Reality vs Reality
Written by: Tasha Peters
The past 24 hours have been a rollercoaster of emotions and realities here in Cancun. Yesterday afternoon (December 10th) youth from around the world descended upon the stairs of the Azteca building at the Moon Palace, where the high level UN climate change negotiations have been taking place. I, along with 50 others, counted for the life of every one of the 21 000 people who have died due to climate change since the conference in Copenhagen last year. After every 100 people remembered, our counting would hush and a participant would, in their own words and own language, organically start telling the story of the impacts of climate change in their communities. One woman told the story of friends she had lost due to environmental injustice in the United States, another spoke about how rising sea levels threaten the very integrity of her country and community, and another spoke about how his government is playing with the lives of his friends, just so his parents could keep their three cars in the suburbs.
The people watching were reminded of the reality of what the conference is really about and welled up with emotion. They were reminded that it is not just about numbers being discussed by bureaucrats in air conditioned rooms. In fact, the false solutions being put forward, such as REDD+ and offset schemes, will displace Indigenous peoples and allow rich corporations to continue poisoning the communities they exploit. As we counted, people watching were reminded that what is decided at this conference has very real impacts and inaction on the part of the countries of the global north that are responsible for 75% of historical emissions is costing real lives.
When our count reached 2100, the UNFCCC secretariat told us that if we did not stop our remembrance we would be stripped of our accreditation, removed from the conference, and not be able to attend COP17. With 18 900 people still to be remembered we, members of accredited civil society, were told that we could no longer deliver this powerful message and security shoved us, linked arms and all, towards buses ready to take us away. As we put our signs against the windows and the bus started to drive away, the media and watching parties were in the hundreds. After the bus’ departure the scrum between security and the press continued, including a journalist from Reuters being forced into another bus and off of the premises.
The emotionally charged atmosphere was carried into plenary where they were making final decisions a few hours later. Two texts were presented, the LCA text (long-term cooperative action – for parties that were not included in the Kyoto protocol) and the KP text (outlining a second commitment period for the Kyoto protocol and the only basis for a legally binding treaty in the future). Despite threats that Japan, Russia, and Canada would block the KP text from continuing, pressure from civil society at the conference and people back home kept the text alive. However, the texts presented were far from what was needed to stop climate change and insure justice for impacted communities.
The REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) program, which allows nations to continue polluting in exchange for paying for forests being kept intact elsewhere, does not explicitly call for the free, prior, and informed consent of the Indigenous and other communities who subsist from the forest. A Green fund for mitigation and adaptation money transfers to the global south of $100 billion dollars was created. However, this fund is not enough to repay the climate debt owed to impacted communities, there are not enough solid commitments from industrialized nations to even pay the amount committed to, and while it will be managed by a diversified board, it does not outlaw World Bank involvement in its development. Carbon capture and storage, an expensive and unproven technology that allows for exploitative fossil fuel extraction to expand, has also been included in the Clean Development Mechanism. And while it does say it may “consider” keeping global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees since pre-industrial levels in the future, the current emissions reductions targets of 25-40% below 1990 levels by 2020 for industrialized nations still commit thousands to death and displacement. Furthermore, even this problematic and insufficient text may not be achieved, because it is not legally-binding.
Bolivia was frustrated with the lack of ambition and false solution ridden text. They spoke out for the communities who would be impacted and the soon 300 000 people who would be sentenced to death every year by the path the text carves, and they blocked it from passing throughout the plenary. However, through a strange loophole in the lack of definition as to how decisions are made in the UNFCCC process, even with Bolivia’s strong reservations, the president redefined consensus and declared that a general agreement was achieved.
However, many nations and NGOs, even some who often align themselves with Bolivia, were frustrated by the stance they took. They wanted the texts passed because they were actually better than the incredibly low expectations set for the conference. These texts were compromises that restored the back stepping and loss of faith in the process from Copenhagen last year, getting us back to where we were at the conference in Bali three years ago. These nations and NGOs saw this text as a positive outcome because it was the “best” that could be achieved considering the “reality” of what the Umbrella group (USA, Canada, Russian, Japan, Australia, etc) would agree to.
Yet, in the three years since Bali, hundreds of thousands of people have been starving to death because of drought, being displaced from their communities because of floods, and losing their cultures as the ecosystems they depend on are degraded. And these situations are very real. On the other hand, the apparent “reality” of industrialized nations needing to continue their fossil fueled economic growth and pander to corporate interests is completely formulated. When, NGOs and affected countries are so afraid to call out a deal that is scientifically and morally inadequate because its “not the worst” thing that could happen, there is something seriously wrong with the power dynamics in the conference. The impacts from decisions made last night are both grave and real for millions of people, and we can’t be afraid to say that this is more important than political dealing.
What was decided in Cancun reaffirmed that there are much broader and more systemic issues to deal with than are being discussed. Yes, the process is still alive, is not as far backwards as it was after Copenhagen, and, with serious pressure for systemic change domestically, it may go in a substantive direction in the future. But, I don’t want to be a token in a process built on hidden power dynamics, and yesterday I held my ground, even when threatened to be kicked out, for a reason. Achieving for climate justice means speaking out against false solutions, stopping fossil fuel extraction, ensuring just transitions, and pushing to ensure that those impacted can live with dignity. Therefore, I’m going to be taking my cues from those whose crops are failing due to drought, are being displaced from their land, and are having to watch their families die, not bureaucrats in air conditioned rooms. Because these people have real solutions, and as it stands, what is happening at the UN is not it.