The first Conference of the Parties (COP 1) to discuss collective action on slowing down climate change was held in Berlin in 1995. The most recent one, COP 17, ended in Durban this past December 2011. Held under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change treaty of 1992, the conferences and the treaty recognize the reality and the threat of climate change to the world and aim to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions to keep global temperatures from rising to hazardous levels.
Seventeen years of conferences later, we still see little meaningful change in that direction. What we have seen is bickering, procrastination and overall low expectations and targets from our world leaders. The 2009 COP 15 in Copenhagen was an infamous disaster because no binding agreements were reached, threatening the existence of the entire process of global climate change talks. In contrast to Copenhagen, the next conference in Cancun was touted as a cooperative success. Its duration, however, was marked by rifts between the U.S. and China, representing the larger divide between the developed and developing countries. When settlements were finally reached, COP 16 was celebrated as having restored the reliability of UN processes and laid the groundwork that could be further developed at COP 17. More delays, but at least negotiations were back on track, because apparently, the Earth will wait for our politicians to pick up their acts.
Slowly and cautiously, countries negotiate agreements like they were playing a game with high stakes. What is at stake is their economic growth. They only advance as much as the other countries will, ensuring that they aren’t trapped under too many environmental obligations. The more they pledge to cut down on emissions, the more they restrict economic activity. The environment and the economy are seen as being at odds and for governments to stay in power, they must show economic results. Even if they want to make change, the atmosphere in these conferences is clouded by a thick fog of competition and ego battles. There’s no will to identify this fog and come to a solution because there’s no collective focus on climate change— every delegation comes into the conference with its own individual agenda.
World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth
There has, however, been a different approach, focused on doing justice to the environment and to each other. While the global effort on climate change was getting much flak post-Copenhagen, Bolivian President Evo Morales called upon the people of the world to “define strategies for action and mobilization to defend life from climate change and to defend Mother Earth’s rights.” Around 30,000 people from more than a hundred countries gathered in the valley city of Cochabamba from April 19 to 22, 2010 for the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. More than forty official government delegations, scientists, academics, activists and a large number of indigenous peoples of North and South America convened to give this movement a just voice. Three documents were drafted: The Peoples’ Agreement, Indigenous Peoples’ Declaration and the Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth.
The Peoples’ Agreement, which has come to be known as The Cochabamba Protocol, opens with the current environmental crisis and identifies the root cause as the capitalist system.
“The capitalist system has imposed on us a logic of competition, progress and limitless growth. This regime of production and consumption seeks profit without limits, separating human beings from nature and imposing a logic of domination upon nature, transforming everything into commodities: water, earth, the human genome, ancestral cultures, biodiversity, justice, ethics, the rights of peoples, and life itself.
Under capitalism, Mother Earth is converted into a source of raw materials, and human beings into consumers and a means of production, into people that are seen as valuable only for what they own, and not for what they are.”
The agreement stresses that real change can be possible only with a new system of production. Countries must produce enough to meet their population’s needs, but if we continue at the rate of current uncontrolled development, we’ll need two planets by 2030.
The Earth is seen as a living organism and humans as only one part of it. We do not and cannot live alone on this planet. We’re just a small part of a complex and interdependent system and we can “live well” only when we recognize this and respect the rights of Mother Earth.
Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth
The right to live and to exist;
The right to be respected;
The right to regenerate its bio-capacity and to continue its vital cycles and processes free of human alteration;
The right to maintain their identity and integrity as differentiated beings, self-regulated and interrelated;
The right to water as the source of life;
The right to clean air;
The right to comprehensive health;
The right to be free of contamination and pollution, free of toxic and radioactive waste;
The right to be free of alterations or modifications of its genetic structure in a manner that threatens it’s integrity or vital and healthy functioning;
The right to prompt and full restoration for violations to the rights acknowledged in this Declaration caused by human activities.
Demands and challenges
The agreement calls for developed countries to accept responsibility for the “climate debt” they’ve accumulated through their unbridled exploitation of the Earth. It demands that countries aim for “ambitious targets” of emission reductions and adopt lifestyles that are in balance with nature. It also demands that developed nations reduce emissions by 50 percent of their 1990 levels by 2017 and that the rise in global temperature not be allowed to surpass 1 degree Celsius. The agreement proposed the establishment of an International Climate and Environmental Justice Tribunal having “the legal capacity to prevent, judge and penalize States, industries and people that by commission or omission contaminate and provoke climate change.”
The World Bank-sponsored REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) program allows richer countries to offset carbon emissions by paying poorer countries to not cut down forests or buying carbon emissions from them in other ways. The agreement denounces such neo-liberal approaches as not helping the cause at all, but simply transferring emissions from one place to another.
The agreement was presented at COP16 in Cancun, but did not succeed in breaking through. Bolivia remained the only country at that conference that did not agree to any terms finalized there, describing the unspecific and insignificant targets as allowing “genocide and ecocide” of the earth.
In essence, the Cochabamba Protocol does not contain any ingenious ideas. It’s telling us to take what we need from the Earth without ravaging it—to simply share. In this time of crisis, it asks us to come together in solidarity and right our mistakes to take care of our Mother Earth. It expresses an urge to live in harmony and justice with the environment and other living beings.
These are some of the most natural human desires. So why do our very human world leaders seem to forget these basic needs of the people? The bottom line is: human development isn’t at odds with environmental sustainability. Drastic and fundamental changes in our lifestyles are imperative if we hope to capably survive as a race and do justice to other life forms. If they don’t realize these simple concepts of working for the common good regardless of whether other countries do or don’t, climate change talks will remain useless.
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