Targeting extraction: the only way forward for climate action

By Rowan Sylva

This week’s UN climate summit looks likely to be the biggest fizzer since the League of Nations tried to stop World War II. For a start this years UN climate summit is to be an informal discussion to which big polluters are invited to attend and even present at a private sector luncheon. On top of this the Chinese and Indian presidents are not even bothering to attend and none of the issues that caused an impasse in Copenhagen five years ago look likely to be resolved. The issue of ocean acidification, moreover, will not be discussed. Add to the mix the fact that important countries like Canada and Australia are being run by environmentally hostile governments, in the pocket of big polluters and you have a recipe for a waste of time. The UN at present is so divided that member states cannot even work cooperatively to contain the Ebola virus. Anybody who thinks for a second that positive action will result form this summit is putting on a blindfold. At best we can expect a bit of guilt-elevating green-wash, of the kind that Naomi Cline as so articulately exposed. At worst we can expect a complete collapse of any semblance of international action on climate change.

But what about the mass climate rally in New York that urged leaders to do something? It was, as far it could be expected, a success, attracting around 300, 000 people, as large as comparable actions protesting the Iraq war (a lot of good they did), larger than the largest Vietnam protest, and bigger than any comparable rallies for an environmental issue in American history. The targeting of Wall Street by the protest was a good tactical move, because as one stockbroker put it, “ I think its bullshit… anything that makes clients money is good for my clients, and its good for the countries economy.” So yes investment is driving pollution.

The protest made headlines world wide, bringing some media attention to the issue. All of this is good and a testament to the organization that went into the event, however, the notion that the protest will have an effect on the outcome of the summit is utterly naive; there is no historic evidence to suggest that these kind of protests affect the negotiations. Unlike actions such as strikes they exert no hard power over political actors.

What the global day of action showed us is that there are enough people that care: but what should they do? Answer: target extraction. Extraction is the polluter’s weak point. it is dependent on limited physical infrastructure. It can be subjected to legal disputation over land rights. A simple, peaceful blockade can cost the polluter money, delay delivery of their product and affect their bottom line. Local people of all stripes and colours usually oppose the development of nearby extraction projects – because they are horrible. A lot of extraction takes place in rich countries where there are relatively strong environmental movements. It also often takes place in areas of natural value. This means that even those not concerned with climate change may be willing to oppose them.

It is worth noting that once a polluting fuel or substance is extracted it will be used. Shutting down existing extraction and blocking the development of new extraction projects nips pollution in the bud; if it’s not extracted it won’t be burned. This is the most effective form of carbon capture. Stopping extraction is the simplest way for governments to take action. They don’t need to argue about the details of carbon taxes or emission trading schemes. They simply need to shut down the mines and not offer new contracts – problem solved. There is a reason why governments won’t be discussing shutting down extraction programs at the UN summit, that’s because it works. Finally extraction is the one part of the pollution process, where small but dedicated action groups can have a big impact – this is demonstrated by the very effective way that environmental groups in the USA and Canada have managed to reduce carbon emissions by targeting pipeline projects from Canadian tar sand.

In my view climate actions groups should pivot their action toward targeting extraction and only extraction. They should not bother spending their precious little money on lobbying government and industry; they won’t listen, and if they respond, it will be with green wash. Some people in the climate movement argue that it is better to use every method there is to affect change. I respectfully disagree. A global movement with limited resources needs to focus on where it can best effect change. In the words of Frederic the Great, “He who defends everything, defends nothing.” What money, climate groups do have, should be spent on a two-pronged strategy: supplying ongoing peaceful blockades on essential extraction infrastructure, and fighting new extraction projects in the courts. Groups should not mobilize in cities to call for climate action; they should mobilize in the local areas where extraction is taking place and where direct action can affect polluter’s bottom lines.