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I returned this week from nearly a full year researching mass protest in Bolivia. As luck would have it, 2010 has seen protests in greater numbers (67 per month!) than any year since 1971 , when the Center for Studies of Economic and Social Reality (Centro de Estudios de la Realidad Económica y Social) began keeping records on the subject. And based on both a comparative look at Bolivian history and pure population growth, it’s safe to extend that title to the most protests in a single year since the beginning of the 19th century, or even Bolivia’s history as an independent country.

Unlike 2003 and 2005, Bolivian protests did not mount into an overarching national wave capable of toppling a sitting government. However, many of the forces involved in those years are showing increasing independence from President Evo Morales and the Movement towards Socialism (MAS) party. Morales was ratified by a 64% majority in the December 2009 presidential elections and his party won the mayor’s office in nearly two-thirds of the country’s 337 municipalities in the April 2010 elections. However, this year many of the voters who backed the MAS in national fights showed their willingness to take to the streets to denounce its policies. Meanwhile, the MAS itself mobilized its base in a spectacular welcome to a global summit of climate change activists and against a 2011 workers’ strike.

Here, then, are the one election and ten mass mobilizations that defined the past year.

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The central aim of any climate summit is not to save itself and accept any outcome, but to come to an agreement that will save humanity.” — Pablo Solon, Bolivia’s climate negotiator

In the days before this week’s conference, and while a global preparatory negotiations were being held on climate change in Bonn, this news came:

The US State Department is denying climate change assistance to countries opposing the Copenhagen accord, it emerged today.  The new policy, first reported by The Washington Post, suggests the Obama administration is ready to play hardball, using aid as well as diplomacy, to bring developing countries into conformity with its efforts to reach an international deal to tackle global warming.  The Post reported today that Bolivia and Ecuador would now be denied aid after both countries opposed the accord. (Guardian)

This came as a shot across the bow of other developing countries who are caught between environmental principles and economic realities.

These pressures are quite serious. A leading daily newspaper in Cochabamba, Los Tiempos, ran an op-ed yesterday that circled around the movie Avatar, a story of indigenous resistance to extractive industry. It was a blunt caution to the Bolivian government under the headline “Truths that hurt“:

If Bolivia were to act in a more diplomatic way, it could have a great opportunity in the carob market, and this could even be a part of the new economic base of the country. … With the poverty of people, they cannot make speeches which at the moment of settling accounts will amount to no more than that. Bolivia could play its cards in a different way, avoiding the politicization of an issue in which its vote matters very little. The rest is for the movies and for science fiction.

Of course, Bolivia is making just such speeches and hosting a massive civil society gathering on climate change. And it’s clear from the compendium of speeches all of us participants were given by the Foreign Affairs Ministry that this didn’t start yesterday. Instead, Bolivia has been playing a diplomatic role on behalf of the world’s hundreds of millions of indigenous people: pushing for the passage of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, calling for the Rights of Earth to be globally recognized, and connecting with environmental and indigenous delegates in the Copenhagen summit. It would represent a major reversal of rhetoric and a betrayal of the government’s indigenous base to turn back under pressure.

It’s also true that for many countries, the outcome of climate negotiations is the primary issue. The overall targets agreed to, and the effectiveness of the measure worked out determines how severe climate change will ultimately be. As long as negotiations are open, their resistance can push climate agreements to be more serious. Agreeing to take money from a mechanism

But there is something else at stake. To abandon a political initiative under this kind of pressure, is effectively to admit that the hemisphere’s great power  determines your policy. As Bolivian climate negotiator Pablo Solon put it, “We are a country with dignity and sovereignty and will maintain our position.” To do otherwise would be to admit that the country’s principles come with a price tag.

At yesterday’s Root Causes panel, Ecuador’s Ambassador to the UN, María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, took this one step further.

Last week, the United States suspended Ecuador from$2.5 million in assistance in its climate change agenda because Ecuador did not adhere to the Copenhagen Accord. It was a punishment that the United States carried out upon Ecuador for not adhering to that Accord that was not an Accord. It was a spurious document made by just a few, without consulting all the governments and all the peoples of the world. Ecuador is not going to accept these forms of extortion. In return, the president of Ecuador and the people of Ecuador have said to the United States with all seriousness that Ecuador offers the United States $2.5 million if the US would sign the Kyoto Protocol. [applause] And we say it seriously. If the United States signs the Kyoto Protocol, we will transfer $2.5 million in cooperation to that country  to help them in their process of technological conversion that will so help the planet.

The offer stands.

Big conference, bigger questions

Tuesday at the CMPCC was the first day of truly massive events, besides the 17 (+1) Working Groups (Mesas de Trabajo) which themselves reached up to 500 people each. Yesterday morning was devoted exclusively to a massive opening ceremony held at Tiquipaya’s stadium. The New Bolivia has a combination of faces: the grassroots movements gathered in a stadium face, the indigenous tradition face, and the we’re running the state face. All three were on display in the pageantry of yesterday morning: dozens of banners and hundreds of wiphalas (indigenous flag of the Andes whose rainbow colors symbolize inclusion) marked the first side; the ceremony was inaugurated with requests for permission from Mother Earth and Father Cosmos; and Evo’s entrance began with a massive salute from hundreds of red-coated soldiers.

The content of the speeches was more interesting (Evo’s personal content was extended and rambling, but had its good moments which are already beginning to be overshadowed by tactless and factless comments about male sexuality and European baldness), and led into the afternoon session on “The Root Causes of Climate Change.”

The morning speeches were marked first by representatives of five continents (no one from Australia or Antarctica) addressing the summit: Faith Gemill (a Gwich’in from Alaska) spoke about a shared need to decolonize indigenous peoples; a member of the European Parliament’s left-green alliance said that the summit has allies on the European left willing to challenge the Copenhagen Accord; Nnimmo Bassey of Friends of the Earth-Nigeria/International called for an end to fossil fuels (“Keep the oil in the soil, the coal in the hole, and the tar sands in the lands”) and a rejection of false solutions; Suma Dutra argued that more than 90% of her native India has not been part of the new fossil-fuel-dependent economy and that this majority is waking up to the issue; and Eveldina Mazioli (Brazil) spoke to the systemic change towards small-scale agriculture advocated by Via Campesina, one of the world’s largest and most dynamic transnational alliances.

This brought us to Evo, who addressed with props differences between the capitalist and indigenous way of life. What I found striking was the personal animus involved on the part of people wanting show they are “better than” indigenous people, by using commodities. Contrasting a ceramic, fancy china, and plastic plates, Evo pointed out that capitalism/consumerism encouraged people to leave behind the plates that return to being earth when they break, in favor of modern versions that contaminate the world around them.

The massively attended afternoon session on “Root causes of Climate Change” kept its focus more exclusively on capitalism, with activists, a sociologist, an ethicist, and a vice president all framing the issue. Real aspects of capitalism are driving factors in the global ecological crisis: the quest for expansion, relentless incorporation of resources into the economy, an inability to settle for sufficiency, the promotion of consumerism as an economic strategy, treating environmental costs as externalities, and on and on.

Of course, however reasonable it is to put capitalism at the center of the ecological crisis, doing so raises more questions than it answers. Let me put this another way for people who aren’t as skeptical of capitalism as I am: suppose we accept that the dynamics of capitalism are provoking a crisis in the liveability of the planet; and that those same dynamics make any kind of solutions extremely difficult. What other questions does that raise?

First, what kind of economic and social systems might substitute for endless growth? How will they provide incentives for a “people-centered economy”? Unlike when I was growing up, the other possible are less unified, but far more diverse. The plural left here in Bolivia is one example of the kind of diversified solutions: nationally direct industries function alongside communal indigenous economies, and small and massive cooperatives. What is not capitalism is many things.

Second, how in the world does the political groundswell needed for real transformations get built? Third, what alternatives? (This is the easy one, actually: There’s a ton of movement, planning, and visioning work done on this question.)

Fourth, and most complicated, given that capitalism isn’t going anywhere in most of the world for at least a few decades, how much inside-capitalism response to the climate crisis is necessary? This may be the hardest question, since capitalism and its critics will have to work together to solve one of the most difficult technical and social problems ever, even as the critics remain skeptical that an end to the crisis is possible through such cooperation.

Beyond our economic system (as if that were a small matter), I think we have to ask real questions about the other issues raised by our five continental representatives.

Culture: We are talking about a real ethical transformation, built atop many cultures that have got used to relentless consuming more as a chief measure of personal status. And we’re also talking about internalizing all the consequences of our decisions for other people and the planet in our economic and social choices. What in the world will that look like.

Colonialism: The power states exercise over indigenous peoples, and that a powerful few countries exercise over the rest ends up being a key factor in climate change. The oil and mining industries operate through inequality between regions of production and consumption. Simply put, the kind of people who drive SUVs wouldn’t put a conventional oil pit in their backyard to do so. Instead they rely on less fortunate communities to supply the fuel, and pay the price. The one nice thing about this arrangement is that confronting it creates a virtuous cycle. To the degree that drillsite and fence line communities demand respect or gain in power, the whole system gets an incentive to switch to green ways of being. The difficult part is that very real systems of power have to be challenged in the process.

False solutions: In the short term, there are both real and false solutions to climate change. Some things will in fact slow, and one day reverse, the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Others won’t. How do we tell the difference? And how do we stop the false solutions from being implemented? This is extremely important in a “flexible” climate change regime like the one that exists since the Kyoto Protocol: any country can pay another to implement a cheaper false solution, and avoid real emissions cuts in return.

Finally, in writing this I feel torn geographically. Half of these questions may seem un-askable in the United States. They are daily matters of discussion in movements here. And from the looks of the conference not just here. The thing about the global climate crisis is that it makes asking difficult questions a necessity. Since the 1990s, the small island states of the world have regarded these kinds of global discussion as life or death matters, because they are: they might be literally underwater without comprehensive solutions. In recent years, much of Africa (facing desertification and major food production loss) and countries like the low-lying, very-dense Bangladesh (not as low-lying or dense as the Netherlands, but money works wonders) have been added to the list. In circumstances like these, you must move very quickly along a chain of logic like this: “If capitalism is the problem, what might be the solution.” Or along a different chain of logic: “If the global economy can’t feed over one billion people, what good is it?” Part of seeing this week’s conference for what it is, is to recognize that thousands of people from movements across the global South, and some of the North as well, are here asking themselves just these kinds of questions. It may be a while before such questions seem reasonable to North Americans, and longer before they seem practical. This post hopes to make that possible.

The inauguration of the climate summit is happening right now. This summit comes 115 years since ahead-of-his-time scientist Svante Arrhenius proposed that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could change the climate.By 1970, an observatory in Mauna Loa, Hawaii, had over a decade of observations showing that Co2 in the atmosphere was steadily rising (the annual cycle comes as the seasons change and plants take in and release carbon dioxide, like a global breath). The cause? Burning of fossil fuels and deforestation.

By 1988, the global importance of rising CO2 was clear, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was founded to coordinate scientific work on the subject and explain the results to policymakers. The IPCC, and its regular reports are one of the most comprehensive joint science projects ever. Listen to grad student Rachel Pike explain how it works. In 1992,at the Rio Earth Summit, a treaty making process called the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change started to make international agreements to avert dangerous levels of climate change. The industrialized countries pledged to stabilize their emissions of greenhouse gases at 1990 levels by the year 2000. Most lied.

By 1995, the IPCC was ready to conclude that “the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.” This cautious statement reflects the extreme complexity of the the many factors involved in human impact on the climate, (summarized in this graph). In fact, scientists thought they might not have definitive certainty until 2000, but detailed regional modelling, and the fact that 1970s-era pollution laws reduced the masking effect of soot and other pollution (which briefly cool the Earth before they fall to the ground, leaving the warming greenhouse gases to linger in the atmosphere for centuries) made the issue apparent by the mid-1990s. A continuing series of record-breaking temperature years helped to make the case:

Global temperature record since the 19th century

In 1997, the Clinton-Gore administration pushed hard for a range of “flexibility mechanisms” to be included in the Kyoto Protocol, most of which allowed rich countries to pay poor ones to make reductions for them. Greenpeace and other international NGOs calculated that loopholes in the Kyoto treaty, such as military bunker fuels, transnational plane flights, and “Russian hot air” (the right of Eastern European countries to claim credit for the emissions they weren’t making after the post-Soviet collapse, and sell it to others who were emitting more), amounted to more CO2 than would be reduced in the first place. Despite this weakening, the US failed to ratify Kyoto, saddling the rest of the world with a weaker treaty not accepted by the world’s largest polluter.

Efforts to extend and fix Kyoto continued through annual meetings of the UNFCCC conference of parties (COP), and US efforts to weaken the accord continued even as it ignored the Protocol. Finally, last year, a deadline loomed at COP15 in Copenhagen. The US opted for a second track of negotiations with a handful of highly polluting countries and produced the Copenhagen Accord. The COP as a whole merely “acknowledged” the Accord, and the word “failure” hung in the air. If the UNFCCC process is to be resuscitated, the next chance will be at COP16 in Cancun, Mexico this December.

Bolivia, which played a key role from the environmental side in Copenhagen is hosting this week’s World Peoples’ Summit to give the process a push, and create a space for planning both inside and outside strategies on global environmental issues. I’ll be spending a lot of time in the Strategies for Action working group seeing what participants think might be a Plan B if the international impasse continues.

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