Cloistered Climate Talks

The UN Climate Conference (COP16) in Cancun is turning out to be both anti-climactic and anti-climatic.

There will be no major agreement to stop global warming this week, despite the timed release of a number of reports that show that the phenomenon is advancing more rapidly than expected, with lethal consequences.

There likely will be announcements of progress in schemes to allow contaminating industries and nations to continue with business as usual and add another lucrative area to their portfolios—trade in carbon offsets and credits.

Carlsen1It’s a worst-case scenario for the planet. Most negotiators seem to agree on abandoning or postponing the essential goal of mandatory emissions controls while promoting markets for the global trade of permits to pollute. Rather than commit to this massive assault on our futures all at once, the representatives of 192 nations gathered at this beach resort will likely put off major decisions until next year in South Africa. Here in Cancun, they are expected to announce progress in increasing market-based incentives like the UN Reduction of Emissions for Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) proposal and the Clean Development Mechanisms (CDM) of the Kyoto Protocol. Both allow developed-country polluters to use peasant and indigenous lands and projects in developing countries to offset continued pollution.

In the bargain, not only do polluters avoid having to reduce emissions, but the land-management contracts that verify offsets typically strip traditional communities of their rights over the carbon-absorbing lands they have preserved for millennia.

A March against “False Solutions”

On December 7, thousands of members of grassroots organizations, mostly from Western Hemisphere nations, turned out for a long walk from Cancun’s city center toward the cloistered Moon Palace, where delegates are meeting. Hundreds of men in blue stood guard behind a metallic police barrier, preventing the marchers from getting close to the center of power.

Carlsen1For those in the march—La Via Campesina (the world’s largest federation of peasant and smallholder farmers), Mexico’s National Assembly of Environmentally Affected Communities, the Indigenous Environmental Network, Friends of the Earth, and other groups from around the globe—the showdown in Cancun is over preventing a market-based approach to global warming.

Sadly, no one who came to these meetings expects progress on the urgent issue of emissions controls. The agreements forged in the People’s Conference in Cochabamba, including a 50 percent cut in emissions and a goal of no more than a 1.4 degree temperature rise, have reportedly been stricken from the COP 16 negotiating text.

For peasant and indigenous organizations of the Americas, the carbon market schemes makes cynical use of the global warming crisis to launch an offensive on their territories. Dallas Goldtooth, a Diné-Dakota member of the Indigenous Environmental Network who carried a No-REDD banner in the march, said the offset schemes present the biggest threat of the COP 16 negotiations.

“It’s the negotiators’ main objective now,” Goldtooth said. “We’re here to march and to strategize to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

In orderly contingents, the organizations paraded through the streets of Cancun behind banners proclaiming: “No REDD,” “Our Forests are Not Just Carbon Sinks”, “We are All Made of Corn—No to Transgenics,” “No to False Solutions,” “Small and Medium-Sized Agriculture is the Solution,” and “We Defend the Mother Earth.”

In addition to REDD and other carbon credit plans, the “false solutions” opposed by the grassroots organizations include the use of geo-engineering, genetically modified seeds, and agro-fuels.

Just reading the signs and listening to the marchers makes clear that this group’s philosophy toward the earth is completely different than that of the delegates discussing technicalities in luxury hotels. Theirs are hands that work the earth, and eyes that measure the rains the way others check the Dow Jones Industrial Average. They come from cultures that view the planet as a mother. “Mother Earth” isn’t a counter-cultural phrase—it’s the root of their land-based cultures. For them, the planet is not just the source of exploitable resources for production and consumption.

Mickey McCoy comes from the town of Inez, Kentucky, population 600. A bearded veteran of many battles against the coal companies, his family has lived in the Appalachians for generations. Mountaintop removal has destroyed the environment and led to an epidemic of cancer in his town His shirt reads, “What we do to the land, we do to the people.” A Bolivian Quechua woman, dressed in the traditional montera (hat) and colorful polleras (skirts), nods in approval when the phrase is translated.

Whether from Bolivia or Kentucky, what they have in common and what has brought them together in Cancun is that bond with the land and a great sense of urgency. In addition to climate change, they face threats from mining, dam-building, and industrial pollution. They trace these threats back to a system that extracts for the few and leaves the consequences to the many.

Real Solutions from the Ground Up

The force of the march can’t only be measured in numbers. The bonds forged in the Alternative Global Forum on Life, Environmental and Social Justice, where hundreds of people from all over the world are camped out for the week, constitute the best hope citizens have for turning around climate change.

Indigenous farmers who speak little Spanish explain climate change fluently. They intuitively understand the connections between greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental threats to their communities, which stem from the fundamental misconception of business about the relationship between earth and humans.

Carlsen-CampesinaRafael Alegria, a Honduran leader of Via Campesina, tells the crowd that this relationship must be fixed. The people’s knowledge and wisdom, especially indigenous peoples’ knowledge and wisdom, should be the basis for restoring harmony and equilibrium.

The marchers in Cancun don’t just protest. Forget the mass media’s mass-hysteria about globalphobics. This isn’t the “no” brigade. These are thousands of men and women saying: “yes, we have solutions.”

The key slogan is “Small farmers cool the planet.” Their contention is backed up by science—it’s a fact that traditional farm practices convert agriculture into a carbon-absorbing activity, completely inverting industrial agriculture’s current role as a major contributor to global warming. Consuming local and seasonal foods, growing food organically, restoring plant material in the soil, all contribute to resolving the climate change crisis. In this sense, to protect the peasant/indigenous way of life is to protect the planet—and vice versa.

Diplomatic Maneuvers

A UN Environmental Program report released this week shows global warming advancing rapidly in the countries of the marchers. The report noted that the number of people in Latin America and the Caribbean affected by extreme weather events—including high temperatures, forest fires, droughts, storms, and floods—grew from five million in the 1970s to more than 40 million between 2000 and 2009.

But as campesinos marched, negotiators fiddled. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon formally recognized the situation’s urgency. “I am deeply concerned that our efforts so far have been insufficient,” he said. “Nature will not wait while we negotiate. Science warns that the window of opportunity to prevent uncontrolled climate change will soon close.”

Ban’s exhortations may have little weight. Rumors suggest a planned attack on the entire framework of a binding, multilateral commitment. Although the current talks ostensibly aim at extending and deepening the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the U.S. government has reportedly been pushing the much weaker Copenhagen Accord—a face-saving measure with almost no binding commitments that resulted from the failed COP 15 and was supported by just a handful of countries. WikiLeaks cables show that the U.S. government has been doing some serious arm-twisting since Copenhagen to get buy-in to the voluntary accord as a replacement for the Kyoto Protocol, which it has not signed.

Chair of Friends of the Earth International, Nnimmo Bassey, warned of the consequences, “Replacing the Kyoto Protocol with a system that is pledge-based would sideline 20 years of multilateral negotiation and devastate the climate and the world’s people. It would be unjust and unacceptable.” UNEP research estimates that the accord could result in up to five degree warming—a level that would have drastic effects on the planet and its life forms. There are also reports of efforts to remove the carbon markets from the Kyoto Protocol so that the business of global warming no longer needs the U.N. commitment framework.

Pablo Solon, the Bolivian Ambassador to the UN, left the official negotiations to come out and speak to join the grassroots organizations at the end of the march. He stated, “The battle in the streets is just as important as the battle in the Moon Palace. For the first time, there is a strategic alliance between the protesters outside and some delegates inside, unlike at past COPs. This resulted from the unprecedented process of forging a global consensus in Bolivia during the People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth last April.

Solon told the crowd that the introduction of the concept of the rights of nature represents a huge change in the debate and directly confronts attempts to commercialize the crisis. He added that 300,000 people a year die from climate change-related causes. Bolivia has proposed the creation of an International Climate Justice Tribunal to ascertain legal and moral responsibilities for disasters occurring throughout the world.

Some 20 to 25 heads of state are taking part in the last few days of the conference—far fewer than Copenhagen. Presidents of powerful developed countries, including the United States, won’t be coming to Cancun. Their absence both reflects and contributes to the low expectations for this meeting.

As talks draw to a close, the Cancun COP 16 has racked up a carbon footprint of 25,000 tons, and a place in history as the stopgap conference on climate change (a tropical stopover between icy Copenhagen and next year in Durban). If not for the critical battle over carbon markets, it would seem to have little justification for being.

Compared to the opacity of the official talks, rays of hope emanate from the marchers in the streets. It’s not just banners they carry aloft. They bring the messages that the world urgently needs new ways of seeing and treating the earth. They have joined in Cancun to insist that economic priorities give way to sustainable, small-scale solutions to the climate change crisis.

These are messages capable of carrying us into the future, illuminating ways of reclaiming our severely threatened planet.

Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Laura Carlsen is director of the Americas Program (www.americaspolicy.org) for the Center for International Policy in Mexico City.