Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Paying the climate debt

Continuing reporting and reflections on the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth

The main business of the conference was done in 17 official working groups that drafted documents for adoption by the conference. Bolivia has now submitted these documents to the UN. Here I want to highlight the importance of these documents for the world's climate movement.

Graffiti in Tiwanacu reads - Evo, defensor de PachamamaThe conference was called to support the rights of Mother Earth, Pachamama in the local indigenous languages. The proposed Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth opens with the statement that “Mother Earth is a living being.” This is straight out of the indigenous Andean world view, an idea apparently accepted widely in Bolivia (and Bolivians were 26000 out of 35000 participants at this conference). In his speech at the opening ceremony, Evo Morales said that Pachamama is what the scientists call “planet earth”. Personally I think it’s better to stick to that term and leave religious terms to religious gatherings, but the ideas following that first point in the final document are quite ecologically sound.

A second key idea at the conference was vivir bien – living well. This is similar to the common idea expressed in the west, “live simply so that others may simply live”. It is the eco-socialist and counter-cultural idea that you don’t need to live an extravagant consumer lifestyle to be happy; in fact, it is less likely to make you happy. It is an argument against the idea that third world development must follow the road to wasteful consumerism that the West has followed. It is a call to action against the foundations of capitalism in the west: what Fred Magdoff referred to at the conference as the "cycle of production and consumption".

The often abstract rhetoric about Pachamama and vivir bien is backed up by serious calls for action. The conference condemns the Copenhagen accord for trashing the Kyoto framework. For poor countries, Kyoto was important because it included the idea of "common but differentiated responsibilities" between nations. The conference statement says “We inform the world that, despite their obligation to reduce emissions, developed countries have increased their emissions by 11.2% in the period from 1990 to 2007.”

The conference calls for the world to adopt a target of maximum 1 degree warming, and therefore to aim for 300 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere. To this end the conference called for rich nations to adopt targets of 50% emissions reductions (based on 1990emissions) by 2017. These are demands being taken to the next international conference in Cancun. These are also the most radical demands being pushed by any of the climate movement in the West, such as the Climate Emergency Network  here in Australia.

But emissions targets were only one side of what the conference called for. The conference talked at length about payment of climate debt as an essential way to right the situation. Much discussion was had about how the current capitalist, or imperialist system (under whatever name you give it) is making the poor pay the price for climate change and adaptation. Third world crop land is being taken for biofuels, genetic engineering is destroying traditional farming, a whole new agricultural "carbohydrate economy" is being created. For those suffering natural disaster from climate change, Haiti is a harbinger: military occupation, not doctors and aid, is the strategy. Walls are being built to keep the world's poor from escaping their devastated countries.

What is climate debt? It is a concept that reverses this system of economic degradation and domination of the third world.

Even though China’s overall emissions are now higher than the USA’s, if you add up all the historical emissions of the USA that have contributed to CC, they are far higher than China’s. The USA and other developed nations have endangered the world with the fossil fuels that have powered their development; a debt is owed to those countries that now cannot use fossil fuels for their own development, who are now living in a "constrained atmospheric space".

To quote from the climate debt working group: “The way to solve the climate crisis in a fair, effective and scientifically sound way is to honor climate debts. This approach provides a methodology for assigning and sharing responsibilities to address climate change based on principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities established in the UN Climate Convention.

"It focuses not merely on financial compensation, but on restorative justice – on “making whole” those people and members of the community of life on Earth that are adversely affected by climate change, and by restoring the balance, integrity and harmony of the Earth and its climate system.

"It provides a means by which all peoples – particularly those who are mainly responsible for causing climate change and with the capacity to correct it – can honor their historical and current responsibilities, as part of a common effort to address a common cause. Ultimately, the compensation of climate debt is about keeping all of us safe.”

The actions called for are not merely an end to fossil fuel use by the rich nations. It means action by the rich nations to help poor nations deal wiith the effects of climate change, like water and food shortages. “Even in the case of the deepest possible emission reductions and removals by rich countries, poor countries will face climate-related challenges to their development that were not faced by the developed countries in the process of their own development.”

It means technology transfer to enable sustainable development of the local economy in these nations. That is, assistance in obtaining renewable energy (which is too expensive for many poor countries, still). Assistance in developing robust infrastructure that can handle  the impacts of climate driven disasters.

It is an anti-imperialist demand, because these actions would destroy the unjust imperialist economic system that keeps the poor world poor and the rich world rich. You don't have to subscribe to socialist ideology to support this, of course; indeed many at the conference blamed socialism for environmental exploitation as much as capitalism. These demands are the only conceivable fair and workable way for the world as a whole to address climate change, whatever your ideological allegiances, whatever terms you use to describe them.

Once again: "Ultimately, the compensation of climate debt is about keeping all of us safe.”

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