What’s at stake in the Paris climate talks

Addressing climate change is one of the most important collective decisions facing us as humans living in 2015. Based on decisions made in the next two weeks, the states of the world will either commit to restrain global climate change to under 2° Celsius above pre-industrial levels, or plan for modest reductions in pollution that still put us on track for 4°C of warming by 2100 (with greater increases beyond that).

Let’s assume you know the importance of this choice in theory, but maybe not in its details. Or even that you knew what the major risks of a 4°C warmer world back when the climate talks were held in Copenhagen, but haven’t updated your knowledge since then. Or that you know, and want something to share with those who don’t. Here are some places to get informed, in way that speaks to the immensity of the risks ahead, relatively fast…

And when you’re wondering how to feel about all this, read these for some company in the face of stark realities:

Bolivia’s climate pledge triples down on fossil fuels, megadams

Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 1.01.55 PM

Last month, Bolivia submitted its pledge (English|Spanish) on addressing climate change to the UN FCCC, the body charged with overseeing global negotiations to prevent dangerous global warming. While much of the document is addressed towards global issues, the quantitative details show just how committed the Evo Morales government is to accelerated, and environmentally destructive, development.

The document follows  ambitious government announcements this year about expanding agribusiness, gas and oil exports, and electricity generation. I isolated the electricity numbers, with help filling in the details from this October 2015 report covering the Ministry of Energy and Hydrocarbons.

As you can see from the graph above, there are two big stories to be told about Bolivia’s electricity production plans. First, over the next five years, the country plans to massively expand its domestic burning of natural gas, more than tripling the 947 megawatts (MW) supplied by gas in 2013. Second, in a series of larger-scale projects, the country plans to bring 9,450 MW of hydroelectric power on line by 2025. This enormous expansion would require megadams at Rositas, El Bala, Miguillas, Río Grande, and Cachuela Esperanza (to name just a few of the sixteen proposed). These dams are likely to have severely damaging environmental consequences, particularly since some are located in fragile or protected natural areas. A third story is just as important: the government predicts that domestic power demand will only reach 3,000 MW in 2025, meaning that the vast bulk of the new electricity is intended for foreign consumers, mostly in Brazil and Argentina.

Bolivia’s climate pledge or Intended Nationally Determined Contribution manages to misrepresent this shift as a green move in two ways. First, it deals only in percentages: “Increased participation of renewable energy to 79% by 2030 from 39% in 2010.” In fact, the smaller percentage of nonrenewable energy reflects a massive increase. Second, it counts large-scale hydroelectricity as renewable and the carbon emissions numbers seems to treat these dams as zero emissions, despite the fact that entire biomass flooded by new dams is gradually converted into methane and released to the atmosphere.

Other unlikely claims are advanced in the area of land use change and forestry, including a unexplained promise to reduce illegal deforestation to zero, and to somehow reforest 4.5 million hectares of the country. These pledges coexist with a government plan to expand agricultural land by 10 million hectares over the coming decade, with the most coveted land for planting located squarely in the Amazon rainforest.

Indigenous voices echoed by Papal Encyclical on the environment

With the release of the Papal Encyclical on the environment, I am reminded of how indigenous peoples have been offering spiritual and practical guidance on the global ecological crisis for decades. These two statements seem particularly relevant to me:

Our cultural principles include the defense of the right to a dignified life, respect for mother earth and the environment, essential and sacred elements that we should leave as an inheritance to our children, grandchildren and their descendents. Read More »

Indigenous to confront Bolivian government over highway through Isiboro-Sécure National Park

In the coming weeks, Bolivia’s indigenous movement is organizing a new national march. For the eighth time, the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia (CIDOB; the acronym reflects its origins in the Oriente, or East of the country) is preparing a national march on La Paz. The National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu (CONAMAQ), an organization of traditionally organized highland communities has pledged to join CIDOB in this effort. Unlike CIDOB’s past marches, this one brings a single, local struggle to the national spotlight: the planned building of a major inter-departmental highway through an indigenous territory called Isiboro-Sécure.

The Isiboro-Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park (known by the Spanish acronym TIPNIS) is supposed to be a new kind of territory. Combining indigenous self-government and environmental protection, TIPNIS is both a protected natural area and a self-governing indigenous territory. These lands lie on the undemarcated frontier between Cochabamba and Beni departments in Bolivia around the Isiboro and Sécure Rivers. They are home to members of the Yuki, Yuracaré, and Trinitario Mojeño peoples, who govern the territory through indigenous community organizations which are federated into the Subcentral of TIPNIS. This novel arrangement was made possible by the first CIDOB march, back in 1990, which put indigenous autonomy on Bolivia’s national radar.

Twenty years later, Bolivia is also supposed to be carrying forward a radical redefinition of its political life around a new agenda. Three pillars of that agenda are indigenous rights, autonomy, and care for the natural world. The government of Evo Morales backed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to its passage by the UN General Assemby in 2007, and was the first government to incorporate its text into domestic legislation. The country’s new constitution, approved by a 2009 referendum, defines the a “Unitary Social State of Plurinational, Community-Based Law, … intercultural, decentralized, and with autonomies,” probably the strongest acknowledgment of decentralization in any national constitution. The Bolivian government’s support for environmental protection on the world stage—at Copenhagen and Cancun, in hosting the Cochabamba climate summit, and at the United Nations—has become almost legendary. The passage of a non-binding “Law on the Rights of Mother Earth” last December attracted enthusiastic praise from outside observers.

On the drawing board for decades, the Villa Tunari–San Ignacio de Moxos Highway started to become a reality over the past few years thanks to funding from Brazil’s National Bank for Economic and Social Development (BNDES). The highway has provoked a string of environmental controversies. At last April’s Cochabamba Climate Summit, the planned road was one of several dozen “megaprojects” discussed by local activists at Mesa 18, the so-called Eighteenth Table of the meeting and the only one devoted to environmental problems within Bolivia itself. In May, a summit of local and regional leaders met in the community of San Miguelito inside TIPNIS. Attending organizations declared:

We are tired of sending letters and resolutions stating our position of rejection against the initiative to construct a highway uniting Villa Tunari and San Ignacio de Moxos, which have never been heard and attended to by the current or previous governments; …

We resolve … To overwhelmingly and non-negotiably reject the construction of the Villa Tunari – San Ignacio de Moxos highway and of any highway segment that would affect our territory, our [collective] big house (full text in English)

Several months later, Vice Minister of the Environment Juan Pablo Ramos resigned rather than approve an environmental license for the highway. Yet, even as President Evo Morales inaugurated the project on June 5 of this year, no consultation has taken place with the peoples living in Isiboro-Sécure.

The objections to the highway, put forward by TIPNIS residents themselves through their Subcentral, should be familiar to anyone who follows the continent-wide story of deforestation in the Amazon basin. Across South America, large “primary actors” like road builders or oil drilling installations have had a disproportionate impact in opening new regions to systematic deforestation. The pattern is simple: one a route is cleared into a region, colonists follow with short-term cropping on cleared forest. Since the rainforest lives atop paradoxically poor soils (heavy rainfall washes the nutrients out of the soil, so the complex, multi-tier ecosystem has evolved mechanisms for preserving as much useful matter above the surface as possible). Often, such colonial agriculture depletes what is left after burning in a decade or two and colonists move on to repeat the cycle. For people who depend instead on the resources and wildlife of the forest for survival, this process is disastrous.  The indigenous peoples of TIPNIS are no exception: they too maintain a livelihood that is built around local self-sufficiency and depends on the forests for food and rivers for transportation. Deforestation is not a hypothetical threat in TIPNIS either. Where dirt and gravel roads have been cleared along the southern part of the proposed highway route, thousands of acres within the Park have been cleared for coca cultivation. New coca farms inside of TIPNIS violate understandings between the the Chapare coca farmers on one side and the international community on the other, and the Morales government has pledged to remove them. However, TIPNIS representatives have signaled that both land for cultivation and concessions for logging are being offered for speculative sale as road construction nears.

In short, the highway has become a key point in the battle over Bolivia’s future, and over the extent to which dreams of ecological sustainability and indigenous self-governance will become a reality. Deforestation, cultural survival, the indigenous right to self determination, and the protection of indigenous territories are all at issue. These broader concerns explain why both CIDOB and CONAMAQ are preparing to march alongside indigenous community representatives from Isiboro-Sécure, in late July or early August. For those around the world who have put hopes in the Morales government for the same reasons, now is a good time to let it know you’re watching.

Links: BP Oil spill in photos, maps

Smoke billows from controlled burns of spilled oil off the Louisiana coast in the Gulf of Mexico on June 13. (Sean Gartner/Reuters)

The Christian Science Monitor has published a gallery of fifty-five photos of the ongoing BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill’s various effects in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s dramatic and informative even if you’ve been following the spill as closely as I have. Many of the photos, like this one above, also provide a rare sense of the scale of the oil that’s been added to the environment, and the experiment in pollution that is being conducted right now.

Other spill resources:

  • New York Times’ Oil Spill Tracker interactive map—Note that the past seven days have seen a dramatic new landfall from Mississippi to Florida
  • SkyTruth (blog.skytruth.org) attempts to study oil pollution using satellite maps. The site’s early estimates have now been corroborated by the government’s scientific panel’s recent upward revisions in its estimate of the quantity of oil being released.
  • Treehugger.com’s Timeline of Unfortunate Events during the spill.

Sixty days into this disaster, I should have more to say, but there is a massive stream of commentary out there already. I would just add that: 1) The spill adds an entirely set of reasons to limit oil drilling, especially in remote areas, related to safety, disaster response, and local environmental impacts which is different from the climate and global warming issues that have driven the debate. 2) I witnessed some of the appallingly inadequate planning discussions (via public meetings of the Minerals Management Service) a decade ago. There are serious issues for long-term planning here. 3) Those of us thinking about strategies for addressing climate change should get much more serious now about large, but not global, energy policies—like drilling in the Gulf, or airport expansion, or every-increasing miles traveled by cars—instead of only fixating on overarching policy frameworks like carbon markets or taxes.

Dignidad y dinero: Ecuador, Bolivia reject US pressure on climate

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.

CMPCC: Root Causes of Climate Change are Capitalism and Culture

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.