voices from copenhagen

The International Conference on Climate Change concluded on the 19th of December. UN Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki-Moon offers a more compromising position on the meeting’s outcome:

We have sealed the deal. This accord cannot be everything that everyone hoped for, but it is an essential beginning.

Finally, a rather harrowing defamation from Lumumba Di-Aping, chairman of the G77 group of 130 poor countries:

[This] is asking Africa to sign a suicide pact, an incineration pact in order to maintain the economic dependence of a few countries. It’s a solution based on values that funnelled six million people in Europe into furnaces. (Guardian.co.uk)

Wow — the man evokes a Holocaust analogy. That’s quite inflammatory, but with 300,000 people dying every year from climate change, and considering the wealthy nations’ responsibility for causing global warming, is Di-Aping so far off? Di-Aping’s main complaints are that the so-called “Copenhagen Accord”, not to mention much of the negotiations themselves, largely omits the voices of the world’s poorest countries (grouped together in what’s known as the Global South).

Historical Context

What’s the take-home message here? Well, clearly this man was infuriated with the lack of progress at Copenhagen, and rightly so. He’s an African himself, intimately aware of long-standing power inequities between the rich, industrialized, mostly Western nations of the global north, and the poor, post-colonial, so-called “developing” nations of the global south. As an African, he understands that the Global North accrued the vast majority of its wealth at the expense of the South, via such oppressive systems as slavery, racism, and colonialism. (Why is Africa such a mess? Why has it taken so long for South America to provide basic necessities for its people? Why is India still gravely impoverished? Simple: the peoples of these continents have been subject to the global capitalist model – a model that benefits the few at the expense of the many. South American and African countries have had to weather the violent economic conditions set up by wealthy countries via structural adjustment programs; agricultural subsidies in the West have for decades forced small-farmers everywhere into poverty, and even suicide.)

At the same time the West has wrested the natural resources of the Rest, white countries have been spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at an ever-accelerating rate. The United States, for example, is largely responsible for global warming – yet still its leaders, including Obama, are reticent to pay the country’s “climate debt.” Indeed, wealthy nations owe a massive debt to poor countries. Centuries of oppression, colonialism, and exploitation take form in climate change, as the poorest nations are most vulnerable to the phenomenon, and, of course, least capable to adapt to changes. The West’s hubris has never been stronger, it seems. And no surprise, for the governments of Europe and North America spawned the capitalist system, along with its oligarchs: the multinational corporations (MNCs), the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Wall Street, etc.

Danish Dunces?

Another interesting tidbit from the conference: behold, the slogan of the G77 nations:

One Africa, one degree. Two degrees is suicide.

What do they mean by degrees? The G77 countries created this slogan after a leaked document exposed secret meetings between Danish officials and other rich countries – two others, in fact: the United States and the UK. According to the Guardian, this text is

…a very dangerous document for developing countries. It is a fundamental reworking of the UN balance of obligations. It is to be superimposed without discussion on the talks.

The Bottom Line

It seems as if those who represent a majority of the world’s population – leaders of peasant movements, landless people’s movements, and others in the Global South – stand irked at the Copenhagen Accord. The agreement is not only legally vacuous, it doesn’t even acknowledge the voices of the majority of humanity.

Wait, what about the argument that this was an important first step? If the leaders of industrialized nations were seriously committed to the welfare of all, they would have (1) admitted that a 2 deg. Celsius increase in global temperatures will wreak havoc on Africa, and (2) listened with an open mind to the sentiments of poor countries.

What’s in store this year?

What passed in December was the Cop15 United Nations Climate Change Conference. Another UN Conference, the Cop16, is set to be held in Mexico City during Fall of this year. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading.


2 responses to “voices from copenhagen

  1. Great post! I really enjoyed your thoughts and writing style, but disagree with you on a couple of points.

    First, my friends who were at COP15 have told me that the US delegation was *adamant* that there would be no “climate debt” mentioned in its negotiating terms. This was something my friends took issue with in Wall Street Journal editorializing (we tried to get the Daily Show to comment on the inaccurate statements) and you make the same mistake in your argument here. The US is *not* considering climate debt reparations.

    It’s not ‘reticence’, it’s complete refusal. And frankly, it’s a very good thing that the Obama Administration is skipping “debt” payments in the international negotiations. The US never ratified Kyoto because it could not get the bill past Congress. The rhetoric of “climate debt” conjures up all sorts of politically charged associations (i.e. race reparations) that would complicate the ratification of a climate treaty in the US. Our fundamental goal here is passing a treaty to address climate change, and getting it ratified by the US. It would be unpolitic to add more divisive ideas to an already challenging treaty.

    Second, I had a really heated conversation with a lady at my school about whether climate change qualifies as a genocide. I was of the opinion that it killed enough people, differentially, that it would qualify as mass murder targeted at certain ethnic groups. She felt that use of the word ‘genocide’ to describe ‘something awful that just happens from everyday behavior’ watered down the word and made it harder to call out truly genocidal actions for intervention. She may have had a point. The delegate comparing climate change to the Holocaust was from Sudan. While I agree that climate change is bloody business, I suspect there may have been ulterior motives related to Darfur in the comparison.

    Third, I don’t know that it’s reasonable to expect national representatives to be interested in “the welfare of all”. Their task is to represent their nation’s interests. It so happens with climate change that all nations are affected, albeit not all to the same degree, and so there is a common motivation to implement a global climate policy response, and therefore all representatives will agree that something needs to be done. However, countries such as China, India and the United States have incentives for a more gradual transition away from fossil fuels than is needed by African and Pacific Island nations.

    Fourth, I was a little disappointed with how much blame you put on the Imperial West for the failures of Copenhagen. China was the country that really scuttled the talks. With a population of more than a billion, nukes, and close to 40% of the US debt, there isn’t much that China can’t make happen (or not happen). What does China have to gain from an international agreement that curtails its use of coal? I think we need to find much more powerful ways to sell climate change to that national interest if we want to see positive global change. Deflecting attention from China’s power over the negotiating table (and historic disregard for human life, human rights, the environment or other nations) helps reinforce a very dangerous problem for COP16. We should be shaming China for its role in the Copenhagen collapse, and looking for ways to motivate China to consider climate change a top national concern.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Matt. I’ll address a few of your points here.

    Nowhere do I mention that the U.S. had been considering paying any kind of climate debt. I was aware that our country wouldn’t consider paying reparations. I’m frankly a bit surprised at discovering your stance. Clearly, you feel that the United States and the West need not realize maximum responsibility for their offenses. You feel that 100% justice is unnecessary, as evidenced by your statements on climate debt.

    Incorporating into the treaty the full spectrum of historical injustices is exactly what MUST happen for full justice to be achieved, and for the demands of Southern leaders to be met. Anything less qualifies as patent disregard for the livelihoods of the world’s majority who are poor and often helpless against the ravages of climate change (and globalization, for that matter).

    What about Clinton’s proposal to get the $100 billion adaptation fund going by 2020? Do you not think that’s too late a date? Do you think the States should do more than just “contribute” to this fund? Naomi Klein, Vandana Shiva, George Monbiot and other progressives would argue that the fund must be created *yesterday.* Already millions are being displaced by events likely caused by climate change.

    Next, understand that this conference did what no other in history has done: it brought to bear the massive, long-standing inequities caused largely by colonialism and exacerbated by capitalism. You say our fundamental goal is to pass a treaty to address climate change adequately, but you seem to evade the reality that capitalism and modernity – based on the Eurocentric value of individualism and Judeo-Christian dominance over nature – are largely to blame for the catapulting of material wealth from poor countries to rich ones. Our fundamental goal *cannot* simply be to ratify a decent international treaty; rather, we must address the very socio-economic structure of global society because it itself is flawed.

    It would not be unpolitical to add more “divisive” issues into this treaty. Your use of that word attests to your outlook on the situation – a highly educated college student from the United States. But how would Vandana Shiva or Walton Bello respond to your argument? They would likely accuse you of not seeing the bigger picture, which is one of continued structural inequality (neoliberal capitalism), racism, and exploitation of northern countries against southern.

    I would say, Matt, to vet your own opinions on this matter for Eurocentrism, and secondly, to read a bit more about what leaders from so-called “developing” countries are saying about the treaty. It may be worth it, as it’s easy to get caught up in the discourse from the U.S.’s / anglophonic world’s perspective.

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