This month, at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Lima, Peru, one of the most important battles facing humanity is playing out. At stake: the salvation of the planet.
The U.N. members will be debating solutions to climate change, including whether the wealthiest countries will take responsibility for the ecological disaster that they created through enriching themselves from years of industrialization, and from which developing countries suffer the most. As Bolivian President Evo Morales has described, this debate, “is about whether we are going to live or we are going to die.”
The issue, here, is global warming. Researchers say that levels of carbon dioxide — the gas created by burning fossil fuels — in the atmosphere must be reduced to 350 parts per million to avoid the worst effects of climate change. But currently, the figure stands at 400 ppm, and if nothing changes, is only going to rise.
As Dr. James Hansen, former head of a NASA's Institute for Space Studies, has explained, “If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted … evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from [current levels] to at most 350 ppm.”
The effects of this high level of emissions, which has already triggered the earth to warm by one degree Celsius, are widespread and catastrophic, and have already begun. Melting icecaps, rising sea levels, extreme rains and flooding appear ever more common. Disappearing glaciers could cut off a primary source of clean water for millions of people. More droughts will make food harder to grow in many places and warmer climates could make malaria and dengue fever more prevalent. Although they were not the ones to contribute so significantly to the greenhouse gas emissions, it will be developing nations who will bear the brunt of the fallout.
UN Attempts at a Global Solution
The UN Climate Change Conference is a forum in which countries discuss and agree on solutions to the impending ecological catastrophe. With each annual edition, sparks fly as nations thrash out their positions, and this year could be no exception. The spotlight will be on two main issues: reducing emissions between now and 2020, when the current international agreement ends; and a long-term, legally binding agreement, that must be signed in 2015.
Talks seek to build on the Kyoto Protocol, signed in 1997 and officially brought into force in 2005, and subsequent rounds. Under Kyoto, developed nations were bound to reduce combined greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2 percent by 2012, compared to their 1990 levels. Under its framework, targets are set for each country depending on their size, and importantly, on their historic “climate debt.” So while hyper-developed United States were meant to lower emissions by seven percent, many developing countries are even permitted a rise.
But in 2009 at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, this whole process was severely damaged, with many pointing the finger at the United States. That conference was meant to agree climate change mitigation beyond 2012. But the Copenhagen Accord allowed countries to decide their own targets for greenhouse gas emissions reduction, on a voluntary, non-binding basis. Leading climatologist Bill McKibben wrote the accord “promises nothing, enforces nothing, accomplishes nothing.”
US Attempts to Isolate Latin American Nations Fighting For Mother Earth
Latin American countries, who have in recent years broken new ground in environmental protection, like Ecuador’s constitutional recognition of the rights of nature, led the opposition in Copenhagen. Bolivian President Evo Morales and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez were strident. “If the climate was a bank, they would have saved it already,” Chavez told the conference. Morales later called the proposal “ecocide.”
Bolivia, Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua formally rejected the proposal, while Ecuador did not formally endorse it. And so began an operation by the U.S. to isolate and bully the countries who refused to toe the line.
The Washington Post exposed a U.S. Department of State policy to give aid to countries who had agreed to the accord, and to take it away from those who had not. “There's a funding that was agreed to as part of the Copenhagen accord, and as a general matter, the U.S. is going to use its funds to go countries that have indicated an interest to be part of the accord,” the state department envoy, Todd Stern, told the Washington Post.
And the U.S. did not stop there. Whistle-blowing website Wikileaks published cables that exposed how the U.S. planned to "neutralize, co-opt or marginalize unhelpful countries including Venezuela and Bolivia". Subsequently the US cut aid to Bolivia and Ecuador, citing their opposition to the accord.
Further leaked documents, this time from Edward Snowden, unearthed a murky espionage and smear campaign, with the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) gathering 'top secret' intelligence by intercepting electronic communications from many countries in the talks.
Intercepted communications also revealed that the US was practically bribing less-developed nations to sign the accord. According to one Wiki-leaked cable, US climate change envoy Jonathan Persing was told by European Union climate action commissioner, “The Aosis (Alliance of Small Island States) countries 'could be our best allies' given their need for financing.” The Maldives, which stands to lose the most if emissions are not cut, signed up.
ALBA Resists Western pressure for Watered-Down Deal
But in spite of the underhand tactics and increasing isolation from other nations, the response of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), which includes Antigua and Barbuda, Bolivia, Cuba, Dominica, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Venezuela, was unequivocal. ALBA countries categorically rejected the “illegitimate Copenhagen Accord that allows developed countries to offer insufficient reductions in greenhouse gases based in voluntary and individual commitments, violating the environmental integrity of Mother Earth and leading us toward an increase in global temperatures of around four degrees Celsius,” the bloc said in a statement.
Their instruction was this: for the rich nations to reverse the impact they had made, they must implement carbon emissions reductions of 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. They should shoulder costs of developing countries for mitigation actions, and provide finance and technological help to help developing nations deal with the effects of climate change.
This year's G77 plus China meeting of 133 developing nations in Bolivia underlined to what extent the US plan to undermine those seeking a just climate solution is failing. Because leading the conference, as the key speaker, was none other than one of its chief opponents: Evo Morales. During the summit, Morales garnered support of the developing nations, and drafted a statement that once again, in no uncertain terms, set out its position.
Morales stressed the historical responsibility of the rich countries and the urgency by which they should take the lead in addressing climate change, and honor their commitment to the Kyoto protocol.
Then, on behalf of the Group of 77 and China, Evo Morales outlined a common position for the developing world at the UN Climate Summit in September saying “We emphasize our extreme disappointment and concern over those developed country Parties that are not Parties to the Kyoto Protocol, have withdrawn from it or that have not yet ratified the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol,”
Underlining how "climate change is one of the most serious global challenges of our times" where "developing countries are suffering the permanent hits of extreme events, eroding drastically our advances in the process of poverty eradication and sustainable development” Morales reiterated how “developed countries, given their historical responsibility, need to take the lead in addressing this challenge in accordance with the principles and provisions of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.”
It is clear that without rapid, radical action, developing countries are heading for tragedy, and the US and other Western nations too will also fall victim to the catastrophe it helped create. But the worst projected scenarios could still be avoided if a two degree temperature rise is prevented by the end of the century. The developing nations, with a key leadership role by Bolivia and Latin America’s ALBA nations, are offering hope that a just solution that can prevent the worst of this is still possible.