Contextualising the exhibition “Social Graphics: Climate Summits, Social Activism”.

The exhibition “Social Graphics: Climate Summits, Social Activism” was conceived as the graphic journey of the social movement around the Climate Summits. There have already been 25 of them, with this year’s 26, in a period of 26 years since the first one in Berlin in 1995.

But we should add previous attempts and meetings that preceded them, such as the Stockholm Conference on the Environment in 1972, Earth Day in 1990, or the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, as well as other meetings such as the International People’s Conference on Climate Change held in Cochabamba (Bolivia) in 2010. Therefore, the period, the meetings and the countries are many and in some cases very far from the current possibilities of information retrieval via the internet.

Another aspect to take into account in the material to be presented is that it is never possible to have access to all the relevant actors, nor to get to know them, and many are always left out. In that sense, we hope too that the exhibition will also serve as a signal to the absent people and organisations, to the absent elements, to communicate and include them in future editions or in a more complete archive.

In addition to this, there are many other conditioning factors such as the size of the work, the budget and even the space in the exhibition. In any case, this exhibition was conceived as a first attempt to graphically document this movement and as a precedent to continue this experience and to provide the means and tools for this memory.


Establishing the meaning of the concepts

In order to undertake an exhibition of this kind, the first step must be to define and understand those concepts on which it is based, starting from “Social Graphics” itself and also the social movements and especially in the field of climate and climate summits.

Social Graphics refers to images and not so much theoretical elements. But not only. These graphic elements need contextualisation, explanation, reasons and analysis, so the theory is not exempt. But, as we say, it focuses on graphic elements from a social point of view, their use by society, or sectors of it. The fact that artists are also part of society, and that as in this case they participate in this movement, means also the inclusion of some of them.

The Climate Movement as such!

The first conclusion when analysing the Climate Movement is that it is a diverse movement, with multiple forms, multiple voices, but in a certain way unitary. It is also unitary when it opposes the official discourse – which is also diverse and sometimes confusing, but which always ends up being confirmed, and proves to be alien to society’s general will and desires. For this reason, despite the fact that civil society is guaranteed (symbolic, not active) participation, the social Movements have always maintained the position of a Jiminy Cricket, reminding those present of their objectives and demanding commitments. Therefore, one aspect to highlight in this tangle of organizations and acronyms is the consensus established through a lot of coordination, discussion and participation at different levels – in a way, a great exercise in democracy.

This consensus has become easier and more obvious as the climate summits succeed one another and as the objectives set at one summit remain unrealised or when they return to the point of no return. Many of the summits start from disappointing previous experience (Cancún compared to Copenhagen, Paris compared to Cancún, etc.).

The climate movement is therefore made up of long-established organisations with large budgets, international, semi-professional (Greenpace, WWF, Amazonwatch), or trade unions and workers’ organisations, and grassroots groups of volunteer activists. Some of these are exclusively dedicated to the climate emergency, but most are more general in scope, dealing with environmentalism in general, or with notable aspects of the climate emergency: energy, fossil fuels, agriculture, infrastructure, etc. In this sense, the more abstract vision of the climate emergency has also been overcome in recent times, taking it to concrete causes and objectives from which to approach it. In this way, the official discourse based on generalisms and without commitments, or the hackneyed “greenwashing”, has also been dismantled.

Various international organisations have also been created with the climate emergency as their objective. 350 was created in 2007. Fridays for Future in 2018 by Swedish students, focusing on young students, with Greta Thunberg as its most renowned activist. Extinction Rebellion was also officially established in 2018, and has as its particularity the use of non-violent civil disobedience to force institutions to inflect the climate system.

In addition to these organisations, there are platforms that have also built consensus and set clear objectives in the discussions. One of them is Demand Climate Justice, which brings together many organisations worldwide. By 2020 We Rise Up was a network with 2020 as its objective, anti-capitalist and with civil disobedience as its method. In Spain it was called Rebelión Por El Clima (Rebellion for the Climate). Now Climate Justice Action.

These international organisations coincide in the climate summits (or in their counter-summits) with local groups that act as hosts and also add their own demands, or add local aspects to them. These are opportunities to strengthen the discourses of these local organisations, or their campaigns, and to empower them, to give them international legitimacy and inclusion in a more global agenda. Often, non-climatic aspects are added to the mobilisation, such as local demands that have a chance at summits because of the easing of repression and because the city/country hosting the summit is the focus of media attention at the time (for example, the heavily repressed Berber cause in Morocco during the Marrakech summit).

On the other hand, true to climate awareness and what causes global warming, many activists choose not to travel to COPs and thus avoid emissions. The alternative is to organise locally and show support for the people on the ground at the COP, and in the process lash out at the local actors causing the emergency. The alternative is to organise locally and show support for the people at the site of the COP, and in the process lash out at the local actors causing the emergency. Therefore, in addition to local protests in the city where the COP takes place, protests also take place in other places and at other times.

Another characteristic of the social movement is the need to transcend the media barrier controlled by institutions and corporate powers. For this, in addition to the numbers of participants, it is important to be imaginative, to prepare eye-catching things that make the news. For this, the proposals must be respectable (without violence or negative aspects) and must be consensual, so as not to step on each other’s toes, to ensure that they don’t coincide with others who take attention away from them, etc. But imagination and creativity are fundamental. These are the proposals the exhibition tries to reflect. However, despite the years that have gone by and the amount of organised summits (25), despite the large amount of literature on climate change, this is not a field that has been documented and we lack records and research. To this we must add the frugal nature of the proposals, for that moment, for that place, to which we must add the distances travelled by the participants, which prevent them from taking their productions with them,as well as their lack of economic means; to add to it the evolution of the emergency and that of the institutional proposals, which means that certain messages and proposals are not valid in the following ones, etc.

On the other hand, the summits are an opportunity to focus the struggle. In most cases, they are the occasion to restart the activity and to get new publicity. That is why the social movement related to the summits is not limited to the summits, but also involves a previous activity that prepares the ground, the publicity of the objectives to be demanded, etc. These activities have the characteristic of being decentralised, or in many cases international. The most significant example of this was the Global Climate Strike on 20 and 27 September 2019, ahead of the Climate Summit, which were probably the largest climate strikes in history with 4 million people participating in 4,500 locations in 150 countries in the former and 2 million in over 2,400 protests in the latter.

Similarly, organisations involved in the climate movement at summits participate in the unitary and consensual activities, but also, in many cases, make their own denunciations during the summit – alone or in smaller networks in which they participate.

Since the Johannesburg Summit in 2002, civil society has also participated in official summits. Since then, however, they have also criticised their participation as this lacks decision-making capacity, for its non-binding nature, and for its merely passive participation or because for doing so (taling part in the COP) they justifyied that the population is taken into account in the decisions taken. For this reason, many organisations and activists participate in both official and civil summits. Participation in official summits has also often been in the form of protests, both in terms of climate decisions and passive participation. For example, at COP25 in Madrid, hundreds of people (many of them young and indigenous) occupied the main hall to denounce the inadequacy of the climate negotiations. All of them had their credentials withdrawn.

Timing is also important. A Climate Summit lasts several days, so during that time there is a succession of activities. Of these, the central and unitary activities take place on the previous days to prepare opinion and influence the message, and on the last day, the day when the COP’s decision is usually decided and announced, in order to be able to influence it.

Pre-activity is also planned in advance. In the times, the level of importance of what is going to be decided is observed, as well as the way in which the social movement has been dealt with, and obviously, the strength and level of coordination and consensus that it acquires. As examples we also have the 5000 Kms Alternatiba Bira organised by the collective Bizi! It set off from Baiona on 5 June to arrive in Paris on 26 September for the COP. During those months and throughout the journey, it provoked debate and took its proposal to the different places it passed through, as well as to the whole of France. Similar cases were the Climate Caravans for the COP in Cancun and Lima. The Cancun Caravan started 3 days before the Summit, and then joined up in Mexico City, from where it left for Cancun the following day. To Lima it left from Arizona via Mexico and Ecuador to arrive in Lima. Now for Glasgow 2021 (postponed last year) a walking march is also planned from Portsmouth starting on 1 October to arrive there on 30 October (900 kms).

The aim of the Social Movements is to carry the voice of the people, of the effects already suffered by many people, but also of the scientists. Their aim is to confront the pressure of big business, many of which are responsible for the climate emergency and for which changes in habits and consumption mean economic losses for them. These companies form a lobby that prevents the implementation of policies, and are also behind the non-participation of major decision-makers such as the United States. They participate in climate summits, and have been financing them since Paris 2015, which means they are able to influence decisions. In the face of this, there is only social pressure.

The climate emergency is the focus of the conferences and mobilisations, but it involves many things and is associated with many other problems. Many of these problems are correlative: the climate emergency accentuates them and they in turn have an impact on the climate emergency. These include desertification, melting of glaciers and poles, submergence of islands, shrinking biosphere and biomass, acidification of oceans, and so on.

We also talk about climate emergency, but that means talking about over-consumption of fossil fuels, energy model, transport, tourism, food, substitution of forests for crops, etc., etc., etc. Therefore, all these issues and their corresponding campaigns are also present in social mobilisations.

Another important issue that has been integrated into the social agency has been the supposed solutions proposed by the UN and these Climate Conferences. Over time, these have proved to be failures, or it has become clear that far from seeking solutions, it is preferable to continue as usual and to create business as usual. Among the proposals of the COPs denounced by social movements are the use of gas (LNG) as a so-called transition fuel, Net Zeros and carbon sinks promoted by REDD+, the so-called Clean Development Mechanisms that propose mega renewable infrastructures or even large hydroelectric plants without stopping their environmental and social impacts, or the carbon market, which perpetuates the use of rich countries and companies over the resources, territories and ecosystems of impoverished countries. They have now been joined by a whole battery of false technological solutions.

Nor are the summits the only scenario in which social movements denounce the climate issue. Other global events organised by the UN, such as the One Planet Summit on Biodiversity, Water, etc., also include mobilisations such as the Earth Summits (1992, 2012) or the G7, G20 and major financial institutions summits in Davos.

Theme: different elements that affect the climate and that have their own campaigns, such as water, food, transport, economy, North-South relations, etc.

One aspect that has characterised the UN’s proposals against the climate emergency has been the recognition of different levels of responsibility, from one country to another, from one economy to another, demanding climate justice. However, as we have already seen with many of the UN’s own proposals, this justice has not been achieved, but even injustice has also been done. The climate social movement has included both affected people and communities in impoverished and rich countries, and their demands. Among them have been the most vulnerable such as indigenous people, women and others. In this sense, we must appreciate the internationalist and solidarity-based character of the climate movement.

Among the activities that the climate movement uses to attract attention are the usual political methods: demonstrations, rallies, conferences, talks. The DIY (Do It Yourself) character of the movement should be emphasised here. And above all a great use of creativity and art for the sole purpose of expressing feelings, disagreement and trying to get the message across. Imagination and creativity can also be seen in the use of resources and their materialisation with little investment. Equally remarkable is the use of colour which contributes to creating an acceptable image and a festive atmosphere. The art is developed in demonstrations but also in spaces such as the Social Summits (People’s Forum) or even art galleries and other spaces. It includes from demonstrators with their cardboards, to artists who contribute with their paintings or graphic art, sculptors, etc.

Therefore, the issue of graphics in the climate movement goes back many years but also has a great richness and diversity: from the characteristics contributed by the different countries and populations, to the different themes, organisations, to the contributions of individuals, to the different techniques and methods. A richness and a history that we intend to show, document and thus begin the process of following, appreciating and recording it.

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