It was a rounding error: 3, 3.5 million dollars, the amount of funding in climate aid that the United States had taken away from Bolivia, in explicit retribution for Bolivia’s filibuster at the Copenhagen Summit this past December, when along with Venezuela, the Sudan, Nicaragua and Ecuador, it effectively scuppered the Copenhagen accords.
Remember Copenhagen? The Copenhagen treaty would have locked what passed for agreed upon terms into a legally binding agreement. An agreement that wouldn’t have bound anyone to do anything at all except toss around a couple billion dollars in transfers from the developed to the underdeveloped world, a thousandth of what we spent on bank bailouts. The negotiators mumbled about a “goal” of keeping global warming below two degrees Celsius, but without enforcement mechanisms, without specifying emissions cuts, without apportioning responsibility and without adequate financing mechanisms. A vague, do-nothing treaty would have been fantastic for an American government that has categorically “reject [ed] [any] sense of guilt or culpability or reparations” for past emissions, in the words of climate envoy Todd Stern.
Now, scientists confirm the worst: “Current pledges mean a greater than 50% chance that warming will exceed 3°C by 2100.” Copenhagen wasn’t an agreement to stop climate change. It was an agreement to stop the stopping of climate change. “It is amazing how unambitious these pledges are,” Potsdam Institute researchers comment in the flagship science journal Nature. Even now, waves lap at the cities of the Maldives and the Seychelles. They will soon be submerged. Climate-related wars wrack Africa. If warming continues unimpeded, swathes of the Horn of Africa may lose 94 percent of their agricultural production. According to some estimates, Senegal will lose over 80 percent of its agricultural production, as will the Sudan.
When political pressure fails, the United States government chooses a different weapon from its arsenal. The first back-up device is economic blackmail. Stern has politely explained to The Washington Post, “the US is going to use its funds to go to countries that have indicated an interest to be part of the accord.” Lumumba Di-Aping, the courageously stubborn Sudanese negotiator whose face contorted in tears at Copenhagen as he contemplated millions of African deaths, sees this as bribery, saying, “We will see in the next few months a checkbook diplomacy,” as the US threatens cash-strapped developing countries with aid cut-offs to get them to sign the Copenhagen document.
That Washington’s policy has annoyed the global South was predictable, even in Washington. Alden Meyer, the climate change director for the Union of Concerned Scientists, commented, “To cut off adaptation aid to countries suffering the impacts of climate change that are largely the result of past emissions from the US and other industrial countries risks making them look like the bad guys in a morality play. It is not a strategy that is going to play well in the developing world.” Bolivia, under Spanish colonialism for hundreds of years, is familiar with this sort of behavior.
Bolivians don’t need to wait for a quadrennial international panel on climate change tomes to go through elephant births in United Nations verification processes to know that climate change is here right now. They can look at the mountains. They used to be topped with sparkling, white crowns, visible on Bolivian domestic flights as you descend in a fairy-tale, ice world from El Alto airport to Cochabamba. These days, the view isn’t quite so stunning, as alpine deglaciation proceeds rapidly – the Chacaltaya glacier has already evaporated, well ahead of schedule. Or they can read Bolivian papers, which tend to report news from Peru. In Peru, a tremendous chunk of ice from the Hualcan glacier tumbled into an Andean lake, causing a 75-foot tsunami. Glacial evaporation may be survivable, but for the fragile economies of the global South, there’s a limit. Beyond that limit is disaster. And the people and sometimes the leaders of the global South recognize that the current global system’s trajectory is not only heading toward the area marked “disaster,” but moving there so fast that there is but little time to throw on the brakes.
How to do so was the subject of the recently concluded Cochabamba People’s Climate Change Summit. There were 25,000 Bolivian climate activists congregated at Cochabamba, with nearly 10,000 internationals in attendance. There were round-tables devoted to exotica like the role of local agriculture in halting climate change and social reconstruction, on how to prevent trees from turning into ways for the richer nations to avoid reducing their emissions. The final declaration called for “decolonization of the atmosphere through the reduction and absorption” of past emissions from rich countries. The US may get a bit snippy about that clause, since America “categorically” rejects historical responsibility for climate change.
Clearly, Cochabamba was everything Copenhagen was not. Bolivian climate negotiator Angelica Navarro described Copenhagen like this: “I’m not a banker or an economist, but I really felt that developed countries were negotiating a trade or economic accord and those of us on the other end were negotiating an environmental accord … we were worlds apart.” She speaks truth. The developed countries first decide how much growth they want and then decide how much carbon to spew into the atmosphere. The poorer billions decide what kind of planet they wish to live on and then limit carbon emissions accordingly. There does not seem to be a way to reconcile these visions, the newest updating of the ongoing battle between what many have called the spirit of Davos and the spirit of Porto Alegre – now, Copenhagen against Cochabamba, two garden cities of the global North and global South.
Bolivian President Evo Morales, at the opening convocation, said, “Justice is only possible with solidarity, equality and respect for the rights of Mother Earth and for the atmosphere, water and the new model of development … We have two paths: either Pachamama or death. We have two paths: either capitalism dies or Mother Earth dies. Either capitalism lives or Mother Earth lives.” Pachamama is the Andean earth goddess, roughly translatable as Mother world. Morales invokes Pachamama promiscuously, aware of his indigenous social support and the need to throw them rhetorical sops. But the Bolivian economic development model is based on Andean capitalism and extractive industries. Not exactly kind to Pachamama and the reason why some indigenous groups are increasingly fed up with Morales’s schizophrenic combination of speeches suffused with spiritual ecology, and policies focused on ripping oil out of the ground.
But, maybe, while Morales recently finished hosting the Cochabamba conference, where global civil society issued a mandate for a global climate justice tribunal, raising those concerns is a little petty. It’s easy to pout about the Morales government’s extractivism, but it is the developed world that consumes the fossil fuels that the underdeveloped world extracts. It is Americans and Europeans that casually flit around in airplanes that rely on incinerating jet fuel to rotate their turbines. It is Americans that drive around in colossal automobiles to pick up packs of gum from stores a couple hundred meters away. Responsibility is here, not there. Accordingly, the conference also concluded with a working goal of attempting to amend the Kyoto Protocols to force the most developed nations to reduce their CO2 emissions by 50 percent from 1990 levels.
Is this feasible? Probably, yes. But even if it proves impossible, at least someone is trying, even if they are dreamers. At least the future of the earth is on some leaders’ agendas. At least the future of the earth is on some people’s agenda. The Cochabamba Conference, impelled by a globalized and surging social movement demanding a livable Earth, has thrown down the gauntlet. Hopefully, we will pick it up before gun turrets stud our electrified steel frontier with Mexico, to be built circa 2030 when the Mexican agricultural system collapses under heat stress.
That is the world of the future: a dead world of walls. I’m with Morales and Pachamama.