Climate justice movements need to hit Trump where it hurts most

Patrick Bond


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 stickering trucks
Patrick Bond stickering trucks in an action. Source: Patrick Bond.

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.