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NewsNotes, May-June 2010
Vol. 35 No. 3

Climate change: Major gathering in Bolivia

In mid-April, more than 35,000 people from 142 countries met for four days during the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Many participants had been deeply dissatisfied with the results of the high level government climate change negotiations held in Copenhagen in December 2009 (see NewsNotes, Jan-Feb. 2010).

At that meeting, tens of thousands of demonstrators demanded that their government leaders sign a binding agreement to cut carbon emissions. Ignoring those pleas, a small group of leaders chose to undermine almost two decades of negotiations by pushing through an “accord” with promises, but no binding measures, from a handful of countries. Even if each country fulfilled its promises in the Copenhagen accord, scientists estimate that global temperatures would increase by approximately four degrees centigrade, which would threaten much of humanity. As a result of the botched conference in Copenhagen, Bolivian president Evo Morales called this people’s conference in order to “analyze the structural and systemic causes that drive climate change and to propose radical measures to ensure the well-being of all humanity in harmony with nature.”

Expecting close to 10,000 participants, organizers of the April conference were surprised by the 30,000+ attendance, especially since many Europeans were stranded at home due to the Icelandic volcano. Except for a 4-5 hour wait to receive credentials, the conference was fairly well organized with a multitude of panels, workshops and working groups meeting simultaneously on the Universidad del Valle campus. It was a beautiful display of humanity as people from all walks of life and corners of the globe, concerned with preserving the planet for future generations, met, formed friendships and initiated alliances around a number of themes. Farmers discussed organic agricultural techniques; students shared their successes in greening their campuses and communities; and religious organizations discussed what spirituality has to do with the environment.

The Bolivian government had a heavy presence with a number of tables showing environmental initiatives by the military and other governmental sectors. This brought critiques from many, especially Bolivian organizations that pointed out a number of extractive industry projects in Bolivia that are displacing communities and polluting the environment. They decried the irony of the Bolivian government being seen as an ecological leader internationally while continuing to depend on polluting, extractive industries at home.

As described by Naomi Klein, four proposals dominated the discussions: “that nature should be granted rights that protect ecosystems from annihilation (a ‘universal declaration of Mother Earth rights’); that those who violate those rights and other international environmental agreements should face legal consequences (a ‘climate justice tribunal’); that poor countries should receive various forms of compensation for a crisis they are facing but had little role in creating (‘climate debt’); and that there should be a mechanism for people around the world to express their views on these topics (‘world people’s referendum on climate change’).”

During the conference, working groups met to develop the consensus and mechanisms necessary to move forward with the proposals. The nine-page “People’s Agreement,” read at the closing ceremony on Earth Day, April 22, represents the general consensus developed during the conference which will be deepened in coming months and years. The statement calls especially for profound reforms within industrialized countries: “Developed countries, as the main cause of climate change, in assuming their historical responsibility, must recognize and honor their climate debt in all of its dimensions as the basis for a just, effective, and scientific solution to climate change.” The declaration calls for the next UN climate change negotiations in December in Mexico to define binding resolutions for developed countries to reduce their emissions by at least 50 percent of 1990 levels by 2020, “excluding carbon markets or other offset mechanisms that mask the failure of actual reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.”

“In addition to Official Development Assistance and public sources, developed countries must commit to a new annual funding of at least six percent of GDP to tackle climate change in developing countries. This is viable considering that a similar amount is spent on national defense, and that five times more have been put forth to rescue failing banks and speculators, which raises serious questions about global priorities and political will.”

With such a large and diverse pool of participants, it proved difficult to finalize strategies for the global referendum. A tentative date for the referendum was set for April 22, 2011, but that date will likely be extended in order to guarantee the participation of as many countries as possible.

While the conference showed some of the organizing limitations of the global climate movement, it clearly displayed a large, growing movement of people and organizations who are truly concerned about climate change and are willing to work for stronger reforms. It is unclear if the Global People’s Movement for Mother Earth, officially established at the end of the conference, will be a significant global player in climate negotiations. A good opportunity to measure the movement’s effect will be at the next UNFCCC negotiations in Cancun, Mexico, scheduled for December 2010.

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