Submitted by Ife Kilimanjaro, Co-Director of East Michigan Environmental Action Council
Climate change is a geo-physical reality, the evidence of which is captured in numerous geologic formations around the world. The destabilization of natural climate and ecological systems that we are experiencing today, however, are due to unnatural forces. Specifically, climate disruptions, extreme weather events, global warming and similar events are fueled by conditions put in motion by generations of resource intensive industrial production driven by profit, organized to meet the interests of the capitalist ruling race, class, gender and culture.
Solutions to this global crisis must come from a global community concerned about current and future generations’ ability and capacity to live, work, love and create. Unfortunately governments do not agree on what to do or who should do it. Well, to clarify, there is consensus that something must be done; but some world leaders say that those who have been polluting longer have a greater responsibility and should shoulder a higher proportion of the burden to reduce emissions, mitigate impacts of climate change on hard hit nations, etc. Other world leaders, such as those from the Unites States, Europe and her other children, contend that current governments and corporations shouldn’t have to pay for the sins of their forefathers and that the playing field ought to be level. (Although we know this is not the case).
At the heart of this difference are questions of historical responsibility, differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Though I am pretty green on the UN process, it would appear that these issues were raised in the development of the Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted in December 1997. The Kyoto Protocol is an international agreement between member nations to commit to setting binding emission reduction targets. The principle of common but differentiated responsibilities reflects the recognition that countries with a longer history of industrial development are “…principally responsible for the current high levels of GHG emissions in the atmosphere as a result of more than 150 years of industrial activity…” (Quote source). The Kyoto Protocol places a heavier burden on these countries for reducing emissions now and in the future than those who have more recently begun to follow similar paths of development.
Though 35 industrialized nations ratified the Protocol, the United States was not among them. In fact, in 2001 the United States disengaged from the Protocol entirely. A shameful act indeed that not only reflects a clear alignment of U.S. politicians with the corporate polluters that fund their campaigns, but a blatant refusal to own up to the ways it has contributed to harming people/the planet and committing to doing something about it.
The lives of those being disrupted, the communities dismantled as a result of policies and practices of the United States and other industrialized nations were central to the concerns raised by participants at the social pre-COP in Venezuela, particularly in the Climate Ethics work group of which I was a participant.
Though as a whole the group agreed that the principles of historical responsibility, differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities needed to be honored and reflected in the Venezuelan social pre-COP draft document. Further, people agreed that the United States, Canada, European countries and their other children – who have been polluting the earth and air with thoughtless/careless manufacturing practices and policies – have the responsibility to play a greater role in reducing emissions and addressing the impacts of climate change than nations who have only recently begun to industrialize. There were differences, however, on how best to articulate this in a draft social pre-COP document.
Some, for example, wanted to call out the role that capitalism plays in accelerating climate destabilization through profit driven policies and practices that commodify nature and her products; that drive people off ancestral lands; that pollute the earth, air, water and people’s health; that turn people and nature into ‘things’ to be used, bought and sold, traded and enslaved. Whereas others preferred to have more sanitized language – ‘that’s not how they do things at the UN.’ The implication is that we from frontline communities in the United States are undignified, lacking in proper UN etiquette and clueless about how change really happens at the UN level.
Implications or not, several key arguments were advanced: 1) Resource intensive industrial production organized by an unfettered profit-driven capitalist economic system, whose ruling class interests are protected by domestic and international laws that are enforced by military aggression is a cause of the current climate crises we face today. 2) What the United States is engaging in globally in Indigenous and people of color communities in the Global South (environmental destruction, climate destabilizing practices, resource and land grabs, and resulting population dislocation and health impacts), it is doing domestically among Indigenous, people of color and poor white communities. 3) Among African descendants of the brutal and destructive system of enslavement and the Indigenous communities whose lives and lands were stolen, this notion of historical responsibility has been fought for under the banner of reparations for many decades, but to no avail. 4) The United States, European nations and their children have played and continue to play a large role in migrations resulting from environmental degradation, land grabs and climate change. 5) Corporations have more rights now than people and Mother Earth (they even now have religious freedom!) and such rights are protected by governments in domestic and international policies.
On many issues, there was a general consensus, such as the Rights of Mother Earth are as important as those being advanced for human populations, consumption patterns in the United States (overconsumption) and other industrialized nations contribute to climate destabilization and solutions to the climate crisis must come from the communities most impacted by it and should benefit them first. These points of alignment and more are reflected in paragraphs 14 – 19 of the Margarita Declaration on Climate Change.
A labor of love and struggle, this document in its entirety represents the contributions of social movements and civil society to the Venezuelan government’s global political agenda on climate change. Though it is unclear at this point what the final document will look like, that people from civil society were invited into this process positions Venezuela to be on a higher moral ground when at the climate change negotiating table with other heads of state. The question remains, however, what the real impact of our participation will be at the level of the United Nations. Corporations are increasingly present as active participants in UN climate negotiation spaces, while fewer representatives from civil society are permitted to enter. Further, those from civil society that are credentialed to enter are often left to sit as silent observers, unable to talk or otherwise contribute to the decisions.
There will be several opportunities in the near future to explore more deeply this shifting landscape in the UN climate change conversations. And hopefully in the midst of the expanding corporate agenda within the UN process, those who stand on the side of people, of justice, of what is good for the benefit of all (and not a few) – including Mother Earth – will take a stand, turn the tide and claim a win for people and the planet.