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JASON NEGRON-GONZALES: Reports from Bolivia

JASON NEGRÓN-GONZALES: Reports from Bolivia Last month in Cochabamba, the Bolivian government and social movements convened the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth (CMPCC).  The conference was ground-breaking, bringing together governments, NGO’s, indigenous communities, and social movements.  The goal of the conference was to re-ground and cohere the global forces that are working for climate justice in order to impact global climate negotiations.

Whether we work on environmental, social, or economic issues, what happened in Cochabamba is relevant to our work as Left organizers in the United States.  To help make the conferences’ relevance for our work as clear as possible, I’m going to talk about Copenhagen and the back story to Cochabamba, lay out some of the developments at the CMPCC, and explore how it all relates to the next phase of building a powerful climate justice movement.

The Back Story

Our situation is dire.  Science tells us that CO2 emissions from human activity (principally coal-burning and oil consumption, but also deforestation) are already beyond sustainability and that today’s emissions will take seventy years to manifest their full impact on global temperature.  Even with the Kyoto protocol in place, the growth of emissions in the last ten years has been the fastest ever. We need a substantial decrease in global emissions over the next 10 years, and we need to almost completely move away from fossil fuels over the next 30-40 years. If we don’t  we will almost certainly end up with irreversible changes in temperature, weather, and rainfall that will have horrendous and unacceptable social consequences. 

This material reality provides the backdrop to recent international climate negotiations.  It would be a tall order to achieve that type of environmental change that we need under any economic or political system.  But the challenges are even greater under our current economic system; we are contending with neoliberal capitalism, an exploitative and often neo-colonial relationship between the global North and the global South, the corruption of most world governments by capital and corporations, and the arrogance and lack of accountability of the United States on the world stage.  The meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Copenhagen laid these dynamics bare.  Although it was initially billed as “Hopenhagen” – a meeting where humanity would come together to protect ourselves and nature – the reality in Copenhagen’s meeting halls was class struggle.

In recent years, a great deal of energy has been spent in the international climates negotiations to get the US back to the table. Going into Copenhagen, it was clear that a comprehensive, equitable agreement wasn’t in the works.  Regardless, many social movements and governments from teh global South were hopeful that a global agreement would be reached that would use scientific estimates to set a global limit on emissions and provide a framework for transitioning away from fossil fuels.  There was hope that agreements could be reached that would allow for (1) adaptation by those who have already been affected by climate change and (2) the transfer of technology and funds to the South to make that transition possible without pushing the nations of the global South into poverty.  There was also the hope that developed countries would acknowledge the debt they owed to the rest of the world for damaging the climate.

Instead, with all the world’s governments assembled in the Bella Center, the global North (and particularly the United States) refused responsibility  The biggest polluters refused to commit to stop polluting. Would the North pay it’s debt for having used up the atmospheric space over the last 100 years?  Nope.  Transfer technology so that developing nations could develop with less emissions?  Nope.  Pay for damages or adaptation for communities that have already been impacted?  Nope.  Decrease domestic emissions to avoid climate chaos?  Nope.  Instead, these polluters wanted to use the UNFCCC as the basis to construct a new world order that would create a new set of economic rules to benefit northern corporations.

When President Obama showed up, he settled quickly into back-room negotiations to hammer out a proposal that would benefit the United States.  This proposal – now called the Copenhagen Accord – would create a process where each government had autonomy over what cuts it wanted to propose and where these proposed cuts would be added up and carried out through a world carbon market.  There would be no enforcement mechanism if nations don’t meet their proposed reductions.  If the US says it will decrease emissions by 4% (which is their current offer), and Costa Rica says it will be carbon neutral in the next 20 years, there is no mechanism by which the U.S. can be held accountable for greater emissions reductions.  The Copenhagen Accord was not allowed to pass during the meeting in Copenhagen, due to the resistance from ALBA (Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América) and African states and small island nations on the inside of the convention and to the social movements who were organizing on the outside.

Shortly after the Copenhagen Accord was released, a team of European scientists determined that if all nations lived up to their commitments under the accord, it would only amount to – at best -  a 2% decrease in emissions.  This is ten times less than what the science says is needed in order to prevent environmental catastrophe.  On the heels of this report, a team from MIT stated that – in material terms –  this 2% decrease by 2020 would commit the world to a 3-4 degree Celsius increase in temperature, an increase which would be catastrophic.

Pachamama o Muerte!

Leaving Copenhagen, there was a huge amount of righteous anger at the behavior of the US and the global North.  The time for action should have been 20 years ago.  But even this late in the game, the rich still acted with impunity.  What now?  Now that the Copenhagen Accord had come to light, the U.S.’s intentions were clear.  The next global meeting of the UNFCCC was already scheduled for Cancun in December of 2010, and the U.S. was clearly going to try to pass a proposal similar to the Copenhagen Accord at this meeting. But how could the movement that succeeded in stopping a bad agreement in Copenhagen defeat the US proposal and move negotiations back towards the kind of transformative proposals that are needed?

Evo Morales stepped into that political space by convening the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth (CMPCC).  As Willy Meir, a Left deputy from Spain stated at the opening ceremonies of the CMPCC in Cochabamba, “This conference has been produced from the failure of the Summit in Copenhagen, whose authors, the most developed countries, have taken us into a dead-end alley.”  The plan was ambitious: organize a conference with seventeen working groups that would develop social movement proposals on the major areas of global negotiation, proposals for other areas of importance for social movements that hadn’t been on the table in the UNFCCC, and strategies and plans to impact the negotiations.  The conference proposed responding to the back-room Copenhagen Accord which had been produced by unaccountable elites with a people’s proposal, developed in broad daylight through exchange and debate between global movements and communities.

What were these proposals?  Many of the proposals related directly to international negotiations. They included points such as:

  • A 50% reduction of domestic greenhouse gas emissions by developed countries for the period 2013-2017 under the Kyoto Protocol without reliance on market mechanisms;
  • The need to begin the process of considering the proposed Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth to reestablish harmony with nature;
  • The obligation of developed countries to honor their climate debt toward developing countries and our Mother Earth;
  • The incentivizing of models of agricultural production that are environmentally sustainable and that guarantee food sovereignty and the rights of indigenous peoples and small-scale farmers;
  • The protection and recognition of the rights and needs of forced climate migrants.

Beyond the points that were specifically focused on negotiations, groups developed structural critiques of the causes of climate change. They crafted proposals and declarations that pointed the way towards the kind of broader social and economic transformations that will be necessary to adequately respond to the crisis.  This section from the final conclusions of the working group on Harmony with Nature provides a good example,

“Given that capitalism is a threat to life itself, it is necessary to forge a new system that reestablishes harmony with nature and among human beings based on the principles of: equilibrium among all and with all things, complementarity, solidarity, equity, justice, collective consciousness, and respect for diversity and spirituality.”

Or the following example from the Indigenous People’s working group, proposing

“The recovery, revalidation and strengthening of our civilizations, identities, cultures and cosmovisions based on ancient and ancestral Indigenous knowledge and wisdom for the construction of alternative ways of life to the current “development model”, as a way to confront climate change.”

The working groups were successful in crafting a shared vision, but they were not lacking in strong debates.  The conference was intended to create a big tent that would hold governments, NGO’s, and social movements, so it came as no surprise that – at times – these different groupings had different agendas and goals.  Governments that participated in Cochabamba were participants in the UNFCCC, and they had to decide what the tactics of their inside strategy would be.  Carbon markets were soundly rejected by social movements in the working groups of the CMPCC, but many governments (including the Cuban government representatives) supported the continuation of the Kyoto protocol as opposed to the Copenhagen accord.[1] To the extent that there was a debate around the use of market mechanisms, the governments were clear that they were arguing that market-based mechanisms should be seen as tactical demands. But regardless of whether this difference is strategic or tactical, it significant since the hope is to have unified demands inside and outside of the Cancun meeting in Cancun.  REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), a program which would incorporate forests into a global carbon market, was another big point of contention. Against the opposition of Bolivian government representations, the Indigenous Environmental Network from the United States organized hard and successfully to have the CMPCC oppose REDD.

In the end the Cochabamba protocol is remarkable for its unity.  The process was able to successfully weave together the best thinking and the on-the-grounds experience of social movements in areas as diverse as water, carbon markets, technology transfer and forests. The declarations stand as a movement-driven counter-proposal from the perspective of civil society in opposition to the perspectives of the elites.  As Colin Rajah of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights said “Cochabamba changed the game.  The U.S. will push what it’s going to push, but now there is a new proposal on the table.  It’s a counter-balance.”

What does this mean for us?

Looking back at the successes of Cochabamba and thinking about what they mean for climate justice work in the U.S., a few key questions and observations come to mind.  The overarching question that organizers and activists all over the world are asking is: What do we do about the U.S.? It’s not the first time that we have asked this question.  As recent history shows , the obstructionist position taken by the US government is the primary obstacle to meaningful coordinated global action on climate issues. We need to figure out: What do we need to do to either push the U.S. to move the right direction or – at the very least – to get out of the way and stop dragging the world in the wrong direction?  I would argue that there are three key tasks that we need to take up:

1. Building a Popular Politics of Climate Justice in the US

The world needs the U.S.-based movement for climate justice to reach a new stage in the development. There are signs that this is possible.  The public awareness of environmental issues has grown markedly over the past 5 years, both in social justice movements and the broader public. The tragedy of Hurricane Katrina played an important role in that process.  At the same time, this awareness is uneven. Significantly, there has been more growth among the middle class and white communities than among working people and communities of color.  This isn’t surprising, but it has meant that most environmental awareness has driven socially-conscious consumption rather than than political action.  It also has played into the hands of the Right, which has worked to make the public believe the environmentalism is a lifestyle choice made by people who have money to spend or who are recreationally green. 

The key for our work is to build and strengthen a popular politics of climate justice.  When I say “popular,” I’m arguing that our demands and our approach to climate change have to resonate with the perceived needs and demands of broad sectors of society. They need to respond to poverty.  They need to respond to racism.  They need to speak to those who are underemployed and lack affordable housing, to those for whom the current system doesn’t work and for whom it never will. They need to help move those sectors into action.

To accomplish this, our U.S.-based climate justice movement needs to follow the example of the movements that led the process in Cochabamba We need to get into fights around water, food, farming, transportation, land-use, housing, toxics, community resilience, jobs, and keeping fossil fuels in the ground.  My point here is that these fights – rooted in the dire conditions of neighborhoods, communities, and even bio-regions – can help us avoid making very technical macro-level policy fights our only site of struggle.  To the extent that we can keep these community-based issues front-and-center, we open the door to creating interesting new alliances and to making these issues tangible to folks who Al Gore isn’t going to be able to reach. 

2. Same struggle.  Same enemy.  New Vision?

What about the Left?  When I was on the plane coming back to the U.S. from Bolivia, I was imagining the next six months and making mental work plans.  When I landed, I was struck almost immediately by the developments in Arizona.  The racist political forces that birthed SB1070 are the same forces that are responsible for the economic meltdown in recent years, and they are the same forces that stand in the way of the development of a just and sustainable economy. 

For those of us on the Left, although some of the details of climate negotiations may be  different, the nature of the struggle and the enemy is the same.  But there are some differences. Specifically, Cochabamba may offer us a different vision.  When we envision a society that exists in a sustainable relationship to nature, this society has material limits.  These limits imply things about how subsystems of the economy – like the food system or the energy and transportation systems – should be run.  These limits shed some light into what a sustainable people’s economy could look like, whether it’s in the Bay Area or Phoenix or Seattle.  They help us to think about what our cities should be like.  An understanding of ecology combined with a critique of economy can help reground our Left Vision, giving us clarity in areas where we lacked it before.  The working groups in Cochabamba developed thinking along these lines that we need to take  the time to examine.  The Left in the U.S. would be strengthened by incorporating more of this type of thinking into our analysis.  We’ll have a chance to do that soon at the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit in June 2010.

3. The Road from Cochabamba to Cancún

The CMPCC laid the groundwork for global movements to make a hard stand over the next year.  The US government is pushing hard for the adoption of the Copenhagen Accords in Cancun, but organizing in opposition to those Accords gained strength and clarity in Cochabamba.  In a recent message, Via Campesina called for thousands of local actions globally, and they called for a large-scale mobilization in Cancun.  And all signs point towards these mobilizations being stronger than they were in Copenhagen, from the scale of the protests and the coordination of organizing to the clarity of our proactive demands.  These public protests and actions will provide an important opportunity for our communities to weigh in and be counted.  We need a massive converegence and mobalization on the scale of the protests against the WTO in Seattle a decade ago. 

What can we fight for and win in Cancun?  There are two key battles on different fronts. First, there is the battle for public opinion.  We need to broaden the public understanding of the breadth and relevance of these issues. We have the potential to shift the debate on domestic climate policies, like offshore oil drilling.  Second, we need to challenge the game plan of the U.S. delegation, especially with respect to the Copenhagen Accord.  We can have victories on both fronts if we can organize effectively. The U.S. Social Forum will provide an important jumping-off point to build the kind of coordination we need to make these victories possible.

Pa’lante Siempre!

Popular politics, deeper vision from the left, and an action plan…isn’t that what everyone’s looking for?   The World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth moved the climate justice movement a few steps forward in all three areas.  But we still need to figure out how it all will come together into a successful fight over the next year.  My organization, Movement Generation, believes that the next step is to clarify our shared demands and our action plan during the U.S. Social Forum through the People’s Movement Assembly process.

On the days when I feel hopeless and when the type of change we need seems impossible, I look at kids playing outside my home and at my own children. And I know that, one day, they will ask me what I did when our planet was in so much danger.  Whether we asked for it our not, this is the defining challenge of our generation.  It’s a challenge that will be decided – one way or the other – in our lifetimes. Let’s get to work and make it count.

[1]Kyoto has a carbon market and offsets through a “clean development mechanism” that has been damaging to Southern communities.

Jason Negrón-Gonzales is the former Director of Movement Generation, and a co-founder of the MG Justice & Ecology Project. He began his political work organizing as a student around Puerto Rican community issues.  As a student at UC Berkeley he was involved in building multi-racial student alliances and worked against the ending of affirmative action and the cutting back of ethnic studies.  After graduating he began working with People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER), a membership based community/labor organization in San Francisco.  In his time at POWER Jason served as Organizer, Campaign Director, and Education Director as well as in alliance building work locally and nationally.  Jason is now a Program Associate at Movement Generation and works as a trauma nurse at SF General Hospital.

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