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MOGC reports from UN climate change conference

December 2009

Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns’ staff members Kathy McNeely and Sr. Ann Braudis attended the UN’s climate change conference in Copenhagen, Denmark from Dec. 7-11. Below are their reports from this important gathering.

Day 1, Dec. 7
Day 2, Dec. 8
Day 3, Dec. 9
Day 4, Dec. 10
Day 5, Dec. 11

Day 5, Dec. 11: Genetic engineering of seeds? Just say “no”

Yesterday’s posting mentioned the indigenous people and farmers who arrived in Copenhagen earlier this week. They are here to make some noise letting world leaders know that they want climate negotiations outcomes to respect indigenous and peasant farmers’ rights. Some might wonder what the connection is -- if world leaders are trying to clean up greenhouse gas emissions shouldn’t farmers be happy?

When the Nobel Peace prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its 2007 report calling attention to the effects of rising global temperatures, it paid a lot of attention to air pollution and the ways in which energy sources create carbon emissions that cause climate change. It spent little time analyzing the impact of industrial agriculture on greenhouse gas emissions. Since then an important UN report has revealed that livestock production (including agricultural production of the corn and soy they are fed) is the cause of about 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions; this is higher than the amount of these emissions that come from transportation.

This attention to air and to our forms of energy has left the door open wide and industrial agriculture has walked through it positioning itself as the solution to global hunger, and as a means of sequestering carbon. Because most people no longer farm, they are unfamiliar with the claims that agro-business is making -- it all sounds good. Who can argue with their desire to “feed the world”? Who can argue with their plans to improve agricultural development in African countries?

At a side event organized by the Klimaforum (the people’s parallel summit), Vandana Shiva and others led a workshop questioning the motives and claims of industrial agriculture’s response to climate change. Panelists were adamant in their conviction that now is the time to “say no to GMOs” (genetically modified organisms).

Over the years countries of the European Union and Africa have rejected GM seeds. But under the radar, climate negotiators from GM-friendly countries like the U.S. are proposing clean development mechanisms, where millions of dollars would be made available to further research and development of GM seeds. They are also proposing carbon credits for corporations that develop and grow GM crops.

Aside from safety issues, farmers have several concerns with GM crops, perhaps the most central being the fact that they create dependency. Seeds are genetically modified basically for two reasons: to be more resistant to herbicide spraying and to be more resistance to pesticide spraying. In both cases the farmer is not only locked into buying the seeds, but buying the herbicide and the pesticide that go with the seed.

This is completely distinct from the way that farming communities have operated over the years where farmers share seeds and do their own mixing of seeds to develop varieties that have different flavors or characteristics for successful yields, like flood resistance or drought resistance. The age of GM seeds threatens to replace this system with a market based system that locks farmers into buying inputs.

We do know that climate change will intensify droughts floods, hurricanes and other weather events. The best resistance is always to have a wide variety of seeds and genetic materials that can survive different soil conditions. Intensive industrial agriculture provides one model that is not very diverse, while traditional farming practices focus on sharing rather than competition.

Shiva and others see the debate about GM seeds as an issue of dictatorship “nothing less than a dictatorship will allow GM to spread… if we want genuine democracy we have to keep GMOs out -- it is about freedom and Earth democracy.” In truth, we cannot solve the problem of climate change until we learn to live in accordance with the laws of Earth ­ from the gene all the way to the planetary system. This requires a new partnership of people of the world.

The climate debates taking place here in Copenhagen are just the beginning of forming a new world vision ­ one that includes a more holistic understanding of ecosystem collapse. If world leaders are not yet willing to look at that ­ then we in civil society must keep bringing it to their attention.

See the MOGC’s webpage on GMOs here.

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Day 4, Dec. 10: Climate change and human rights

Today is international human rights day. While President Obama receives the Nobel Peace prize in Oslo -- partly for a new multilateral approach to world problems -- negotiations remain at a standstill at the Conference of Parties on Climate Change in Copenhagen. International press is reporting a split in the G77: the island country of Tuvalu is taking a position contrary to that of many African nations. However, Tuvalu is not a member of the G77, but part of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS.)

Countries are not in agreement on how to proceed. Underlying the current standstill is the attempt by the U.S. to collapse the legally binding Kyoto Protocol into the non-binding Long-term Cooperative Action process (which was essentially created because the U.S. has not been party to the Kyoto Protocol). The U.S. would like to leave Copenhagen with one non-binding political agreement with low emissions reductions targets and very small financial commitments around technology transfer and adaptation funding.

Essentially the U.S. wants to walk away making it look like it played an active role in “solving the climate change problem.” Doing so would resemble the way it participated in “making poverty history” a few years ago in Gleneagles, Scotland, which was basically making a lot of promises it never intend to fulfill, receiving great press and moving on. Since the spotlight is on President Obama today picking up the Nobel Peace Prize, this made-for-press ending will fall into place if the U.S. gets its way in the Copenhagen negotiations.

What we see now in Copenhagen is a number of political maneuvers with less industrialized countries trying everything they can through negotiating procedures to maintain a legally binding agreement at the end the process. Tuvalu would like to see something by the end of the two-week conference and is begging for a special contact group to create a process, while the G77 is arguing for maintaining the Kyoto Protocol as the legally biding vehicle and amending it to reflect today’s current reality. No matter what form it takes, the world wants a politically binding method by which greenhouse gas emissions are reduced and climate adaptation is robustly funded. It is impressive how less-industrialized countries are holding their ground.

In the meantime, a caravan of indigenous, farmer and peasant organizations arrived in Copenhagen last night. Several of the indigenous observers staged a demonstration in the halls of the conference pleading for negotiators to respect the rights of indigenous people.

The biggest issues for indigenous communities are within the current discussion around the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD) proposal. At present the REDD proposal would allow governments to control forests and does not include biodiversity in forest. Indigenous people fear that under government control, forest lands will be turned over to industries that will displace indigenous communities and cut down diverse trees and plant life to mono-crop certain trees that can be sold for commercial use. This destroys their habitat and the biodiversity upon which life in forested areas depends. (This biodiversity may also be necessary for carbon sequestration).

The Bolivian delegation has introduced language around respecting the rights of Mother Earth in the negotiating text. It is unclear whether this attempt to preserve both human and earth rights will be preserved though this two-week process.

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Day 3, Dec. 9: Raising the stakes at the climate negotiations

This morning the plenary session of the Conference of Parties on Climate Change was suspended when the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu demanded a legally binding agreement – by the end of by the conference next week. Tuvalu’s demand is not unfounded. The small nation has already lost some its land mass to rising sea levels and remains one of the most vulnerable nations to the effects of climate change.

After two days of countries stating their positions the negotiations are at a standstill. Some countries are fed up with a process that seems less than transparent, after the Danish delegation circulated a proposal to a number of the more industrialized countries. Climate negotiators from the countries with the most at stake are adamant that they want a legally binding treaty with aggressive emissions reductions targets, transfer of technology and robust adaptation assistance so that they can sustainably prepare for and contend with the negative effects of climate change. Negotiators from industrialized countries are lagging on emissions targets, funding and seem determined to ensure that any agreement defines developing country responsibilities.

Over the past two years the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns has looked at ways in which the global economy influences the decisions about the use of Earth’s resources. The global economy is actually front and center of the current deadlock in the negotiations, though few delegations are talking about it, aside from the Bolivian delegation.

At a side event sponsored by Bolivia, Ambassador Paulo Solon quoted Albert Einstein saying that “one cannot solve a problem using the same thinking used to create the problem.” Negotiators from many of the industrialized countries like the United States see the climate change agreement as a way of stimulating economic growth through carbon trading and investments in green technology. Based on other schemes to stimulate economic growth over the past 20 years, it is not hard to predict what the next economic bubble will be.

The view that needs to be taken is a rights’ based view – but a week and a half is a very short time for such a conversion to happen. In the side event this afternoon Solon continued, “[I]n the present system, only humans have rights.” What Bolivia sees as important is to free Mother Earth, the rivers, trees and animals as living entities with rights. Bolivia added to negotiating texts the necessity of recognizing and respecting Mother Earth’s rights. The recent endangerment decision taken by the EPA determining that greenhouse gases are a threat to human health and are caused by human action, the U.S. can take rights-based action; but unfortunately the U.S. economy is the first priority on the minds of negotiators – even above life itself.

This huge gap of world views and experience overshadows the discussions here in Copenhagen as does the elephant in the room: the global economy. The bubble of hope that floated over the first two days drifts as we wait and watch to see what negotiators come up with tomorrow as a way forward.

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Day 2, Dec. 8: “Endangerment finding” injects hopes in climate talks

Country positions remain divided here in Copenhagen as the climate negotiations continue. However, news about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s “endangerment finding” injects hope into the process. 

In the 2007 case “Massachusetts v. EPA, 549 U.S. 497,” the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that greenhouse gas emission are air pollutants covered by the Clean Air Act; the Court held that the EPA administrator would have to determine whether or not emissions of greenhouse gases from new motor vehicles cause or contribute to air pollution that endangers public health or welfare, or whether the science is too uncertain to make a reasoned decision.

Yesterday, Dec. 7, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced this “endangerment finding,” which states that greenhouse gases are a threat to public health and that science overwhelmingly shows greenhouse gas concentrations at unprecedented levels due to human activity.

The “endangerment finding” essentially triggers a requirement that the federal government regulate fossil fuel emissions under the Clean Air Act ­ even without new legislation from Congress. Under this new finding, any U.S. citizen can press the legal case for administrative action. This decision provides a way for President Obama to ensure that the United States can enforce its commitments to reduce carbon emissions through the EPA in the event that the Congressional climate bill does not pass before the new international agreement is ready for final approval.

The timing of this announcement during the first day of climate negotiations in Copenhagen­ is of critical importance. It indicates to the world that the U.S. is serious about following through on promises to cut carbon emissions whether or not Congress passes legislation in a timely manner. This can and hopefully will have a profound impact on the outcome of the climate negotiations and could give momentum to prospects for a climate bill in the Senate.

The Obama administration is committed to cutting carbon emissions in the range of 17 percent by 2020 ­ based on a 2005 emissions. This amounts to about a three percent cut in emissions based on 1990 levels (the baseline year that the rest of the world is using). More importantly, President Obama is committed to putting the U.S. on course to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 83 percent by 2050. International negotiators are wary of these promises. Aside from the fact that they represent smaller cuts than other countries are willing to make, negotiators question whether Congress will follow through on enacting legislation.

Congressional response to this move must be watched since some members of Congress wish to use climate legislation to gut the Clean Air Act. The Energy and Climate bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives includes provisions that weaken the EPA’s power to enforce the Clean Air Act. Though we are feeling hopeful today, no matter what happens here in Copenhagen, we will have our work cut out for us in the coming year to ensure that the United States is fully on board in safeguarding the world’s right to clean air!

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Day 1, Dec. 7: Opening session at "Hopenhagen"

We have just listened to the welcoming session where dignitaries from Denmark greeted delegates and non-governmental organizations to the conference. Throughout the city there are signs everywhere welcoming conference participants to “Hopenhagen.” The mayor of Copenhagen, Ms. Ritt Bjerregaard, talked about this city holding the hopes of the world that when delegates leave, they will “leave the planet cleaner and safer.”

Non-governmental organizations like Maryknoll are welcome here because when nations agree to a plan, it will really depend on civil society to carry it through. Kathy wrote previously [on her personal blog] on how over-consumption overshadows our lives seen not only in the food we eat, but in the way that we are expected to buy so that we can buoy the economy. But this over-consumption costs. It takes its toll on people who are forced to take lower pay because we expect the products we buy to be inexpensive. It takes its toll on Earth, because we assume that we can keep extracting minerals, oil, trees and other natural resources to keep pace with the demands of department store shelves. It takes toll on our souls as we learn hard lessons about what is truly important and that consumer goods do not bring meaning and happiness to our lives.

We are here because very little of the discussion around climate change has included any of the above issues. But we at the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns believe that if we do not begin to address our over-consumption, we have no chance of treating the planet and its people justly. What we really need is a shift in consciousness and we are here to remind delegates and others of what is at stake at this important United Nations meeting.

“Hopenhagen” is an appropriate setting for this meeting. There is much to learn from Denmark’s example in working towards making itself carbon neutral. Most people in Copenhagen get around riding bicycles and walking and taking a supremely efficient metro train throughout the city. Windmills and solar power are everywhere. A low carbon heating grid supplies 70 percent of the heat in homes in Copenhagen. Bottled water is hard to find here. Tap water is all the rage, and used clothing stores and organic foods are abundant.

We plan to write throughout the week about the experiences here in “Hopenhagen” and about the first week of the United Nations climate change conference.

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Click here to read the Maryknoll community's latest statement on the effect of the global economy on the world's ecology / Also in espanol.

Click here to read a new statement on the intersection of faith-economy-ecology endorsed by many Catholic orders and other Christian groups in the U.S. Organizational endorsements are still accepted.


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