COP21: A Voluntary Failure

unacto1The following post was written by Hala Aurangzeb, one of our new UNAC-Vancouver board members. This contribution does not necessarily reflect the views of all UNA Vancouver membership.  

Thousands of activists have taken to the streets of Paris, despite the state-of-emergency ban on public gatherings. Their disobedience is meant to stand for deepening concerns over the, now decades long, failure of global leadership to seriously address climate change.

But in the past few days, against the backdrop of teargas and arrests, the discourse among the human-chain of protesters has ricocheted from the regular environmental topics to include the slippery association of “fundamentalism” with civil disobedience. So what’s the common denominator between global security fears and climate change?

Paris-flower protect
Screenshot captured from Democracy Now! Protesters in Paris protect the memorial site from riot police.

To address this question, one needs to peel back the ascriptions that supposedly divide up the issues surrounding Paris, and see the continuities that muddy up the whole situation– of the refugees, the attacks, the climate, and this sham of a climate address.

In fact, there is something eerily familiar about demonstrators for climate action being met by riot police while the big boys convene for lunch. Let’s turn back to March 2011, when the Arab spring persisted in the form of thousands gathered in Damascus, against the Bashar al-Assad government.


Photo captured from

At that time, the country had been emerging from half a decade of drought—one of the worst in its modern history. The drought, which has been associated with number of factors, including an unsustainable irrigation system, dwindling rainfall patterns, and the general mal-effects of global greenhouse emissions, resulted in increased soil aridity which caused multiple crop failures. By 2011, 60% of the land had “turned yellow” and over 800, 000 farmers’ livelihoods was wiped out, driving them into the cities. Speaking to inevitability, the New York Times’ columnist Thomas Friedman’s wrote that the Syrian case of “young people and farmers starved for jobs — and land starved for water,” was, “a prescription for revolution.”


Subsequently, as the civil war amassed a number of other powerful actors—from the US, to Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and ISIS— reports from NASA showed that between 2003-2009, the Tigris-Euphrates Basin had lost 117 acre-feet of stored freshwater. With the continued conflict on either sides of the Basin, mismanagement of water escalated, coalescing into a key component in the multi-front war between ideological, and geopolitical stakeholders.

And the tale of water continued, as the war raged on. In a press release earlier this year, UNICEF reported the troubling trend of strategic water management by guerrilla factions “to achieve military and political gains,” against the civilian population. In the town of Aleppo, where deliberate water cuts forced families to send their children out in search of water, many did not make it back home.

Climate Summit-Water

Yet, despite the repeated cameos of water in this tale, a polemical debate has flourished about the advent of climate change as a principle factor in the Syrian crisis. The proponents of the idea, highlighted above, claim that the correlation is clear between the water crisis in the rural areas and the rise in protests in Damascus. But others have contended that the rainfall statistics in Aleppo do not prove that a drought, technically, even occurred. Yet in this seemingly inane quibble over “the facts” there is something to be gained from the perspective that “climate change,” when contextualized by the travesties of war and displacement, might not be an adequate shorthand for the political-economic catastrophes which we try to describe it by.


In Syria, while the displacement of large numbers of farmers came about from an apparent shortage of water, the shrinking aquifers following the fall of the Iraqi state, and inter-governmental discussions on the shared use of water, the people did not resort to divine anguish or surrender. During the riots, Syrians placed the blame of water shortage on the mismanagement of state actors. As one expert put it, “water doesn’t know political boundaries.” But in the Fertile Crescent, where the river systems supply water to Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and southern Iran,  political failure to manage water in any one state can directly impact neighboring countries’ access.

Thus, following the water wars which ensued in Iraq, Turkey’s retention policies which “hoarded” water, and the combined decisions of the Assad regime (i.e., aggressive irrigation techniques, hike in oil prices; liberalization of publicly owned and subsidized industries, and de-regulation of the agricultural sector for large scale investors) expended water networks beyond capacity. 

So while climate change proponents of the political left have seen the Syrian crisis as an opportunity to evince the dangers of climate change, the system of economic and political rationales which preclude and perpetuate climate change are pushed to the side. In fact, as Friedman, and Rebecca Solnit have pointed out, the latent the dangers of market liberalization on social welfare, combined with the market-driven exacerbation of climate change pave the way to a highly unstable state of governance– in Syria and elsewhere. As Solnit points out:

“Climate change will increase hunger as food prices rise and food production falters, but we already have widespread hunger on Earth, and much of it is due not to the failures of nature and farmers, but to systems of distribution.”

In the Syrian example, while we can debate about the exact aridity of the soil due to drought, it was fiscal policies and de-regulation of the agricultural sector which unleashed the full consequences of water shortage on a population bereft of a social safety net.

To give credence to history, one can only look back on past droughts in the span of modern history, to see similarities. In a captivating historical account, Mike Davis wrote of the environmental upheavals of the late Victorian era when droughts in India alone resulted in millions of deaths. The first-hand accounts which he lines together, reflect a nightmare-ish scene, where such phrases as “eye-for-an-eye” fail the test of allegory. Davis writes:

Millions died, not outside the ‘modern world system’, but in the very process of being forcibly incorporated into its economic and political structures. They died in the golden age of Liberal Capitalism; indeed, many were murdered … by the theological application of the sacred principles of Smith, Bentham and Mill. [1]

Only, in the contemporary context, the principles of exponential resource exploitation have already hit a ceiling, resulting in a climate crisis.  As mentioned by an attendee at Paris, Chee Yoke Ling, “a very important principle,” which has been ignored by the Summit, “is historical responsibility. Because the global warming we see today is the result of accumulated greenhouse gases.”

And yet, the resulting document from the COP21 was steered by such major carbon emitters as the US, who framed the stipulations under “voluntary” action. In other words, there is no binding authority which commits any state to reducing emissions. Un-coincidentally, the COP was also sponsored by such major transnational corporations as  Renault, L’Oreal and Engie.

In a piece for the Guardian historian and activist Rebecca Solnit addressed this subversion of the message of climate action. “Climate change is violence,” she states, and more importantly, “climate change is anthropogenic.” And in this equation she directly implicates “carbon barons,” whom she says get a pass on their violence because of their position in the economic system. “If you’re tremendously wealthy, you can practice industrial-scale violence without any manual labor on your own part.” Within the rubric of “cost and benefit” the immorality of violence has been diminished, she claims. So much so, that now “the message is that ordinary people will behave badly in an era of intensified climate change.”

And this principle seems important not only for its historical perpetuation, but also for its continuation in the way that global governance is bracketed within the existent rubrics of capitalism. Activists like Ruth Nyambura have complained that the text which is emerging from the summit “proposes [the same] market solutions that brought about the climate crisis.” And yet, from the strong appearance, and outrage of the activists gathered in Paris, it is apparent that this realization comes as somewhat of a shock.

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This may, at least partly, be due to the accelerated levels of state violence around the COP. Protestors at the Summit, who spoke out against corporate crimes against the earth have been forcibly escorted (shoved, grappled and carried) away from the public. Indigenous communities, regardless of localized “advances” in their land and sovereignty claims have been barred from the negotiation table entirely. Environmental activist continue to be held under house arrest, under the state’s an anti-terror procedures. And, while such legally implicated, and Human Rights Watch suspects as Narendra Modi enter the fray with a political voice, others like José Bové (who staged this amazing three-part protest against the import of GMO beef, McDonalds Inc., and sanctions against small businesses by the US Agricultural lobby) are constrained in their mobility, and criminalized.

And, against the backdrop of teargas and arrests, the plebes have been talking: the appalling failures of this COP have clarified where global power structures stand vis-a-vis the general public.

Things are worse than ever– with attendees like India’s Prime Minister Modi, whose speech belied his government’s goal to double coal production; and leaders of the so-called developed world, who have subverted the entire purpose of the summit, by bracketing all commitments to targets that limit global warming under “voluntary,” while their countries’continue to profit from the precursors of climate change at an unmatched rate.

This, despite smog levels in Beijing reaching 35 times greater than WHO safety levels, the first wave of climate refugees fleeing from the Marshall Islands, and the unprecedented flooding in Chennai.
Paris-flower trample

Screenshot from Democracy Now footage. Riot police trample on memorial site for victims of November shootings.

The strange consanguinity between escalating securitization measures, couched within “counter-terrorism” legislation, the decreasing rights of citizens to protests, and the increasing rights of corporate “persons” has certainly stood out sharply against the timing and circumstance of the Summit. The topic of Climate Change which had so recently been a non-topic, has only become a matter of action within the rubric of existent state and corporate actors.

Instead, climate action is considered in terms of its threat to states’ sovereignty , rather than scarcity. (For some perspective, see  US Department of Defense contingency “road map” regarding climate change as a “threat multiplier”.)

In this equation, to silence the citizenry is clearly more than just “precaution.” It stands out as an affront to democracy, and speaks volumes to the existent world leaderships’ partiality to the same corporate and financial networks which have blocked environmental consciousness, and the rights of citizens to speak.

So, in the wake of these serial failures by global leadership to ensure the safety and longevity of global persons over the security of global economic expansion, we have to ask ourselves: who should we really be fearing the most?


[1] Davis, Mike. The Late Victorian Holocausts. UK: Verso Books. 2000. P.9.