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Depoliticised activism? Ambivalence and pragmatism at the COP16

Leon Ayo Sealey-Huggins (Department of Sociology, University of Warwick, Coventry, UK )

International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy

ISSN: 0144-333X

Article publication date: 12 September 2016




The purpose of this paper is to interrogate the forms of activist organisation at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change COP16 in Cancún and reveals their attempts to create alternatives to a seemingly “depoliticised” response to climate change. The paper argues that existing attempts to challenge depoliticisation face problems in the form of governmental opposition, limitations on forms of organising, and internal conflicts between activists.


This paper utilises “scholar-activist” engagement with actors at alternative “popular” spaces established outside the COP16 in Cancún, Mexico. It draws upon extensive participant observation and in-depth interviews with 20 English-speaking activists.


Common among activists was a concern to try and model alternative forms of social relations, to the depoliticised and hierarchical forms found in the formal Conference of Parties, via forms of anarchist-influenced “prefigurative” practice. In spite, or perhaps because, of perceived challenges to attempts to organise their political praxis along non-hierarchical lines, many people were ambivalent about the scope of their action, revealing highly reflexive accounts of the limitations of these whilst simultaneously remaining pragmatic in trying to make the most of their involvement.


The paper helps us to better understand the potential to politicise climate change. Understanding the challenges faced by activists is important for trying to organise more effective political responses to climate injustice. It is suggested that we must understand activists’ responses to these challenges and limitations in terms of the pragmatism in response that allows them to continue to invest in activism in the face of unsuccessful actions.



The author would like to thank Sam de Boise, Thom Davies, Andre Pusey and Alison Sealey, for valuable feedback on earlier versions of the draft. The contributions of two anonymous reviewers have improved the paper immeasurably, for which the author is very grateful. Finally, the author’s thanks must go out to those fellow travellers in the movements described herein with whom the author continues to face the messiness of trying to take action in practice. All errors are of course the author’s own responsibility.


Sealey-Huggins, L.A. (2016), "Depoliticised activism? Ambivalence and pragmatism at the COP16", International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, Vol. 36 No. 9/10, pp. 695-710.



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