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Prelude to Paris: Four Tragic Tactics by President Obama and Four Climate Justice Proposals He Must Support

In December 2015 the world’s governments will meet in Paris for a truly historic event—the United Nations Framework Climate Change Conference. (UNFCCC). The objective of the conference is to protect Mother Earth from the assault of its most ungrateful inhabitants. The challenge is whether Homo sapiens, especially those of the ruling classes of the United States and Europe, can be civilized by the rest of the world before it is too late for all of us.

The challenge to the UNFCCC focuses on the growing world demand that the U.S. and Europe—as the greatest historical polluters, the initiators and beneficiaries of the Industrial Counter-Revolution, and the creators of economies based on slavery and conquest—must lead the way with radical reductions of Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHG) of at least 50 percent if not 60 percent or more over the next decade. My fear is that the world’s governments, under pressure from the United States, President Obama, and the leaders of the European Union, will be unable to reach any agreement as we move towards the catastrophe of a 2 degree and then 3 degree world—as massive and hysterical production and consumption in “the West” and the world system proceeds unabated.

I am a civil rights and climate justice organizer. I have been working at the United Nations through the World Conference Against Racism in Durban in 2001, the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002. I have spent the last year reading every version of the U.N. Durban Draft, and have attended, along with Strategy Center Associate Director Barbara Lott-Holland, two preparatory UNFCCC meetings in Bonn, Germany in May and October. I have spoken with hundreds of representatives of world governments and international NGOs. Based on this investigation and assessment I am deeply troubled by President Obama’s role in this process and want to put forth some positive and necessary programmatic proposals.

The President’s Present Trajectory—a Tragedy in Four Acts

President Obama is not just attending the UNFCCC in Paris—he is running it. The U.S., as the world superpower with 800 military bases and its hand in every zig and zag of the Paris Process, is the elephant in the climate change bathtub.

Whatever UNFCCC’s achievements or failures, President Obama and the U.S. will be the chief architects. In my assessment, the U.S. tactical plan is to prevent any strong commitments in Paris that will expose the paucity of its own proposals. As I’ll explain it is working to prevent a strong final document and is setting the bar for success very low so that the President can claim victory and protect any Democratic Party candidates from having to defend and run on a controversial climate agreement.

The President and the E.U. have set the ground rules for Paris that prohibit any legally binding agreements such as Kyoto—which the U.S. had refused to ratify.

This time the U.S. has imposed a plan for Paris called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC). Under the INDC process every nation is free to make up whatever GHG emissions reduction numbers it chooses, to present them without an implementation plan, and to leave Paris without any obligation to carry out its “intended” reductions. This is planetary destruction on the honor system—what I call Pretended Nationally Deceptive Retributions.

The U.S. INDC is based on a mathematical misrepresentationwith disastrous consequences.

Most of the nations’ INDC proposals are based on reductions in emissions from 1990 levels. But the United States, Japan, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—a well-known reactionary bloc at the U.N. called JUSCANZ–have arbitrarily rejected the 1990 baseline and instead, submitted their INDC proposals based on 2005 emissions. As such, the President’s already inadequate proposal for a 28 percent reduction is in fact only a 14 percent reduction from 1990 levels. As the Centre for Science and Environment observes in their compelling study, Capitan America, “Just by changing the base year, the US has avoided cutting 500 Million Metric Tons of Carbon Dioxide Emissions (500 MMTC02E GHG)”

The President is the main obstacle to progress in Paris. Contrary to his view that he is “dragging the world behind me to Paris” (as he told Rolling Stone) most U.N. delegates see the President and the U.S. as the main obstacles to a strong agreement in Paris.

The UNFCCC has been working for a year to reach an agreement on the final text off a documentThe Durban Platform. This, while not binding, could possibly set a high moral and scientific standard for emission reductions and, like the Pope Francis’ Climate Encyclical, create a moral pressure on governments. Third World governments are proposing language based on what is called “common but differentiated responsibilities” that calls on the primary polluters to make the largest cuts. There is proposed language for what is called “loss and damages” that would require the large polluters —U.S., Canada, E.U—to make massive payments, specifically $100 billion a year, into a Green Climate Fund to “developing countries.” This would be used to facilitate their transition to less polluting and zero emission development and to give “technology transfers” from the “developed nations” to the “developing nations.” And yet, at every daily debate of the governments, the U.S., the E.U., and JUSCANZ, have blocked any language in the document in that direction. The last preparatory conference in Bonn, October 19-24, was marked by bitter denunciations from many Third World nations of “powerful forces” who were blocking any strong statements.

This battle is not over as many representatives of the G77 and China served notice there would be very contested negotiations in Paris to prevent a cover up masked as a coronation. And yet, many seasoned delegates from governments and NGOs told me they fear that President Obama will recreate his power play at the 2009 Copenhagen COP where he came in at the last minute and pushed through a draft agreement that undermined all the work that others had done—and undermined what was left of the Kyoto agreements. In their view, President Obama shifted the burden from the U.S. and the E.U. to China and India. From President Obama’s point of view, as he boasted to Jeff Goodell of Rolling Stone, in Copenhagen, he “crashed” a meeting of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, China, India) because he felt that the work they were doing was “a disorganized mess.” He felt he had to “rescue” all the parties by “strong arming” them to agree that “it wasn’t enough just for the advanced countries to act — that China, India, and others, despite having much lower per-capita carbon footprints, given the sheer size of their populations and how rapidly they were developing, were going to have to put some skin in the game as well.”

An alternative view, from the most militant climate organizers I have spoken with in both India and China is that President Obama, in fact did not lead with addressing the U.S.’ historical responsibilities but rather, resorted to what they called “India and China bashing.” And his “strong arming” was little more than Great Power Bullying. While it was a public relations victory for the president, in their view, his heavy handed behavior in fact set back the world climate movement immeasurably.

I have spoken with representatives of the Small Island States at the U.N.—Tuvalu, Marshall Islands, Samoa, who have begged the U.S. to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to stop the floods and destruction of their islands and cultures. They observed, “The President has refused, telling us he can’t get a strong commitment through a Republican Congress. But we feel it is he who does not really want to do it—for all he has to do is make the case and make the Republicans look bad. But the U.S. is too powerful for us to challenge them directly. That is your job.”

Four Climate Justice Proposals for Paris              

My organization is going to Paris with four action proposals that we are asking the president to endorse and for which we will be organizing international support.

The United States must cut its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50 percent of 1990 levels by 2025—starting now!

The established science and the world climate crisis mandates the U.S. to initiate at least a 50 percent reduction of emissions from 1990 levels by 2025. Such a plan would have to go far beyond setting stricter standards for power plants and fuel efficiencies for cars. It would require shutting down factories, closing freeways, and stopping the U.S. society’s obsessive compulsion with consumer goods. The Strategy Center has initiated a No Cars in L.A. and the U.S. Campaign as a radical but reasonable response to the severity of the problem. The president does not have to put forth a comprehensive plan to achieve a 50 percent reduction but since he was the one to impose the idea of “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” he must start with the intention to do what is scientifically and climatically necessary—which is to popularize the concept of at least a 50 percent reduction from 1990 levels starting now.

The United States must contribute $10 billion a year into the United Nations Green Climate Fund—starting now!

In 2010 the United Nations established the GCF as a mechanism to move funds to Third World, “developing” nations to finance transitions to lower emission and zero emission development. The stated goal is to raise $100 billion a year but most governments have either made weak promises or not even funded what they pledged. For example, the U.S. has pledged $3 billion but makes it ambiguous about whether that is $3 billion a year or $3 billion over 5 years. So far, the president has only pledged $500 million and none of it has been allocated by Congress or deposited in the fund. President Obama can make the pledge for $10 billion a year (compared to the U.S. military budget of more than $600 billion) and then we can build the movement to get the government to actually pay it. This should be in the form of cash payments not the ambiguous proposals of loans or “mobilizing funds from the private sector.”

The United States must bring back more than 100,000 Black internally displaced residents to New Orleans—with jobs, housing, and medical benefits—starting now!

In my forthcoming book, Katrina’s Legacy I explain Ten Tactics by which the U.S. carried out a Genocidal Climate Crime in New Orleans by consciously driving more than 250,000 Black people out of New Orleans in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina and working to prevent their return. Now, there are still more than 100,000 Black Internally Displaced People, former residents of New Orleans, scattered and discarded all over the U.S. This demand has been raised by the Survivors Village and Environmental and Human Rights Advocates in New Orleans and is still an ongoing and real demand requiring presidential intervention. We plan to bring this to the UNFCCC to build international support for this demand and call on President Obama to take executive actions to make it happen.

President Obama must end the federal Department of Defense 1033 Program that gives military grade weapons to local and state police forces including school police.

The Strategy Center has initiated a No Tanks in LA and the U.S. Campaign along with other civil rights groups calling for an end to this counter-insurgency program—that provides tanks, armored vehicles, and M16 rifles to local police forces. As the protests against police brutality and poverty in the U.S. escalate so has police violence and intimidation tactics against demonstrators. As the climate crisis intensifies both inside and outside the United States, daily life is marked by droughts, floods, extreme weather events, food shortages, hunger, famine, mass poverty. This in turn generates massive movements of internally displaced people and world refugees and immigrants who in turn will be making demands on world governments including the U.S. It seems clear that U.S. ruling circles have no plans to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emission but do have plans to repress rather than address mass protests—thus arming local police forces with tanks, grenades, and M16s. We have to end this Department of Defense civil rights, human rights, and environmental rights injustice and bring international awareness about and pressure upon the Obama administration to end this repressive program.

On November 28 and 29 in Paris hundreds of thousands of demonstrators will be calling on the world governments to make the most radical reductions in GHG emissions and take the strongest actions possible to reverse the pace of lethal global warming. On November 30 through December 11 tens of thousands of government officials and NGOs will meet in Le Bourget, Paris to fight for a strong platform and agreement. Manuel Criollo, Barbara Lott-Holland, Channing Martinez, Ashley Franklin, and I, representing the Strategy Center, will be participating in those epochal events. Of course we cannot, alone, make history but as part of massive movements around the world for climate justice we can play an important role—to raise the central question, “What are we doing to do about the United States?”

President Obama, who began as a community organizer, understands that our job is to bring clear proposals and demands on those in power with a strong scientific and moral rationale. We have seen the president respond positively to the militancy and moral clarity of the Dreamers and change some aspects of his immigration policies, respond to the militant advocates for gay marriage, and respond to Indigenous and environmental groups who called on him to end once and for all the Keystone XL Pipeline.

It is our job to build a base around our program—to call on the president to change his baseline from 2005 to 1990 and his Intended reductions from 14 percent to 50 percent, to contribute $10 billion into the Green Climate Fund, to bring 100,000 Black Internally Displaced Residents of New Orleans back to their homes, and to end the Department of Defense 1033 Program.

Paris is a great arena for organizing, for as we said during the 1960s, “The Whole World is Watching.” The President and we both understand the wisdom of Frederick Douglass who argued, “Power concedes nothing without a demand—it never has and it never will.”

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Eric Mann is a veteran of the Congress of Racial Equality, Students for a Democratic Society, and the United Auto Workers and the author of Katrina’s Legacy: White Racism and Black Reconstruction in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. He can be reached at eric@voicesfromthefrontlines.com

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