There is a debate emerging, on the environmental left, over whether to boycott COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh in November in protest against the brutal El-Sisi dictatorship and the restrictions it will impose on democratic access for protests and demonstrations.
This has been prompted by a statement issued by the Egyptian Campaign for Climate and Democracy that has been widely interpreted as calling for a boycott of the event – or indeed a boycott of the whole UN COP carbon reduction process. Either, in my view, would be a big mistake.
The Statement is right to denounce the El-Sisi dictatorship, and to demand an alternative venue that can guarantee democratic rights. Similar demands have been made, for example, by Naomi Klein and by the UK TUC. At the same time COP27 must take place on the planned date – either at a new venue or the existing one if the demand for a change has been unsuccessful. The planet is burning and such a postponement would be a huge set-back for the struggle to save it.
Whether the Egyptian statement is actually calling for a boycott, however, is not clear. It depends what it meant by a boycott. If it means (which was my reading of it) don’t go to Sharm El-Sheikh as a protest against the El-Sisi dictatorship but instead place demands on COP27 at the international level, then that can be valid. It is effectively what happened at COP24 in 2018 at Katowice in Poland, where it was far too dangerous to demonstrate on the streets and pressure had to be applied globally.
Whilst parts of the Statement do imply a boycott it concludes by saying: “To all those who are organizing counter-events, in the run up to the November conference or during the event itself: Your fight is our fight, do not let Sisi get away with claiming to represent the south, do not allow him to greenwash his murderous regime. Let us work together in the Global South and North for a world free of climate change and environmental degradation. That can only be possible if we also stand together in solidarity for democracy, human dignity and freedom.”
In any case COP conferences are major global events and those making demands on them, but cannot attend the event itself, do so as a part of the international mobilisation. In fact with all COP conference only a minority of those addressing it are able to be at the venue itself. That was the case in Paris (where a state of emergency was called) and it was the case in Glasgow – although those that are able to be there, and where there is a space for protest, can have an enhanced impact.
The Global Ecosocialist Network
One place where a debate on this is already under way is on the Global Ecosocialist Network (GEN) website, where John Molyneux, its moderator, strongly interprets the Egyptian Statement as a call for a boycott – and not just of COP27 but of the whole ongoing UN COP carbon reduction process. This emerged in his response to a brief comment I had made about the important of building for COP27 in an article on the site on a report from UK government’s Committee on Climate Change.
He put it this way: “Many ecosocialists, myself included, would argue that COP27 has already been fatally damaged by the fact that it is, and long has been, essentially a greenwashing exercise by international capitalism designed to appear to be doing something while actually doing next to nothing and simultaneously suck in the energies of NGOs, climate campaigners and environmental activists worldwide.” In other words it is a road block in the defence of the planet and it would be better if it did not exist.
He intends to put the Egyptian Statement on the agenda of the next zoom meeting of GEN with the intention of recommending its endorsement as a call for a boycott.
It is true that he also says: “boycotting COP 27 in Sharm El-Sheikh does not mean just ignoring it.” We should use it instead “as an occasion for mass mobilisation and protests both over capitalism’s utter failure to take the measures necessary to avert catastrophe and its complicity with the vile Al-Sisi regime.”
This goes to the nub of the problem, however. General protests against capitalism have their place, of course, but, when it comes to climate change, by failing to engage the COP process they surrender real influence where the crucial decisions are made. It becomes a propaganda exercise. Nor is there any evidence that the global justice movement would respond to such an appeal. Not because it has great confidence in the UN but because it recognises that with the scale of the task, only governments can make the massive structural and societal changes that are necessary in the frighteningly short time available.
No ecosocialism on a dead planet
The problem that anti-capitalists face is that our preferred alternative – a global ecosocialist revolution capable of restructuring society on a sustainable basis – is not just around the corner as many hope. In fact it is vanishingly unlikely to happen within the next 10 years given the current dire global relationship of class forces. To gamble the future of the planet, on such an unlikely scenario is reckless in the extreme. There are no signs that such a revolutionary wave is on its way, and there are no proposals from its advocates as to how to bring it about.
The task we actually face is to force global capitalism to take the measure necessary to keep the planet afloat (and human beings alive) whilst the struggle for an ecosocialist form of society continues in the longer term. In other words ecosocialism (any other kind of socialism) can’t be built on a dead planet. It is true that capitalist governments will seek to renege on the pledges they make at COP conferences, and turn them into meaningless greenwash, if they can get away with it, but holding them to the pledges they have been forced into is a part of the territory – which is the case in any arena of struggle.
Behind this debate, of course, are different strategic approaches to the looming ecological catastrophe – which I have often characterised as one solution revolution as against a transitional approach. There are also different evaluations of the historical and practical relevance of the COP process – in my opinion it is both crucially important and frighteningly weak but it is all we have got at the level necessary– and of the possibility of forcing capitalist governments to take significant (or even major) measures to cut carbon emissions that in reality challenge the logic of capitalism. All this needs more discussion.
What makes it possible to force change today is not just pressure from the climate movement itself, but the relentless march of the crisis itself towards in the shape of ever more catastrophic events and the prospect of major social breakdowns that that they are confronted with every time they meet, and the growing realisation of this reality even within capitalism itself. This is reflected in the massive $369 billion potentially game changing investment in green energy that Biden as just got through both the Senet and the House.
The lessons for the movement from all this are clear. Far from boycotting COP27, we need to step up the campaign to put maximum pressure on it. It has been given a new lease of life by Biden’s package and the possibilities it offers need to be maximised. This means ensuring that the gains of Glasgow are not only defended but that new nationally determined pledges (NCDs) that are to be adopted at COP27 are sufficient to turn the corner on climate change and break the addiction to fossil fuel.
In fact we would be in a far weaker situation if the COP process did not exist. We can’t build the kind of global movement necessary to force governments to take these kind of measure if we turn our backs on the main forum through which the crisis is being addressed and on which the global justice movement can both place demands and mobilise it forces.
Alan Thornett August 19th 2020.
This article is based on my rejoinder to John Molyneux on the GEN website.