Copenhagen – where to now?
Copenhagen – where to now?
“Shocking but not surprising” pretty much sums up the outcome of the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Copenhagen last week. It is truly shocking that the political leaders of some 192 states were not able to reach a binding agreement on tackling one of the most urgent and significant threats to the survival of most (if not all) humans. Despite the hard work and urgings of millions of people, the world’s political leaders either couldn’t or wouldn’t reach agreement at Copenhagen. This will almost certainly delay the implementation of measures to slow emissions of greenhouse gasses and to reduce the impacts of climate change on vulnerable communities.
It is not surprising that Copenhagen failed given a negotiation process of Byzantine complexity and the fact that most negotiating teams are mandated to defend the rights of their country to continue using oil and coal to fuel economic growth unless they are paid not to. In the context of rapid climate change which is already making it more difficult for poor people to survive in many countries (particularly in Africa) negotiating for a bigger slice of the global carbon emissions budget is like fighting for a better deckchair on the Titanic. The only sensible way forward is firstly to abandoned any arrogant beliefs that our civilisations are unsinkable, secondly to focus on saving the ship not our deckchair, and thirdly to change course as rapidly as possible.
The question now of course is “What now?” Certainly a legally-binding treaty may materialise within the next year or so but if the process that led to Copenhagen is any indication, even if we get such an agreement it will be another watered-down compromise. Indeed the nature of the process makes it virtually impossible for the global community to agree on decisive, effective measures. The issues are politically unappetising – any effective agreement will require the political leaders of the historically polluting states in the global North to give large amounts of their taxpayers’ money to developing countries while developing country politicians must agree to forego the short-term benefits of following easier high-carbon routes to economic growth in order to avoid harm that will occur mainly after their terms of office. Add to this horse-trading on a wide range of issues by many different countries with their own agendas and the chances of the kind of bold, decisive decision-making that is necessary to respond adequately to this “clear and present danger” emerging becomes vanishingly small.
Despite this, I believe that the Copenhagen process will be an important milestone in the huge cultural transition which is slowly gathering momentum. Firstly it has demonstrated to people around the world who care about these issues that political leaders aren’t going to save us. Just as white South Africans had to give up the cherished notion that the even fundamental political change would have to be brought about by legislative change proceeding down the safe avenue of Parliament, so we need to recognise that the swift and fundamental change that is required to respond adequately to climate change and other “environmental” crises isn’t going to emerge from the current structures of international decision-making. That is not to say that international negotiations are irrelevant, only that they are not designed to cope with, and cannot deliver the kind of decisive leadership that the global community now require to respond effectively.
Perhaps more importantly, the Copenhagen conference and the process that led up to it has inadvertently consolidated and strengthened the global community of people and organisations who care about this issue and who are determined to do something about it. I only really realised this when I walked into the Bella Centre in Copenhagen and saw the whole world there communicating intensely with one another over cups of coffee in the communal areas or on their cell phones and laptops. Beyond the serried rows of chairs in the formal negotiation rooms intelligent committed people were meeting, swapping ideas, exchanging cards and forging cooperative bonds. And this was just the epicentre –there was a continual stream of information into and out of that Centre continually via blogs, Twitter, e-mail, large TV screens, websites, press reports and demonstrations. The swirling, unpredictable negotiations climate within the Bella Centre was constantly monitored and reported on to a vast community of activists and concerned citizens throughout Copenhagen and the world who were in turn commenting and acting to influence those involved in the negotiations.
The people I saw in Copenhagen displayed the beautiful diversity of features of the tribes of Earth but I was struck by what they had in common. An intelligent intensity of the gaze met my eyes from almost everyone, young or old. Make no mistake this is a determined group of people who intend to stop a small minority of humans from frittering away our future for short-term personal gain. They know that there are enormous forces of denial, conservatism, fear, political and economic power and greed ranged against them, but they are up for the challenge.
A force for change is building that will simply swirl around the moribund governance structures at the international, national and local levels and sweep aside those who are too slow or oppositional. The more politicians fail to provide the leadership that is required, the more spin-doctors try to bamboozle us into believing that big energy, mining and agrochemical companies are solving the problems, the more bureaucrats and legislators delay fundamental reforms, the stronger the tide gets. Every major flood, drought, fire, and hurricane recruits thousands more to the cause and we can expect many, many more recruiting events.
The coming change is not about climate change but about the fundamentals of human civilisations that generate climate change and social exclusion as a by product. I attended the Copenhagen Conference to speak at a so-called “side event” on the Rights of Mother Earth hosted by the Government of Bolivia. Bolivia’s president Evo Morales Amya (re-elected a few weeks ago by a landslide) has called for the United Nations to adopt a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth. The Bolivians, supported by at least nine other Caribbean and Latin American countries, are arguing that the reason why we have climate change and a host of other environmental and social issues is because most political systems (whether based on capitalism or socialism) are inherently destructive because they do not take account of the need to strike a balance between the interests of humans and those of other members of the Earth community. They point out that in the same way that a leaf will only flourish if it is part of a healthy plant growing in fertile, well-watered soil, so individual human wellbeing can only be sustained by building healthy communities within healthy ecological communities. This traditional wisdom is as valid today as it ever was. Human rights are meaningless and cannot be sustained if Earth has no rights. The right to life is an empty slogan without food and water, which can only be provided by Earth. In Latin America “Defend the rights of Mother Earth” is a battle cry not only for environmental protection but also for social justice and freedom from destructive cultural imperialism.
I was invited to speak as a member of the Bolivian delegation because Pablo Solon, Bolivia’s ambassador to the United Nations, wanted to make the point that the call to recognise the rights of Earth is not merely a Bolivian cultural issue but that people from very different cultures and backgrounds had also arrived at the conclusion that recognising legally-enforceable rights for the Earth community as a whole is vital to maintaining rights for any member of it. The Bolivian delegates I met impressed me with their energy and commitment to bringing about fundamental change both in their country and internationally, to achieve a socially just and ecologically sustainable society. Like the Ecuadorians they have adopted a new constitution that recognises the rights of Mother Earth (Nature) and aspire to “Living Well” – a concept that encompasses respecting the rights of Nature and distinct from the aspiration to live better than other people, which so many of us aspire to. For a South African jaded by endless debates about the extent to which “jobs and people” should be prioritised at the expense of the environment, it was particularly inspiring to meet officials of a State that understand that the mindless pursuit of GDP growth and material accumulation is a fatally-defective development model. Recognising that the community of life which sustains us has a right to integrity and health and enforcing those rights is a precondition to maintaining healthy human communities not a competing interest.
The bad news from Copenhagen is that the nation states of the world failed to agree on how to work together to address climate change. The good news is that we don’t need an international agreement to do what is needed. Nature has already set the non-negotiable limits for maintaining a climate conducive to human wellbeing and we need to reduce atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gasses as fast as possible to get back within that range. We know that to do so we must find ways of sustaining ourselves personally and as a society that contribute to the health of the Earth community as a whole instead of degrading it. The sooner and faster we do so the better. The failure of Copenhagen is a timely reminder that it would be a mistake to rely on politicians and international agreements to save us. Now is the time to put sustainability goals among your New Year’s resolutions, to contribute to building a green economy by buying green products and services and to work with other like-minded people to create the society we want to live in.
Cormac Cullinan is practises in Cape Town as an environmental lawyer. He is the author of Wild Law. A manifesto for Earth Justice and regularly teaches, writes and speaks on developing ecologically sustainable societies and organisations both in South Africa and abroad.