Challenges for COP21 and social movements

By  |  3 / November / 2015

This post is also available in: Spanish

DSC_8304-300x199Global warming, probably the most serious existential threat facing the human species, is the byproduct of the industrial exploitation of fossil fuels. Increasing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases have driven the world into a climate crisis in which our survival is questionable.

The most worrisome part is that we don’t have much time to correct our course. Slight adjustments to the patterns of consumption of dirty energy are not an option. It’s necessary to act quickly and on a large scale in order to avoid the most devastating and irreversible effects of climate change. The present generation, in this decade, inevitably has in their hands the destiny of life on earth.

Beyond the symptoms

After an international group of scientists and climate experts warned of the undeniable extent of the problem, the outlook is not good. Twenty years of negotiations within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have not been able to reach agreements that would sufficiently limit emission of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other gases that continue to increase at an alarming rate. And there are no signs that this tendency will reverse itself any time soon.

A quarter century ago annual global emissions of carbon dioxide were on the order of 38 gigatons (gt). This year they approach 50 gt and it’s likely that CO2 has passed the threshold of 400 parts per million in the atmosphere.[1] Scientists are convinced that the only way to reverse this unstoppable rise is to refrain from extracting the approximately 80% of known fossil fuel reserves.

There is a strong campaign to divest from fossil fuel extraction headed by the Guardian and seconded by the Financial Times, two of the most influential newspapers in the world. The latter stated in April that it has no personal stock in fossil fuel companies. “Keep the oil in the soil” is the slogan often heard at climate protests. Whether governments address this issue or not, its consequences will change the system as we know it.

The climate summit in France next December seeks to reach an agreement–to be implemented by 2020–to reduce emissions by such an extent that would limit the global increase in temperature to no more than 2ºC as compared to preindustrial levels. The challenge is to reduce annual CO2 emmissions by between 12 and 15 gt by the year 2025, and between 17 and 21 gt by 2030. Only then could we avoid levels of warming that would significantly affect our way of life. Yet many of the negative impacts of climate change are already being felt and will continue for the rest of the century.

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Just as a fever is an observable sign of internal imbalances within an organism, climate change is a manifestation of the contradictions and unviability of the dominant system of production and consumption
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Just as a fever is an observable sign of internal imbalances within an organism, climate change is a manifestation of the contradictions and unviability of the dominant system of production and consumption, based on the unsustainable exploitation of natural resources and the unjust distribution of the fruits of labor. To heal the planet and save it from an apocalyptic future, it’s necessary to attack the disease at the root, not just treat the symptoms. But although the diagnosis provided by climate science is clear, the proper treatment has been blocked. In decision-making forums where social movements confront hegemonic classes represented by corporations, and public policies designed to address the problem without eliminating the causes, tensions, special interests and distractions have conspired to prevent appropriate action. It’s not easy to reach agreements when the cure for the disease requires the definition of a new social and economic model that transcends the predominance of the oil industry.

Civilizational Crisis

In 2010, the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth that took place in Cochabamba, Bolivia, emphasized the complicity between transnational corporations and the governments of rich countries. The Conference also criticized part of the scientific community absorbed in a reductionist vision of climate change as a problem of technology, carbon and temperature, while never questioning the primordial cause: the capitalist system.

The positions adopted by more than 200 organizations and movements, 142 nations and representatives of more than 50 governments—in total around 35,000 people who attended the People’s Summit —exposed the terminal crisis of the patriarchal civilizational model based on the domination of human beings and nature that began in the industrial revolution.

In just over a couple of centuries, capitalism imposed competition, progress and unlimited growth as supreme values, under a scheme of class domination and the disposal of communal property. The search for endless profits destroyed the relationship between human beings and Mother Earth while converting everything into a commodity: the soil, water, biodiversity, seeds, the human genome, cultures, justice, individual and collective rights, and even life and death.

The dilemma that climate change presents to humanity presents is whether to continue down the capitalist path as it becomes more predatory and deadly, or to embark on the path of harmony with nature and respect for life. The system has developed a lethal machine most clearly embodied in the vast military industry—a huge and uncontrolled emitter of CO2 and other pollution[2]—that it uses to stimulate the economy and to dominate territories and resources, via wars and interventions in the affairs other peoples and nations. This system imposes worldwide an imperialist model of global colonization, often called globalization, that has intensified the system’s destructive essence.

The People’s Agreement

In the People’s Agreement,[3] the 2010 conference established paths towards transformation and proposed ways to untangle the knotted negotiations of the Conference of the Parties, which year after year have gone from one failure to the next. The People’s Agreement called for the installment of a Climate Justice Tribunal so each nation can assume equitable responsibility for the cause and the solutions of this crisis, and further proposed a global referendum that would include the majority of the planet. It also proposed to the world’s nations the recovery, revalorization and strengthening of indigenous peoples’ ancestral knowledge and their concepts of Vivir Bien or “living well.” The Agreement recognizes Mother Earth as a living being with rights, with whom we should maintain an interdependent and integral relationship.

This logic has influenced the movements addressing the climate crisis from 2010 to this day. Dozens of summits, meetings, protests and declarations have established analyses and goals that fit within a strategic framework of adaptation and transition to clean energy sources and a sustainable mode of production and consumption. The conviction that societies in transition should have universal access to solar and wind energy and other renewables, democratically managed and under control of the communities, has become more and more prevalent.

To attain the urgent goal of zero deforestation,[4] a vital element in the fight against climate change, we must pursue a general model of food production that is reconcilable with the climate and based on agro-ecological principles and peasant agriculture serving local markets. Forests, territories and natural resources should remain in the hands of the communities that have conserved them for millennia, and not of large businesses. Energy inefficiency, in all its forms, must be eliminated.

Today the climate movements face the challenge of a lack of unity, divisions and serious disinformation.[5] This complicates mobilizing national civil societies to put pressure on their own governments lack the backbone necessary to make corporate interests assume commitments to implement real solutions for the climate crisis. In countries with a genuine separation of powers and rule of law, legal options cannot be ignored after the unprecedented ruling by a Dutch court that ordered the government to reduce emissions by at least 25 percent in the next five years.[6]

The Paris Summit

With just a few weeks until the beginning of the COP21 in Paris, a review of the governments’ national-level commitments to reduce emissions shows that the numbers fall way short. The commitments announced by various countries are not sufficient to adequately limit the rise in global temperatures to 2°C degrees, as established by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Such is the case for 56 countries responsible for 65% of emissions, according to the conclusions of a study published in Germany while a preparatory meeting was held for COP21.

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With just a few weeks until the beginning of the COP21 in Paris, a review of the governments’ national-level commitments to reduce emissions shows that the numbers fall way short.

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According to Climate Action Tracker,[7] the majority of governments that have presented their proposals for greenhouse gas reduction must intensify their strategy if they genuinely wish to achieve global objectives. The organization indicates that, based on an analysis of the strategies of 15 countries, the strategies of Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and Russia are inadequate. Similarly, their evaluation of the strategies of China, the European Union, Mexico, Norway, Switzerland and the United States is “average.” The study shows that Ethiopia and Morocco are the only countries that have reached the “sufficient” level in their plans to contribute towards the reduction of emissions.

Among the group of greatest greenhouse gas emitters, 9—India, Iran, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, South Africa, Thailand, Ukraine and Pakistan—have not even presented their objectives. These countries contribute nearly 18% of global CO2 emissions.

On Oct. 5, the most recent draft[8] of the binding agreement to be signed in Paris was made public. The document still does not define if the limit for temperature increases will be 2°C, as the IPCC indicates, or 1.5°C, closer to the People’s Agreement’s proposal of 1°C, which would require lowering atmospheric concentrations of CO2 back to preindustrial levels of 300 ppm. Nor does it define the reference year for emissions reductions or the conditions for financial and technological support to facilitate the transition for developing countries.

In preparation for the COP21, social organizations and movements are preparing mobilizations for Paris and throughout the world. Vía Campesina, an international movement that represents some 200 million farmers from more than 164 organizations in 73 countries from every continent, has called for a massive turnout of organizations and activists in Paris. [9] The movement has demanded once again that governments prioritize the needs of the people over the interests of corporations. Its organizations call for meaningful agreements for climate solutions, such as peasant agricultural systems that contribute to cooling the planet.

This time, the global protests will have to be massive, unified, overwhelming and decisive. If not, the next generation will not forgive us.

Alfredo Acedo is a communicator and consultant with the National Union of Regional Autonomous Peasant Organizations (UNORCA), of Mexico, and member of Vía Campesina. This article was first published in Alai-AmLatina, in the magazine “Climate Change and the Amazon.” See the Spanish here and the original here.

Translation by Justin Coley

Notes: 

[1] If no initiatives are capable of modifying the course of global warming, the temperature increases could surpass three degrees centigrade by the end of the century according to Climate Action Tracker, an organization associated with four European research centers. But there are those who predict more catastrophic scenarios. http://bit.ly/1NORQVF

[2] The armed forces of the United States burn some 320 barrels of oil a day, without taking into consideration the fuel used by contractors and rented facilities. Neither does that include the enormous use of energy necessary to produce and maintain grenades, bombs and missiles. The Pentagon is exempt from the emission control agreements both in the United States and in international treaties. http://www.alainet.org/es/articulo/172149

[3] The People’s Agreement. World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. April 22nd, Cochabamba, Bolivia. http://bit.ly/1GG203z

[4] In addition to reducing the emissions that cause climate change, forest conservation contributes to development in many ways. http://bit.ly/1hnWImG

[5] A survey in Mexico found that 86% of those surveyed had heard of climate change but a considerable number (76%) acknowledged that they knew little on the subject.

[6] Three judges in The Hague decided that the government plans to reduce by 17 percent greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 were negligent given the dimensions of the climate crisis.  http://bit.ly/1Ovfuak

[7] Evaluation of mitigation contributions for the Paris Protocols. http://bit.ly/1BSWw2P

[8] Draft Agreement. http://bit.ly/1MazxVu

[9] Call to action for COP21 in París. http://bit.ly/1O1SD4G

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