After days of agonizing negotiations, the climate conference in Cancun ended on a somewhat hopeful note, with a last-minute agreement that largely reflects the lowered expectations that permeated the atmosphere of the conference. The provisions are more detailed than the half-baked plans outlined at the failed 2009 Copenhagen talk. But like the summit itself, the accord was shaped more by diplomatic fatigue than by a desire to act collectively to deal with climate change. That’s what happens at a conference where thousands of people who are genuinely interested in getting something done aren’t even allowed inside.
There will be much self-congratulations over the framework endorsed by most participating countries. It references worldwide targets for significant emissions cuts, but lacks a meaningful legal framework for achieving those targets or enforcing regulations on a global level. The biggest concrete achievement is the establishment of a $100 billion climate fund to be used for poorer nations seeking new technology to cope with climate-related impacts. Yet we know little about how the expenditures will be managed, the role of international financial institutions like the World Bank, or how resources will be targeted to the most vulnerable communities. The haste with which this measure was approved suggests an ongoing pattern of rich countries buying off poorer ones with the low-hanging fruit of promised foreign aid.
From a climate justice standpoint, the deal lost credibility once it was tainted with REDD, a supposed anti-deforestation initiative that indigenous communities have long decried as an assault on native people’s sovereignty and way of life. Bolivia’s Evo Morales, representing the lone country at Cancun that rejected the final document, warned the plan would blaze new trails for industry’s destruction of precious forests. The driving principle of REDD, to deter deforestation under a market scheme in which businesses buy the “right” to pollute, strikes many indigenous activists as a blank check for the commodification of critical habitats under the guise of conservation.
An official statement from Bolivia reads the Cancun deal as the codification of institutional betrayal:
A so-called victory for multilateralism is really a victory for the rich nations who bullied and cajoled other nations into accepting a deal on their terms. The richest nations offered us nothing new in terms of emission reductions or financing, and instead sought at every stage to backtrack on existing commitments, and include every loophole possible to reduce their obligation to act.
The Cancun deal appears to affirm the revelations of documents published by Wikileaks suggesting that the U.S. cynically used the promise of aid (or withdrawal of it) to wheedle support from delegates representing the Global South.
According to a study by UNFairPlay, the very people who have the most at stake in the climate debate were the least represented in Cancun. From the beginning, those participating in the negotiations were insiders and influence brokers, while the groups locked out were the impoverished nations who are marginalized ecologically and socially: islanders fearing sea level rise, farmers ravaged by floods in South Asia, refugees of wars in places like Sudan, motivated by the growing scarcity of land and water resources. The Guardian reported, “For every 100 [million] people living in Africa there are three negotiators—the equivalent figure for the EU is 6.4.” Moreover, the report suggested that delegates from small poorer nations who did attend the event may have been effectively silenced by inadequate technical support and translation services.
Activists reported throughout the conference that they were systematically blockaded and shut out of the negotiations. As with Copenhagen, the talks were not so much about what was said than what was not—the perspectives that never broke through to the inside network of negotiators. From the Global Justice Ecology Project:
Activists and representatives from civil society have been systematically excluded from the meetings and even expelled from the UNFCCC itself. When voices have been raised in Cancun, badges have been stripped. … Youth delegates were barred for spontaneously taking action against a permitting process for protests made unwieldy and inaccessible. NGO delegates were banned from the Moon Palace simply for filming these protests.
Despite the specter of “manufactured consent,” Shefali Sharma at Think Forward argues that activists were still missing critical opportunities to shift the agenda.
For civil society organizations, Cancun must be a wake up call for serious reflection. How have we been complicit in an outcome that has ultimately not respected the science of global warming?
While some may say a weak agreement is better than none at all, many are wary that Cancun has crystallized a model for closed political decision making. The inevitable result will be climate policy that enables polluters to profit from cleaning up their own mess and barely pays the interest on the climate debt held by rich industrialized nations, which continues to be financed by the devastation of historically exploited communities.
Yes, civil society has some tough questions to ask itself about how it can bring its voice into the next phase of negotiations. But it’s not just about representation. While the Cancun agreement was disturbingly vague on critical issues, the parallel agenda raised at the alternative climate summit in Cochabamba earlier this year feels similarly amorphous. At that conference, a coalition of indigenous and civil society groups denounced capitalism as the cause of the crisis, championed the concept of food sovereignty, and defended the “Rights of Mother Earth.” But their broad vision didn’t yet add up to a concrete plan for controlling carbon emissions through a fair regulatory system. So how do those ideas translate into an enforceable international treaty?
In struggling to democratize the climate negotiation process, activists should plan to come to the table with a proactive alternative to the status quo. In the coming months, the Global South will be challenged to present a long-range program to reorient the political economy of climate change. Unless they want corporations to steal the show again, the grassroots will have to prove to delegates and the public as a whole that the value of preserving the earth outweighs the profits to be gained from destroying it.