Blog | December 09, 2010

This article was originally published in the Vue Weekly on December 8, 2010

By Russell Charlton

An enormous gulf exists at the UN climate negotiations underway in Cancun. Groups representing civil society, indigenous peoples and small farmers are actively challenging the current economic model, the UN process and the market-based mechanisms that they consider false solutions to the climate crisis.

La Via Campesina, a coordinating body with member organizations from all parts of the world, has been one of those making such denouncements. They describe themselves as "the international movement of peasants, small- and medium-sized producers, landless, rural women, indigenous people, rural youth and agricultural workers."

I joined with one of the caravans that they organized in cooperation with international, national and local groups, travelling through Mexico and converging in Cancun for the Alternative Global Forum on Life and Environmental and Social Justice. Along the way we saw local struggles, ―facing the impacts of hurricanes and flooding, displacement for a super-highway and various battles against sources of severe contamination including mining, oil production, human waste and industrial agriculture. Local organizers spoke to the link between their struggles, climate change and an economic system that objectifies and exploits both people and the natural world.

"We cannot consider climate change in isolation," said Raul Perez, with the Mexico National Assembly of the Environmentally Affected. "It is a consequence of the same system that has long been exploiting our people and land."

This message of system change had widespread― support on both the caravan as well as at the Global Forum for Life and Social and Environmental Justice― with the many local, national and international organizations involved in each of those, including Canadian organizations like the Polaris Institute, the National Farmers Union and the Council of Canadians.In April of this year, 34 000 participants, including government representatives from 147 countries, met for the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth.

The conference featured a participatory process, including social movements and civil society representation. That process produced the People's Agreement on Climate Change, with its clear and repeated denouncements of capitalism.There is also the the People's Declaration, System Change—Not Climate Change, from KlimaForum09, presented at last year's UN negotiations in Copenhagen, now bearing the signatures of 500 grassroots organizations from all parts of the world.Some, like Via Campesina and the authors of the People's Agreement of Cochabamba, identify the system they are challenging as capitalism. Others do not name capitalism specifically.

The KlimaForum Declaration, for instance, never mentions capitalism, but speaks of the need to move to a democratic economy, while rejecting "green growth" and "sustainable growth" as excuses "for pursuing the same basic model of economic development that is one of the root causes of environmental destruction and the climate crisis."The gulf between these groups and most officials at the summit is enormous, however. There has been a push to include the Cochabamba Agreement in formal UN talks, yet there is little official acknowledgment of the challenge being made against the perceived necessity of economic growth.

The Government of Alberta's position is in direct conflict with those in the system-change movement. In its release, Environment Minister Rob Renner, who will be attending the talks "to represent Alberta's interests and priorities" states, "The world must find solutions to the challenge of meeting a growing global energy demand, retaining economic growth and reducing emissions."

Given that the Alberta Government's emissions targets allow for total growth in emissions until at least 2020, their priorities appear to be with the first two of the three aspects of the challenge described by Renner.

The government press release also puts forward carbon capture and storage and carbon offset markets as solutions, whereas the system-change movement has been organizing against such "purely market-oriented and technology-centred false and dangerous solutions," as the KlimaForum Declaration describes them.Both carbon markets and carbon capture and storage are listed in a Council of Canadians' document, titled "False Solutions to the Climate Crisis."

The document states, "These false solutions do not challenge 'business as usual': the presumption and promotion of the false notion that endless economic growth based on unsustainable consumption levels is possible on a finite planet. They do not account for the devastating costs to human and planetary health."Many, including Via Campesina are rejecting the UN process outright.

In speaking passionately of the need to organize and mobilize around the Cochabamba agreement, Tony Clarke, Executive Director of the Polaris Institute, said, "The process to do this is not here in Cancun at the official negotiations. That's not where it's going to happen."The discussions around REDD, the UN program for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, are indicative of the tensions between those outside and inside the negotiations.

At the Global Forum for Life and Environmental and Social Justice, Tom Goldtooth, Executive Director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, spoke on a panel titled "The Indigenous stance against market mechanisms and REDD+."He outlined a system where large corporations, responsible for massive environmental destruction and impacts on indigenous peoples, are able to buy offsets through a complicated carbon market that allows them to continue their destructive practices, often while doing little to reduce real emissions."

REDD is basically the capitalism of the forest.…They have included our forests—the sacredness of our forests—as part of a market system called carbon offsets," explained Goldtooth.  However, inside the talks the view is different and the mainstream press have often reported on REDD as a hopeful point where agreement could be achieved, with Bolivia, host to the People's Assembly on Climate Change, acting as the main voice of dissent on the inside.  At the alternative summits in Cancun there are many questions and frustrations, as well as much speculation around what happens from here given the enormous divide.

Russell Charlton is an Edmonton activist who has been involved in Amensty International, Friends of the Lubicon and currently works with Public Interest Alberta. He is travelling across Mexico with Via Campesina and witnessing the climate talks in Cancun.

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