by Pablo Solon

In baseball, when you have 3 strikes, you are out. In the climate change negotiations we already have 4 strikes. Copenhagen, Cancun, Durban and now Doha. Four attempts and each of the results were bigger failures than the last. The emission reductions should have been at least 40 to 50% until 2020 based on 1990 levels. Four COPs later, the current numbers are down to a measly 13 to 18%. We are now well on our way to a global temperature increase of 4 to 8ºC.

“The perfect is the enemy of the good” is what some UN negotiators say. To which we can reply: “When our house is burning down, the worst thing you can do is lie to us”. It’s time to rethink what is happening and try to find new strategies to avoid a global catastrophe. 

It isn’t because of the lack of evidence

Climate change is no longer a theoretical possibility. It has real impacts on the lives of people, nature and the economy.

Climate change is already contributing to the deaths of nearly 400,000 people a year[1]. This month, during the COP18 negotiations in Doha, Qatar, Typhoon Bopha hit the Philippines with all its intensity, leaving in its wake more than 700 dead. The strongest typhoon to hit the Philippines in decades devastated Mindanao, damaging more than 70,000 homes and forcing 30,000 to now live in temporary shelters.

Also the impacts of climate change to the economy are now evident. Hurricane Sandy cost the US more than 60 billion USD[2]. A report entitled Climate Vulnerability Monitor[3] calculates that the cost of climate change to the world is more than $1.2 trillion, wiping out 1.6% from the global GDP annually. And by the year 2030, the impacts can rise to 3.2% of the global GDP and in some countries will represent more that 11% of their GDP.

The facts have begun to change the perception of the people, even in the country of deniers. Now 4 out of 5 Americans believe that global warming is happening[4]. But despite all that evidence and the slight increase in awareness, the UNFCCC negotiations have moved backwards. Instead of delivering a stronger Kyoto Protocol that includes more countries, with stronger compliance mechanisms and a global target set according to science, Doha concluded with a weaker second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, with less countries and the promise of a new agreement that will enter into force only in 2020.

Our mistakes

Those that follow the climate negotiations – and I too was a climate negotiator – usually have a country approach. This means that the conflict is between developed and developing nations. Historical emitting countries versus victim countries, although now with the added complication that some victims are now becoming big emitters. This situation creates a stalemate where on the one hand, the rich nations don’t want to do more cuts if the emerging economies don’t do cuts also and then on the other hand emerging economies refuse to move because those who have historical responsibility have to take the lead.

This explanation about the standstill in the negotiations doesn’t dig into the real causes. To understand what is happening we need to see beyond this logic based on countries – developed, developing, emerging, least developed – and have instead, a class approach that takes into account the economic interests of the elites all over the world. The stalemate of the negotiations is not because of the conflict between the US and China, but the result of the common interest of the elites in the US and China that gain huge profits from megaprojects of energy. If there is a global agreement for deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions: How much oil will they have to leave underground? How many coal plants will have to close? How many mega-dams will not be built? How many pollutant commodities will they have to stop producing and selling? In short: how much of their profits will decline? 

These elites control governments so they project economic growth curves that justify mega-energy projects. These sectors of economic power do not care if more than 30% of the energy is lost in the transfer, if a project will generate the expected energy after built, if a dam only serves to supply a mega-mall, if the agro-fuel production decreases food production, if carbon markets are good for forests … the only thing they care about is to do business.

The “right to development” and “competitiveness” is used to cover up their insatiable thirst for profits. In the name of the poor they amass great fortunes. They use the threat of another country to promote their projects and do business with the elites of the alleged “enemy” country. 

The elites are in all parts of the chain: in the extraction of fossil fuels, in mega infrastructure projects, in the promotion of dangerous energy like nuclear, in the financialization of forests through REDD, in marketing nondurable products that destroy nature, in the production of false solutions such as agro-fuels, GMOs and now synthetic biology and geo-engineering.

To address climate change more than 2/3 of fossil fuel reserves have to be left under the soil. Without that no real solution is possible. The private transnationals and state bureaucrats that control those reserves do not want to lose the golden goose even if that can translate into a catastrophe for humanity and mother earth. Ultimately, they know that this will bring dire consequences, but it’s still in the future and they won’t be there so who cares? Besides, if something happens in the present, they have the resources to place themselves in a safe zone. The rich have more means to escape the worst impacts of climate change.

The issue of “greenhouse gas emissions” sometimes masks the real problem of the logic of the capitalist system that requires an increased exploitation of human beings and nature to maintain the rate of profit of big companies. 

Maybe the biggest mistake was to reduce the climate negotiations to a fight over percentages of emission reductions when in truth, we should be discussing the big and real picture of the planet that has reached its limits and put on the table the issues of fossil fuel reserves, transnational corporations, patterns of consumption and production, and the whole logic of exploitation, greed and profit obsession of this system.

We have to look beyond the concepts of development, growth and nation-states and discuss the issues of the Earth System and the need of an economic model that respects the vital cycles of Nature. The Peoples World Conference on Climate Change and Mother Earth Rights held in Cochabamba, Bolivia 2010, was a good step in that direction but it was just a first step. 

Rethinking Our Strategies

A new analysis requires new strategies. It is time to challenge the negotiations by winning concrete victories outside the negotiations. Social movements in both developed and developing countries are fighting fracking, the building of pipelines, tar sands and several other extractive and destructive industries.  We need victories that galvanize the struggle to a global scale.

We have to promote new approaches to the struggle against climate change by linking the environmental crisis with the food crisis and financial crisis. We have to bring on board new social actors that haven’t been involved in the climate issue. For many it’s not clear that the fight against “austerity plans” and climate change confront the same enemy. At the recently concluded World Social Forum on Migrations held in Manila, Philippines, an assembly of Asian social movements issued a statement signed by over 70 social movements and organizations, saying that we need to “connect the urgent demands of the people for food, water, health, energy, employment, rights and access with the struggles against climate change, financial speculation, land grabbing, neoliberal free trade and investment agreements, impunity of transnational corporations (TNCs), criminalization of migrants and refugees, patriarchy and violence against women, austerity measures and social security cuts.”

We need to discuss the implementation of new campaigns like the proposal of climate referendums at national, regional or global level. We have to use all spaces to reclaim the democratic right of people to decide the future of all and of our Mother Earth.

We have to strengthen our alternatives such as agro-ecology, food sovereignty and decentralized production and consumption of energy. We have to dismantle the lie that we need more and more energy and the only way to do it is through mega projects. We have to show with numbers and concrete experiences that behind those projects are the interests of very well known corporations and that other local and small-scale alternatives are possible.

A good opportunity for social movements and climate activists to come together and rethink and reimagine our analysis, alternatives and strategies will be the “Climate Space” inside the next World Social Forum (WSF) in Tunisia (26-30 March 2013). It’s the time to rethink our analysis, alternatives and strategies to confront climate change.

*Pablo Solon, Executive Director of Focus on the Global South, former Ambassador of Bolivia to the United Nations and former Bolivian Chief Negotiator for climate change