Worlds Collide at Cancun Climate Talks

Laura CarlsenThe debate over climate change generally transpires within the cloistered confines of expensive hotels, executive boardrooms, and diplomatic halls. As seen in the failure to arrive at binding agreements in Copenhagen, the talks are generally as sterile as the surroundings.

As world leaders discuss the threat to the planet in various venues around the world, it’s the poor who face the dire consequences. Marginalized and vulnerable populations–from small farmers in Africa to fisher folk on the banks of island nations–suffer most from the refusal of developed nations and corporations to cut back on emissions that are heating up the planet. But these same populations offer important and sustainable solutions to global warming.

The problem is that the world’s leaders are not listening. And that is not likely to change at the meeting on climate change in Cancun, Mexico that will start at the end of November and run through December 10.

Wasted Time

World leaders wasted precious years overcoming the bogus arguments of spurious scientists and purchased politicians who had a vested interest in denying that the climate was even changing. When that became impossible due to overwhelming scientific evidence, leaders have turned to a set of market-based mechanisms and technological fixes that avoid real commitments and promote the same economic model responsible for the crisis.

As a result, two worlds will collide in Cancun. The first is a world in denial where profits come before people and the planet, and the most threatening environmental crisis in history is viewed as a business opportunity. This world will be heavily represented by most developed country leaders and representatives of corporations hawking green projects as they continue to trash the environment and pursue unfettered access to ever-scarcer natural resources.

The second is a world of small farmers, indigenous peoples, poor urban communities, and islanders that are suffering unprecedented droughts, water scarcity, and storms. Thousands of people from organizations throughout the world will travel to Cancun to make their voices heard. They are far from being just victims. The citizens of this second world are closely tied to local ecosystems, and in many cases their stewardship has guaranteed the conservation of the planet’s remaining forests (redefined by climate-change conservatives as “carbon sinks”), biodiversity, and watersheds.

Small farmers provide 70 percent of the world’s food supply. Global warming gravely threatens their ability to produce this food. Their farm practices can store carbon dioxide and reduce energy use in agriculture within a framework of small-scale production of local food and food sovereignty. Unfortunately, many of these small farmers have already joined the ranks of an estimated 50 million climate refugees,

The results of the Cancun climate change talks are a foregone conclusion. Following in the footsteps of the Copenhagen non-agreement, experts, activists, and the negotiators themselves have announced that they expect no binding agreements on emissions controls to come out of the conference.

So what exactly will be negotiated in Cancun?

False Solutions

All signs point to an intensification of market-based proposals for bringing the planet away from the brink of environmental disaster. Rather than addressing the current model of production, trade, and consumption that has caused the crisis, these false solutions aim to deepen it. A closer look at the so-called “Clean Development Mechanisms” (CDM) shows how.

The CDMs defined in Article 12 of the Kyoto Protocol are essentially a dodge that allows developed polluting countries to avoid immediate and significant cutbacks in emissions by “offsetting” them with projects in developing countries to conserve carbon sinks (areas that store carbon, such as forests and jungles) and other schemes. The $127 billion global carbon trading market has become a lucrative marketplace for turning planetary salvation into business deals. The upshot is that the polluter is allowed to keep on polluting. Meanwhile, areas previously cared for by local communities are pulled into management systems overseen by the polluters and international organizations that have purchased their “environmental services.”

International financial institutions such as the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank now wield this double-edged sword enthusiastically. The Mexican government, which will be hosting the Cancun conference, lists its CDMs on its web page. The list of these mechanisms reveals their counterproductive nature.

For example, one set of projects seeks to manage the massive waste material from factory farms. Concentrated livestock operations generate huge amounts of methane, the second most important greenhouse gas. The concentration of livestock production poses serious health and environmental hazards. But instead of more closely regulating or breaking up these operations, the CDM seek to sustain the model that has spread through transnational investment under free trade agreements like NAFTA. Recall that the Smithfield-Carroll hog farm in Perote, Veracruz was the point of origin of last year’s swine flu pandemic.

Another example listed is the construction of hydroelectric plants. A hydroelectric plant slated for construction in the state of Guerrero at La Parota would flood 17,000 hectares that support extraordinary biodiversity and numerous indigenous and small farming communities. The project was suspended following a legal ruling that the governmental Federal Energy Commission had manipulated local assemblies to approve the dam construction. The dam construction that would displace an estimated 25,000 people has now been reactivated, thanks in part to a $400 million loan from the Inter-American Development bank to support Mexico’s climate change agenda. In addition to the social costs of displacement and the loss of carbon capture from the flooding, studies by International Rivers and others show that large dams are significant sources of greenhouse gases.

Other false solutions that will be promoted in the Cancun talks and strongly opposed by many grassroots organizations include the UN REDD program (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation). The international small farmers organization Via Campesina, which rejects the REDD program, states, “Protecting forests and reforesting degraded forests is an obligation of all governments that should be implemented without limiting the autonomy, the rights or the control of indigenous and peasant peoples over the land and their territories, and without serving as an excuse so that other countries and corporations continue contaminating and planting tree monocultures.”

Another is the bizarre and frightening geoengineering “fix,” described by the ETC Group as “the intentional, large-scale manipulation of the Earth’s systems by artificially changing oceans, soils and the atmosphere.” Aside from the unknown and potentially catastrophic affects of tampering with nature on this scale, ETC notes that the measure “allows the governments responsible for almost all historic greenhouse gas emissions to sidestep compensating the global South, which is not guilty of climate change but suffers its effects.”

Caravans to Cancun

In Mexico, members of Via Campesina, along with the Assembly of Environmentally Affected Groups and other grassroots organizations, are mobilizing caravans to Cancun with a message for climate justice that rejects false solutions and calls for “thousands of people’s solutions to climate change.”

The first three caravans, leaving from Acapulco, Guadalajara, and San Luis Potosi, will include members of regional and local organizations, international delegates, and media, It will pass through communities that have been hard-hit by climate change and climate change projects, as well as other aspects of globalization such as pollution from industrial complexes and agribusiness. The caravans will converge in Mexico City for a mega-march on November 30.

A fourth caravan will continue on to Cancun to be joined by groups from other parts of Mexico and Latin America. In Cancun, they will gather with members of regional organizations and representatives from all over the world in a Global Forum for Life and Environmental and Social Justice as the talks take place. Through their presence, their testimonies, and media and lobbying work, they will pressure governments to adopt small-scale sustainable solutions based on food sovereignty and the right of people to define their agriculture systems and defend their environment. The Forum will also discuss and promote the proposals that came out of the Cochabamba World People’s Conference.

Through panels of experts and organizers, the Forum will also explore the role of women and the gendered aspects of climate change, and the need for the “territorial and cultural rights of indigenous and peasant peoples to be explicitly recognized in any climate accord.”

The encampment of thousands of peasant farmers in the Forum will demand climate change action alongside scores of national and international organizations, including the broad coalition of non-governmental organizations, the Global Campaign for Climate Action, Climate Dialogue, and a broad range of Mexican and international organizations.

Outside official talks, Cancun provides an open forum to demand action from governments and advance citizen awareness and involvement. Speakers, campaigns, marches, press conferences and civil society observers to the talks will keep the pressure on negotiators as independent media provide a link between the on-the-ground events and activities throughout the world through radio streams, blogs, and daily reports.

Two worlds will collide in Cancun, but they share a single planet. If the world that defends our current model of production and consumption prevails, the planet will edge ever closer to catastrophe.

The second world offers hope of a new path. Its solutions are multiple and small-scale, and require political will more than massive resources or new technologies. This second world seeks a new balance in our lives between our environment, our food systems, and our jobs.

Laura Carlsen (lecarlsen@gmail.com) is a FPIF Columnist and director of the CIP Americas Program. She is currently helping to coordinate independent media for the Global Forum on Social and Environmental Justice in Cancun.
For more information:
La Via Campesina
Joining the Caravans-Global Exchange Global
Campaign for Climate Action