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.
What there will likely be are announcements of progress in schemes to allow contaminating industries and nations to continue with business as usual and to add another lucrative area to their portfolios?trade in carbon offsets and credits.
It’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 this massive assault on our futures all at once, the representatives of 193 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 the 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 involved for verifying offsets typically strip traditional communities of their rights over the carbon-absorbing lands they have preserved for millenia.
On Dec. 7, thousands of members of grassroots organizations, mostly from nations of the Western Hemisphere, turned out for a long walk from Cancun city center toward the cloistered Moon Palace where delegates are holed up. Hundreds of men in blue stood guard behind a metalic police barrier to prevent them from getting close to the center of power.
For the international La Via Campesina, Mexico’s National Assembly of Environmentally Affected Communities, Friends of the Earth, the Indigenous Environmental Network and other groups in the march 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% cut in emissions for developed countries and rejection of the carbon market, have reportedly been stricken from the COP 16 negotiating text.
For peasant and indigenous organizations of the Americas, the carbon market schemes makes cyncial use of the global warming crisis to launch an offensive on their territories. Dallas Goldtooth, a Din?-Dakota member of the IEN 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. We’re here to march and to strategize to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
In orderly contingents the organizations marched through the streets of Cancun behind banners that proclaimed “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”, “We Defend the Mother Earth”. In addition to REDD and other carbon credit plans, the use of geoengineering, genetically modified seed and agrofuels are among the “false solutions” opposed by the grassroots organizations.
From the signs and talking to the marchers, you immediately see that this group has a whole different philosphy toward the earth than the delegates discussing technicisms in luxury hotels. Theirs are hands that work the earth, and eyes that measure the rains the way other people check the Dow Jones. They are people who come from cultures that view the planet as a Mother (“Mother Earth” is not 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.
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. Besides climate change, they face threats from mining, dam-building, industrial pollution; threats that they trace back to a system that extracts for the few and leaves the consequences to the many.
Mickey McCoy comes from the town of Inez, Kentucky, population 600, where mountaintop removal by coal mining companies has destroyed the environment and led to an epidemic of cancer. His shirt reads, “What we do to the land, we do to the people.” A Quechua representative from Bolivia nods in approval when the phrase is translated.
The force of the march can’t be measured in numbers. The bonds forged and the sharing that goes on 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. Peasant farmers who speak little Spanish explain climate change fluently. They understand conections between greenhouse gas emission and the other environmental threats they face in their communities, because the main problem for them stems from the fundamental misconception of business about the role of the relationship between earth and humans.
Rafael Alegria, a Honduran leader of Via Campesina notes that this relationship must be fixed and the knowledge and wisdom of the people, especially indigenous peoples, 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 is not the ‘no’ brigade. These are thousands of men and women saying ‘we have solutions.’
The central 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 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.
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 flood–grew from 5 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 urgency of the situation, “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. 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 unaccpetable.” 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 UN commitment framework.
At the end of the march, Bolivian Ambassador to the UN Pablo Solon came out to join the grassroots organizations, stating that “The battle in the streets is just as important as the battle in the Moon Palace.” As opposed to past protests, for the first time there is a strategic alliance between the protesters outside and some delegates inside. That resulted from the unprecedented process of forging a global consensus in Bolivia during the People’s Conference 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 Tribunal to ascertain legal and moral responsibilities for disasters occuring throughout the world.
The estimated 20-25 heads of state taking part in the conference are now arriving. Even so, expectations are low. With a carbon footprint of 25,000 tonnes, and its place in history nearly assured as the stopgap conference on climate change (a tropical stopover between icy Copenhagen and next year’s meeting in Durban), the COP 16 seems to have little justification for being.
Compared to the opacity and futility of the official talks, a ray of hope emerges from the marchers in the streets. It?s not just banners they carry. Their message of a new way of seeing and treating the earth, of insisting that economic priorities give way to sustainable systems, grows in force.
It is a message capable of carrying us into the future, a future that otherwise might not exist.
LAURA CARLSEN is director of the Americas Policy Program in Mexico City. She can be reached at: (lcarlsen(a)ciponline.org).