In Dakar, Bolivia Worked to Build the Global Climate Justice Movement

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We stopped them at COP15 in Copenhagen and we can stop them at COP17 in Durban but only if the social movements and grassroots NGOs are united, and are building a united front with governments of the Global South and all progressive forces and institutions of the world.

by Daniel Kim
Labor/Community Strategy Center, February 28, 2011

In the disorientation of last-minute room changes, cancelled workshops and general logistical dysfunction of this month’s World Social Forum in Dakar, one thing you could count on was that — each day — somehow the Bolivians would manage to host or help anchor two or three well-attended climate justice meetings. They were on the move and the diverse sectors of the climate justice movement were cohering around them.

Our Climate Justice Team from the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance (led by Tom Goldtooth and Jihan Gearon of the Indigenous Environmental Network) was able to connect with them and with some of the leading South African grassroots environmental justice organizations working to host the alternative summit for COP17 Durban, like the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, Timberwatch and Groundwork.

An ambassador as organizer

For a UN Ambassador, Bolivia’s Pablo Solon seems to bring some of the best qualities of a grassroots organizer. Each of his meetings reached out to different audiences yet presented a concerted message, a consistent agenda — whether we were in a packed college amphitheater or one of the many hastily erected, sand-blown tents. Each meeting, his delegation made sure every person walked away with the same pamphlet and book in hand. And each meeting they gathered contact lists and made sure to spend a lot of time listening, really listening.

The message

  1. COP16 in Cancun was a serious defeat for Mother Earth; we must regroup.
  2. The stakes of the current climate negotiations are very high for the planet. Bolivia stood alone in opposing the accord that came out of Cancun because it would result in only 3% to 17% voluntary (vs. Kyoto’s binding) global emissions reductions and, thus a rise in global temperatures of 4°C or more: a planetary catastrophe. Real reductions of 40-50% are needed to stop the planet from burning.
  3. Not only does the current “Cancun Accord” set the planet on a path toward catastrophe, but this new accord will be the template and foundation — they call it “synergy” — for all the other negotiating tracks of Rio +20 (climate, water, biodiversity, etc)
  4. The deeper negotiating agenda of capitalism and empire is to replace the “sustainable development” paradigm of the original 1992 Rio Earth Summit with the new “green capitalism” paradigm. (Solon talked about “environmental services” that nature provides! More on this in a separate blog re: bringing nature’s invisible labor to the market).
  5. Our fight in the COPs’ UNFCCC climate negotiation process must be part of a broader tactical plan for Rio+20.
  6. We stopped them at COP15 in Copenhagen and we can stop them at COP17 in Durban but only if the social movements and grassroots ngo’s are united, and are building a united front with governments of the Global South and all progressive forces and institutions of the world.
  7. There are new favorable conditions going into Durban. Carbon markets are failing and the climate financing promises that swayed many governments to switch sides from Copenhagen to Cancun are vanishing alongside predictions of capitalism rapid recovery. Even the UN is asking, where is the money? And with every day, more visceral andpalpable effects of global warming are landing in people’s lives.
  8. Our climate justice program should be unified on two demands. First, emissions reductions targets of at least 40% to stop the burning of the planet. Second, no reductions can be allowed through offset schemes (like REDD), market mechanisms (carbon trading, cap and trade) or any other false solution.
  9. What about an international Climate Justice Tribunal? In addition to street pressure (mobilizations, direct actions), we must add to our tactical arsenal a point of leverage on governments. What if governments knew that, by failing to reduce emissions adequately, they could be called to an international court to answer for eco-crimes, eco-cide, crimes against nature? There are estimates now that 350,000 are dying every year because of natural disasters due to climate change. Who will be held responsible?

Debating which demand should lead

The question of which demand to lead with is a crucial movement debate to have (a great teacher here calls it “a struggle for clarity”). A common focus on emissions reductions targets is not a given.

One of Ambassador Solon’s arguments was that it is the best popular demand for social movements. He said, “How many people know what the Kyoto Protocol is or the technicalities of how it works? But when the main message is that a treaty has 3-17% emissions reductions that will take the planet to 4°C degrees of warming, everyone knows that you can’t burn the planet.” The climate justice tribunal process could ground this demand with 1000’s of voices from the frontlines of climate change testifying to the damage and endangerment of their communities.

Counterarguments include those raised by GGJ and many other US grassroots groups in their “Open Letter to 1Sky from Grassroots Organizations.” “Targets reinforce the ‘carbon fundamentalism’ frame that hides the root causes of climate change.” The letter also argues that focusing too much on targets “leaves the space open for false solutions.”

“And what about raising the issue of climate finance for adaption and mitigation?” asked my colleague Sunyoung Yang. “Especially as we head to Africa for COP17, we have to remember that finance is a key wedge that makes or breaks the stances of so many governments and ngo’s of the Global South.”

From Cancun’s fragmented “spaces” to unity in Durban

One aspect of building unity going into Durban has to do with the physical site itself. In Cancun, the alternative civil society summit was fractured between 3 different sites:

  • Klimaforum (mostly European organizations)
  • Espacio Mexicano (“EsMex”) (larger Mexican networks, larger NGOs, Climate Justice NowInternational, Hemispheric Social Alliance)
  • La Via Campesina & the Assembly of Climate Affected Communities in Mexico

Each site was effectively sealed off from the others. People have talked about how it was logistically impossible to move freely between sites. One attendee said, “If you went to one of the sites, you were basically stuck there for the day.” The physical isolation was a material force in impairing coordination, networking and movement building. The separation of the sites also reflected some underlying political disagreements between sectors.

Fortunately, there were good signs in Dakar that the Durban alternative summit space will be more unified. The greater challenge as the COP moves to Africa may be to bridge the mainly Latin- and North-American and European Cochabamba process into a continent, where, as was mentioned in many workshops, many do not even know where Cochabamba is, let alone what happened there last year.

Continuing Cochabamba’s consultative, movement-oriented process

Though the Bolivian delegation made a very concerted push in Dakar for the climate justice movement to unite, their approach was also very respectful and open-armed.

At the first workshop, I was struck by how the ambassador, after making his presentation for 20 mins, simply asked, “What do you think? What ideas do you have about what we can do?” and spent most of the remaining hour listening. A question he came back to in many workshops was another good example of their movement-oriented approach: “We are willing to host a second Cochabamba summit. Do you think we should? When would be the most strategic time to hold it? Should it be held in Bolivia or somewhere else?”

Our role in the U.S.

So with Bolivia’s organizing plan clear, the challenge is for us to build ours with them. In theGlobal Wellbeing Working Group at GGJ, energy and interest in climate justice work continues to grow.

Almost 10 years ago, here at the Strategy Center, we began forming the Clean Air Campaignto answer the question, “What are we going to do about the United States?” We return from Dakar only clearer that the U.S. government is boldly leading the way to climate catastrophe. Where once it had obstructed and sabotaged progress as it did in Kyoto and Johannesberg,the US in Copenhagen and Cancun has now stepped out on the offensive and is aggressively leading a neocolonial agenda for a new global green capitalism.

There is no time to lose. The road to Rio+20 is already being laid. Next week, preparatory meetings for Rio+20 are happening in New York City.