2017 on the grounds that compliance will be too expensive for the world’s largest economy (Trump 2017). In reality, starting with the Copenhagen Accord of 2009, Barack Obama’s State Department ensured that United Nations climate negotiations were (unlike the Kyoto Protocol) voluntary and non-binding. The Paris Climate Accord avoided accountability mechanisms, and specifically prohibited “climate debt” liability lawsuits by climate victims for industrialized countries’ prior pollution (Bond 2016), as even its chief negotiator Todd Stern (2017) brags. Yet in spite of Obama pledging only $3 billion (in contrast to several trillion dollars his administration spent on bailing out banks), Trump (2017) expressed misplaced concern about the United Nations Green Climate Fund “costing the United States a vast fortune,” and that “massive liabilities” would result from damage done by US historic emissions.
Global-scale climate regulation had, by 2016, become generally acceptable to the US population, even if many in support also voted for Trump. In November 2016, the Yale University Program on Climate Change Communication (2016) poll of registered voters found that 78 percent supported taxing or regulating emissions, and 69 percent agreed this should happen in an international agreement. In 2009 even Trump publicly supported the Copenhagen Accord, although by 2012 he argued (on Twitter) that “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make the U.S. manufacturing non-competitive” (Trump 2012). His first 100-day plan stressed resurgent climate denialism as the default policy position; infrastructure construction focusing on fossil-fuel pipelines, airports, roads, and bridges; cancellation of international obligations including withdrawal from Paris and default on payment obligations to the Green Climate Fund; retraction of shale gas restrictions; enabling the Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone pipeline; denuding of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); and a (futile) attempt to “save the coal industry.” Further privatization of public land was also imminent, including Native reservations, in search of more fossil fuels.
The retreat from Paris opens up a new opportunity for a revived strategy and tactic: delegitimation of Trump, and sanctions against his regime and supportive US corporations more generally. Formidable alliances could be ignited internationally with much more positive implications for climate futures than otherwise exist. Such “social self-defence” alliances (Brecher 2017) would ideally have been forged on the day of Trump’s election in November 2016 (one network, United Resistance, appeared to do so in early 2017, but aside from an http://www.unstoppabletogether.org/ website, did not actively unite the 50 progressive groups which signed up).
But so far, even after Trump walked out of Paris, these alliances remain only potential political approaches, because even the most sophisticated, militant U.S. climate activists simply did not adopt any strategy aside from condemnation and defense of existing space (Funes 2017). There was no open discussion in the climate movements about how to change the balance of forces, aside from continuing to promote localized blockades against fossil fuel facilities, to defend (profoundly inadequate) state regulations and improve their enforcement, mostly via the courts, and to divest from the main fossil fuel companies and climate-destructive banks while encouraging reinvestment in clean energy. Each of these was a necessary strategy – but a much more decisive shift in the balance of forces will be necessary to secure a climate future that transcends just survival and moves society to the potentials Naomi Klein (2014) discusses in This Changes Everything. Such post-capitalist visions include renewable community-owned energy, massive investments in public transport, the burgeoning of organic agriculture, compact eco-cities, a widely-shared green production ethos, humane consumption (so indispensable for the survival of the global South), and “zero-waste” disposal so that oceans, rivers, and land may recover from the ‘Capitalocene’ (Moore 2016).
Trump’s survival requires a strategic rethink
The failure to take advantage of Trump’s regime to ratchet up pressure reflects the US Left’s general weakness. In spite of the political fragility, personal foibles, administrative chaos, leadership buffoonery and shrinking legitimacy, Trump’s first months in office failed to generate a sustained, unified response from the society’s progressive forces. Most critiques by the local US and world Left came from specific incidents or from sectorally-narrow interests. Protest marches on Washington regularly drew tens or even hundreds of thousands of women, tax justice advocates, scientists, and climate activists from January through April 2017, as well as impromptu immigrant protection rallies at airports. But these generally occurred without linkage or fusion, and without a convincing strategy for changing power relations. The most effective resistance to Trump came from either late-night comedians or competing elites.
However, there are important examples of powerful resistance, in part grounded in climate change advocacy. The main activist groups which attacked the Dakota Access Pipeline owner Energy Transfer Partners and its creditors – including Greenpeace, 350.org, BankTrack and Sierra Club – did “billions of dollars in damage” as a result of “campaigns of misinformation,” according to the firm’s lawsuit in August 2017 (Horn 2017). As a target of anti-corporate activism, according to 350.org’s May Boeve and Brett Fleishman (2017), “Exxon is the most famous example because the company’s own scientists actively studied the threat of climate change, and in response the company developed taller offshore drilling rigs in anticipation of rising sea levels. Yet while they were preparing for a warmer climate, they also funded campaigns claiming that the science was uncertain.” Exxon and other fossil fuel corporations were divestment victims of $5 trillion in withdrawn stock market financing, thanks to thousands of activists in universities, pension funds, churches and other institutions (Carrington 2016). City of London investment analysts Carbon Tracker had in 2012, recall Boeve and Fleishman (2017), “juxtaposed the amount of carbon the world could burn within ‘safe’ limits of global warming and the amount of carbon embedded in the reserves of the publicly traded fossil fuel companies – the coal, oil, and gas planned for future production. It provided incontrovertible evidence that the companies intended to burn all this carbon, and against the backdrop of increased caps on doing so, thereby creating a high likelihood for a massive stock devaluation: a ‘carbon bubble.’ This attracted the attention of more mainstream investors, who began to rank the carbon bubble as a material risk.”
How far might this divestment movement reach into Trump’s own wallet, and how far can his regime be delegitimated by a wider sanctions movement? Aside from repeated 2017 polls showing Trump with less than 35% support within the United States, Pew Research (2017) pollsters reported in mid-2017 that much of the world is strongly anti-Trump. Most opposed are Mexico, Spain, Jordan, Sweden, Germany, Turkey, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, France, Colombia, and Lebanon, all recording their citizenries’ support for Trump at less than 15 percent. (Only the Philippines, Vietnam, Nigeria, and Tanzania record more than 50 percent, although the two most populous countries, India and China, were not polled.) Sanctions campaigning against rogue regimes is a time-tested approach that has often succeeded in the past. Especially in the event that Trump initiates yet another unjust US war, a “people’s sanctions” strategy should put not only the president’s and First Daughter’s own product lines under pressure, but also tackle Trump-friendly big businesses such as ExxonMobil, Koch Industries and Goldman Sachs.
Compared to any US leader in history, Trump’s presidency offers a superb chance for a unifying campaign on climate, as well as other critical issues. By mid-2017 it was clear that the conservative-populist wave he appeared to be riding into office in late 2016 – peaking in Britain with the June 2016 Brexit vote (or indeed in Hungary with Viktor Orbán’s 2010 election) – had decisively ebbed. In August 2017 following the debacle of neo-Nazis openly marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, Trump’s straightforward racist and fascist supporters were forced to retreat, both on the streets – in U.S. cities such as Boston, San Francisco and Seattle, as progressive activists vastly outnumbered the right – and in the Oval Office. The once-formidable alt-right influences of Steve Bannon, Michael Flynn, Sebastian Gorka and Rich Higgins were short-lived once the “Deep State” and mainstream media called them out (Rose 2017), leaving only Stephen Miller in place.
It soon became evident that, within the US, Trump failed to build a new right-wing coalition under paleo-conservative leadership (a term reflecting an ‘economic nationalist’ orientation, in contrast to imperialist neo-conservatives). He also failed to take full control of the US state apparatus, and could not take advantage of the Republican hold over Congress. There, surprisingly high levels of disaffection were generated by two dozen “Republications In Name Only” (Rinos, as pro-Trump alt-right critics called them), thus foiling health care cutbacks and other legislative initiatives. Trump’s only genuine victories were appointing a reactionary member to the U.S. Supreme Court and unravelling a generation of EPA environmental-protection regulations, including rules on infrastructure construction that can withstand flooding.
The short-sightedness of this deregulation was exposed in the September 2017 hurricanes Harvey in Texas and Irma in Florida, whose intensity drew from the unprecedented warmth of Gulf waters. Also exposed was extreme differentiation in urban resilience along race and class lines (due to generations of ruling-class segregation strategies) as well as overall ecological vulnerability, especially once 13 of 41 superfund toxic sites in Texas were flooded, toxic chemical fires erupted, 11% of US oil refining capacity was temporarily disabled and the two hurricanes’ $200-$300 billion in damages were calculated. The (Republican) mayor of inundated Miami, Tomás Regalado, begged, “This is the time that the president and the EPA and whoever makes decisions needs to talk about climate change. If this isn’t climate change, I don’t know what is. This is a truly, truly poster child for what is to come.”
Nearby, Trump’s own Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida survived Irma, benefiting from a government flood insurance deal for rich coastal property owners. Three months earlier, in response to his withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, opposition Members of Congress had introduced proposed legislation to block such federal subsidies: the Prohibiting Aid for Recipients Ignoring Science (Paris) Act. Such climate-related delegitimation is vital for both internal and international resistance to Trump’s regime.
Internationally, the geopolitician Trump also failed to globalize his movement and identify logical allies for either building a climate denialist front (he was alone in rejecting Paris) or for coming wars (e.g. against North Korea, Iran and Venezuela – and perhaps later against China). His decision to deepen an ineffectual 16-year US quagmire in the Afghanistan war, his wild threats amidst nuclear brinkmanship in the Korean peninsula, and his weakness in Syria – in contrast to Vladimir Putin’s strength of purpose – reflected a propensity to drop bombs indiscriminately on civilians, rather than identifying and pursuing substantive solutions. Trump’s support for India against Pakistan, promotion of the feudalistic Saudi Arabian regime in intra-Gulf conflicts from Yemen to Qatar, and permission for ever more extreme Israeli Zionism, together confirmed his incompetence at managing the most volatile regions of the world – especially as the Middle East becomes increasingly tense and uninhabitable due to climate change. Likewise his natural allies fared poorly, as the Labour Party made surprising progress in the June 2017 British election and as fascist electoral threats anticipated in 2017 from Marine Le Pen in France, Gert Wilders in Holland, and the Alternative for Germany were contained.
But the most critical factor in his growing vulnerability would probably be the waning confidence Trump’s capitalist class allies retained in his leadership. Immediately after Trump’s Paris rejection, entrepreneur Elon Musk and Disney CEO Bob Iger quit his business advisory councils, as did several other leading managers of major corporations in August 2017 following his ambivalence about criticizing racists and fascists within his base, immediately after Charlottesville. To save face, he simply dissolved the two councils. Still, Trump’s delegitimation was not complete, for important fractions of capital – especially in the real estate and construction, military, fossil fuel, and banking sectors – still anticipate much-improved profits if Trump’s over-ambitious, carbon-intensive infrastructure program is launched and if massive tax cut promises are fulfilled.
The next logical questions are whether Trump’s weaknesses can be harnessed in aid of climate sanctions, and whether a route can be identified from linking up a variety of progressive campaigns within climate justice to eco-socialism. Specifically, in order to shift power to the extent necessary for such a transition, will a people’s sanctions movement against the US elite also be necessary in coming months and years?
One immediate reaction to Trump’s rise was a call for boycott and sanctions against his own firm and associates: Color of Change (2016) pulled CocaCola out of the 2016 Republican Convention sponsorship; Grab Your Wallet compelled Nieman Marcus, Belk and Nordstroms to discontinue Ivanka Trump clothing sales; Sleeping Giants forced hundreds of advertisers which supported pro-Trump alt-right websites to withdraw their financing; and Boycott Trump has a long list of targets. Encouraged by the successes, a Boycott45 (2017) campaign expanded the sanctions strategies to Trump and Kushner tenant companies, on grounds their $100 million in annual rental payments “enable and normalize Trump and Kushner’s hateful and intolerant views and agenda, participate in Trump and Kushner’s unprecedented lack of transparency to use the office of the President to enrich themselves, and strengthen Trump’s political brand.” High-profile Trump buildings are located not only across the US, but also in Istanbul, Seoul, Rio de Janeiro, Toronto and Vancouver, Panama and Uruguay, Manila, Mumbai and Pune.
“Boycott Divestment Sanctions” (BDS) movements have recently been effective against Israeli apartheid and during1985-94, can be credited with splitting white business from the South African apartheid regime, in conjunction with very strong local protest. BDS against the US could succeed if US progressives are motivated to call for a world boycott of the US government plus key Trump-related corporations. Implementing a BDS-Trump strategy will be an important challenge for climate activists the world over, argues Klein (2016, 2017). She was soon joined by European Environmental Bureau leader Jeremy Wates (2017): “Trump is known to like walls. Maybe a wall of carbon tariffs around the U.S. is a solution he will understand.”
Indeed 25 major US corporations (including Apple, Facebook, Google, Morgan Stanley, Microsoft, Unilever and Gap) warned Trump in an open letter that “withdrawing from the agreement … could expose us to retaliatory measures” (Petroff 2017). Suddenly sanctions were discussed as a powerful, useful threat in diverse media sites like Forbes (Kotlikoff, 2017), Financial Times (Wolf 2017), DailyKos (Lenferna 2017), The Guardian (Stiglitz 2017) and The Independent (Johnston 2017). The credibility of sanctions was enhanced by Nobel Economics Prize Laureate Joseph Stiglitz (2006), who in a 2006 paper argued that, “unless the US goes along with the rest of the world, unless producers in America face the full cost of their emissions, Europe, Japan and all the countries of the world should impose trade sanctions against the US.” In May 2017, Stiglitz co-chaired a UN-mandated commission based at the World Bank that advocated widespread, urgent adoption of carbon taxes.
Even former French president Nicolas Sarkozy had in November 2016 raised the prospect of punishment against US products as a result of Trump’s climate-destructive campaign promises: “I will demand that Europe put in place a carbon tax at its border, a tax of 1-3 percent, for all products coming from the US, if the US doesn’t apply environmental rules that we are imposing on our companies” (Kentish 2016). A technical policy term for such sanctions emerged: “border adjustment taxes” or for short, border measures which avoid World Trade Organization anti-protectionist penalties (such taxes are not a “disguised trade restriction”). In a front page story, the New York Times quoted a leading Mexican official at COP 22 in Marrakesh just after Trump’s win: “A carbon tariff against the US is an option for us. We will apply any kind of policy necessary to defend the quality of life for our people, to protect our environment and to protect our industries,” a point echoed by a Canadian official (Davenport 2016).
Ironically, when in 2009 Obama promoted carbon trading strategies within his ultimately-unsuccessful pro-market legislative strategy, further incentives were discussed so that big corporations would agree to emissions caps. Establishment economists like the Peterson Institute’s Gary Hufbauer and Jisun Kim (2009) observed that in such a context, US companies “paying to pollute” would need additional protection from outside competitors: “border measures seem all but certain for political reasons…. many U.S. climate bills introduced in the Congress have included border measures [against] imports from countries that do not have comparable climate policies.”
Sanctions against a person (Trump), a power bloc (Trumpism) and a system (capitalism)
To ramp up the existing initiatives requires a major unifying effort by US progressive groups, and a realization that international solidarity will be a critical force in shifting the power balance. Making the process as democratic as possible is vital. In 2006, 170 Palestinian civil society groups initiated BDS, insisting on three unifying demands: the retraction of illegal Israeli settlements (a demand won in the Gaza Strip) and the end of the West Bank Occupation and Gaza siege; cessation of racially-discriminatory policies towards the million and a half Palestinians living within Israel; and a recognition of Palestinians’ right to return to residences dating to the 1948 ethnic cleansing when the Israeli state was established.
According to BDS-Israel co-founder Omar Barghouti (2011), “Boycott remains the most morally sound, non-violent form of struggle that can rid the oppressor of his oppression, thereby allowing true coexistence, equality, justice and sustainable peace to prevail. South Africa attests to the potency and potential of this type of civil resistance.”
Ronnie Kasrils (2015) – a leader of the underground movement and from 2004-08 the South African Minister of Intelligence – agrees: “BDS made apartheid’s beneficiaries feel the pinch in their pocket and their polecat status whether in the diplomatic arena, on the sporting fields, at academic or business conventions, in the world of theatre and the arts, in the area of commerce and trade and so on. Arms sanctions weakened the efficiency of the SA Defense Force; disinvestment by trade unions and churches affected the economy as did the termination of banking ties by the likes of Chase Manhattan and Barclays banks; boycott of products from fruit to wine saw a downturn in trade; the disruption of sports events was a huge psychological blow; dockworkers refusing to handle ship’s cargoes disrupted trade links.” The strategy drove a wedge between white (‘English-speaking’) Johannesburg capitalists and the racist (‘Afrikaner’) Pretoria regime. As internal protest surged, it was the 1985 foreign debt crisis caused in part by BDS which broke the capital-state alliance and compelled South Africa’s nine-year transition to democracy.
With Trumpism such a logical target, international solidarity to weaken that power requires a boycott of both high-profile state functionaries and key corporations in order to attack the legitimacy of profits made within a neo-fascist, climate-denialist USA. As Public Citizen’s Rob Weissman warns, the U.S. faces “a government literally of the Exxons, by the Goldman Sachses and for the Kochs” (Weissman 2017). In contrast, installing the eco-socialist governments required in the US and everywhere to generate a climate future that not only keeps the temperature within the scientifically necessary maximum and does so with justice at its very core will require a dramatic shift in the balance of forces. Such principles must be undergirded by further analysis of how to weaken the power structure, by the widening of delegitimation strategies beyond just Trump to major corporations, by the toughening of sanctions tactics and by the forging of international alliances urgently required to repeat the South African BDS success.
(Patrick Bond is distinguished professor of political economy at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, and author of Politics of Climate Justice, which the Guardian named in 2014 as among the three leading books on climate politics.)
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Climate justice movements need to hit Trump where it hurts most
Entitle blog, 7 July 2017 (Interview by Ethemcan Turhan and Cem İskender Aydın)
Political economist and climate justice expert Patrick Bond comments on the prospects for a progressive anti-capitalist agenda in the face of increasing alt-right populism, xenophobia, climate denialism and economic-political exceptionalism.
So we are back to square one: Trump’s withdrawal from Paris Agreement in early June 2017 has raised – quite understandably – many eyebrows around the world. This anticipated, but not entirely expected, move by the Trump administration calls us to question not only the viability of the Paris Agreement in the medium/long-term or the feasibility of commitments from non-state actors bridging the ambition gap, but also the tactics and strategies of global climate justice movements in the face of increasing alt-right populism, xenophobia, climate denialism and economic-political exceptionalism.
So where do we go next? Or better said, what are the prospects for a progressive anti-capitalist political agenda in a world where even the lowest common denominator like the Paris Agreement can’t hold? Can techno-fixes and allegedly apolitical sustainability governance approaches save capitalism from itself in its new authoritarian, post-truth disguise?
We caught up with Patrick Bond, who is in the advisory board of the ISSC-funded Acknowl-EJ project (Academic-activist co-produced knowledge for environmental justice) during a project meeting in Beirut, Lebanon.
Patrick Bond is professor of political economy at the Wits School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand. He was formerly associated with the University of KwaZulu-Natal, where he directed the Centre for Civil Society from 2004 to 2016. He held visiting positions in various institutions including Johns Hopkins University and the University of California, Berkeley.
As a leading activist-academic figure, Bond is a familiar face in global climate justice circles. Some of his recent works include BRICS: An Anticapitalist Critique (edited with Ana Garcia, 2015, Haymarket Books), Elite Transition: From Apartheid to Neoliberalism in South Africa (Revised and Expanded Edition, 2014, Pluto Press), South Africa – The Present as History (with John Saul, 2014, Boydell & Brewer) and Politics of Climate Justice: Paralysis above, Movement below (2012, University of KwaZulu-Natal Press).
First of all, let’s start with a reality check on the state of play in the sixth month of the Trump administration. What meaning should we make of the situation and what should we expect from the climate justice movement?
Patrick Bond: We are speaking the morning after the Labour Party made surprising progress in the UK. Moreover, Le Pen in France, Wilders in Holland, the Alternative for Germany and other proto-fascist electoral threats anticipated in the past couple of months seem to be contained. In this landscape, Trump has also failed to build a fascist coalition in the way that we worried might emerge. Firstly, he doesn’t have full control of the US state. Secondly, his core support base on the hard right seems to be both shrinking and ineffectual. Thirdly, corporations are more divided than we thought they would be, although there are some fractions of capital, especially in the real estate and construction, military, fossil fuel and banking sectors, which are anticipating improved profits.
Neoliberal authoritarianism fusing with protectionist and nationalist political undercurrents could still become dominant in the immediate future, but it is less a threat today then I thought it would be. One reason is that dissident groups have developed some surprising capacity to resist Trump on various fronts. We haven’t quite begun that process of generating solidarity in the international level, for example by imposing popular sanctions against Trump and US corporations. I think this is long overdue. The whole world should be doing what we have seen in the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement for Palestine’s liberation, which follows South African anti-apartheid activists’ similar successes.
One start was the vigorous protest when Trump visited Belgium, and there will be much more, for example at the anti-G20 protests in Hamburg. Stronger international reactions to Trump’s proto-fascist threat combine with the fact that we are all much more aware that climate change is accelerating. There can hardly be any remaining pretense that the Paris Climate Agreement is a solution.
This raises two fundamental questions for climate justice. First, are we ready now to start coordinating and fighting much harder for the very different values, programmes and direct-action blockades that will be required? Second, are we ready to fight not only Trump’s polluting industries but also the green capitalist threat? Pro-market ideologues tell us that they have the solutions: cheap renewable energy, driverless electric cars, carbon trading, genetically modified climate-resilient crops and nuclear energy. Many of these are false solutions if based on markets and technology, from a climate justice perspective, which takes class analysis seriously.
How do you feel about the short-term future of the Climate Justice movement against a green capitalist takeover?
PB: The forces backing CJ lost ground from the more hopeful 2007-2009 peak period when the Climate Justice Now! movement broke away from the Climate Action Network at the Bali UN climate summit. Diverging and atomistic tendencies in our movements are partly to blame. I think that too much emphasis on localism with autonomist politics is the general dilemma of the left critique of neoliberalism, as witnessed in the Occupy movement’s limitations. I hope we have learned from the reluctance to adopt more democratic yet centralized politics.
It seems to me that the ultimate challenge will be whether climate justice activists will link across scales, establishing more effective national and international networks and avoiding the tendency in which climate justice is used merely as a buzzword. The major dilemma here is cooptation of a radical vision.
For example, Trump’s withdrawal from Paris Agreement means that the call for a popular sanctions campaign by allies like Naomi Klein and Joseph Stiglitz in North America require more international solidarity. And yet tellingly, the main statements from the Climate Justice movement organisations – ranging from indigenous rights to the larger environmental NGOs – merely condemned Trump without any strategic way forward.
Trump recently visited Saudi Arabia and Israel, and he seems to have encouraged an alliance to form against Qatar. Do you think the oil producing countries of the Gulf and beyond will affect the future of climate politics?
PB: Oil has caused so much military and geopolitical conflict that it is easy to predict more chaos and turmoil in the Middle East and other oil-producing regions. But on the other hand, taking a longer-range view into the future, the US doesn’t import substantial oil now, since its fracking industry is up and running. Trump’s paleo-conservative ideology – in which “paleo-” implies a dinosaur age, that is, a tradition of isolationism identified with Ron Paul and Pat Buchanan as well as the ‘alt-right’ gutter press – was justified by his electioneering attempts to criticize the vulnerabilities of over-extended US imperial power.
This ideology seems to have stalled out, although it may be revived by the people around Steve Bannon. Instead, the neo-conservative foreign intervention agenda set by George W. Bush and largely continued by Obama continues apace, with Trump murdering thousands of civilians already in his attempt to crush militant Islam.
But the general trend appears to be a shift in the foreign policy interests of the US. Some of the biggest cracks in this coalition also come from allies like Turkey, Philippines and Pakistan. These departures confirm how difficult it is to keep US empire intact.
It seems there will be more attention to the rise of China as a leading climate policy maker, bringing together other countries. India and China already pledged to stay in. What does this mean?
PB: It’s not just a matter of climate. I see the emergence of the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) network not as anti-imperialist but as a sub-imperialist group in accommodating the needs of the US-led empire. Let’s take a few sites of contestation. One would be the International Monetary Fund’s 2015 vote re-allocation, in which four of the BRICS won substantial increases in power – as did Turkey – but South Africa lost 21 percent, and Nigeria and Venezuela lost 41 percent. The BRIC countries stand higher in the IMF, but only by stepping on African and Latin American heads. The same is true in the World Trade Organisation, where BRICS agri-corporations lobbied to end food sovereignty, joining the US and Europe in late 2015 at the Nairobi summit.
Another was the failure to agree on binding emission cuts in the Paris Agreement. This was a break from Kyoto Protocol which was binding. It was a strong objective of Obama’s government and especially his chief climate negotiator Todd Stern to ensure neither common-but-differentiated treatment nor binding emissions cuts would remain after Kyoto. The same goes for climate debt liability, which was specifically prohibited as a strategy for climate victims claiming compensation for loss and damage. These are some of the objectives that Stern regularly reported to Hillary Clinton, which we now know thanks to State Department cables and emails posted at WikiLeaks.
The US sabotaged climate politics by first weakening the Kyoto Protocol with carbon trading at the outset in 1997, then by not ratifying Kyoto, and ultimately in 2009 by setting up this alternative strategy with BRICS in Copenhagen. So the US achieved some clear objectives already, and therefore when Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement even corporations like Exxon Mobil were not in favor. After all, the Paris Agreement has no accountability mechanism, re-opens the door for carbon trading and prohibits liability lawsuits for loss and damage due to climate change, also known as climate debt.
In contrast, a much stronger climate justice sentiment can be found in the solidarity movement with native American activists fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline, and similar struggles over land and water. But what kinds of strategies link up the dots of resistance? Naomi Klein made a call for people’s sanctions against the US and Nobel economics prize winner Joseph Stiglitz agrees that it makes sense to have a carbon tax against US products, for example. Those are the sorts of things that we need to begin to say to US power-brokers: because of your failure to address climate properly, we are turning now to people’s power. Climate justice movements need to hit Trump where it hurts most, in his and allied corporations’ wallets.
In your book BRICS: An Anticapitalist Critique (Haymarket Books, 2015) you refer to the idea of BRICS from below. Is there a way to do that in an age of Modi, Putin, Zuma, Temer and Xi?
PB: Yes absolutely, because this is not ultimately a network aimed at driving out leaders, even corrupt ones – as in Brazil and South Africa – whose grip on power is weakening. More durably, we see resistance to BRICS in the regions where their extractive industry firms penetrate. A quarter of the 2200 struggles recorded at the Environmental Justice Atlas are against BRICS firms.
For example, one of the largest firms originating in India, Vedanta, is also taking over the assets of Africa’s biggest mining house, Anglo American. Russians are particularly anxious to spread nuclear power. A South African firm, Sasol, is moving into China with oil-from-gas and oil-from-coal investments. Chinese capital looted Zimbabwe’s diamonds, with even Robert Mugabe admitting last year that $13 billion of $15 billion worth of the stones are unaccounted for.
There are exploitative BRICS companies in Latin America creating the anti-extractivist forces there. Most spectacularly, in the struggle to conserve the Yasuni National Park in Ecuador and to leave the oil in the soil, the enemy is a Chinese company. BRICS from below critiques in these hinterland struggles need to be as tough as struggles against western multinational corporations. One example is a global campaign against Brazil’s Vale, the world’s second largest mining house.
But BRICS often have even weaker systems of accountability. Moreover, the BRICS New Development Bank will soon be ready to step in where even World Bank doesn’t want to engage, such as in nuclear energy lending. Therefore, I believe the conditions are ripe for a systematic critique from bottom up. For example, Turkish anti-coal fired power plant activists might in future team up with anti-mining activists in South Africa, as these struggles are in essence connected.
Organizations like Global Witness document an increased number of environmental activists killed each year. Very recently, two environmental activists fighting against stone quarries in Turkey were killed in their homes. Similar violence happens regularly against labor movements in extractive industries, such as the Marikana massacre of striking workers in South Africa in 2012.
PB: Neoliberal authoritarianism’s rule means the state often answers the corporation’s request for violence against critics, as we saw in the case of the Marikana platinum mine massacre, where 34 miners were killed within an hour. The man who is now the deputy president in South Africa was also the main local shareholder in that mine company, Lonmin. The Marikana massacre was an extraordinary moment in South African history, which caused a dramatic decline in the ruling party’s union support, leading to a split.
The workers’ demand for a $1250/month living wage came just as platinum prices began falling. One of the responses to shareholder demands for sustained profits even when commodity prices crash, is more intensive exploitation When profits are harder to earn due to lower prices, one response is cutting costs: less environmental protection and social investment in the surrounding communities, and refusal to pay a living wage and ensure occupational safety and health standards. Violent corporate and state responses to resistance can be traced to places where companies have decided to respond to falling prices by increasing the volume of output.
What are the potentials for environmental justice struggles in different spaces and at different scales to respond this worsening uneven development?
PB: Struggles limited to local demands without international solidarity are sometimes coopted, so linking as much as possible makes sense, and climate is one vehicle for this. Naomi Klein argues in her book This Changes Everything that we need to not only strengthen the defensive capacity of local movements for water, land and air, but also talk about a just transition to a different mode of production. Linking labor movements to these struggles will be essential.
Climate crisis can help us rethink how we produce not just energy and transport but also urbanization patterns, agriculture, and our inherited production, consumption and disposal systems. Global western middle class norms need to be questioned. These make up a huge political agenda that might be called the eco-socialist strategy. And that will require local, autonomous politics to gain sufficient confidence, to make macro structural demands.
The main fear I have is that the world’s youth have been slow in developing a healthy dose of anger and rage. People like me over 50 years of age have abused our right to the environmental commons. Our greenhouse gas consumption has reduced the capacity of future generations to use fossil fuels. So I hope youth get into climate justice politics including direct action, but with more anger and then strategic vision about the larger socio-economic structures.
Related to this, what potentials and pitfalls with new left wing wave of parties – from Latin America to Southern Europe – do you see? Can we get past talk left, walk right?
PB: The Syriza experience did not ultimately challenge the predatory financial system and there are disappointments with the Pink Tide in Latin America partly on grounds of the new ruling parties’ addiction to fossil fuel. After all, Chavez was petro-socialist, Morales petro-indigenous and Correa petro-Keynesian, with all sorts of ‘resource curses’ resulting from over-reliance on global markets.
If the oil price had stayed high instead of falling to as low as $26/barrel last year, Maduro might have prevented some of the social unrest, but by becoming so dependent on oil extraction and not reinvesting the surplus to diversify, the lesson Venezuela teaches is that we definitely need to take state power but then question the underlying system of capital accumulation. The same is true for South Africa’s rulers, who were assimilated into what is now termed ‘White Monopoly Capital’ instead of fighting it.
If the British example is anything to go by, it is not simply Corbyn’s popularity thanks to his return to social democratic promises that gave hope, as did Bernie Sanders’ U.S. presidential campaign last year. Also, they have an interesting strategy called ‘One Million Climate Jobs’. If the new wave of support for Corbyn can be translated into anything concrete, I hope it’ll be in this direction, so that when Labour does win back state power, the spirit will be eco-socialist not the neo-liberalism of Blair.