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Climate alarm is ringing – and until now the United Nations has failed to act

The recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the most worrisome so far. Paired with data from the 2014 National Climate Assessment, there is no question that the climate crisis is here and is accelerating at a faster pace than predicted. Its effects are widespread and dangerous, yet real solutions are being suppressed.

The climate crisis is a ticking clock that demands immediate effective action, but the United Nations Conference of Parties (COP) – the international body responsible for creating agreements on climate change – has become nothing more than a tool for multinational corporations and financiers to force a neo-liberal agenda and profit from the crisis. The false solutions being promoted displace and exploit people, destroy the environment and worsen climate change.

The climate crisis is our greatest challenge. Significant work has been done over the past decade by civil society groups around the world cooperating to resist the corrupt COP process and establish a vision for a just transition to sustainable energy systems. Now is the time for organizations throughout the United States that advocate for justice to recognize that the climate crisis affects all of us and to participate in this global movement.

Effective strategy requires knowledge of the political environment, the entities involved and an understanding of real versus false solutions. Tackling the influence of Big Industry and financiers over the United Nations is now the prime focus.

The Climate Crisis is Here

The IPCC was created in 1988 as a way for scientists from around the world to collaborate on reports that cover the environmental and economic impacts of climate change. As a large consensus-based body, the IPCC reports are considered to be generally conservative in their findings.

That is one of the reasons why the most recent IPCC report is so striking. It confirms that Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions are rising at an alarming rate. In the 25 years between 1986 and 2011, GHG emissions equaled the amount released in the previous 236 years. According to The New York Times, the IPCC states that rising GHG’s are increasing “the risk of ‘severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts’ over the coming decades.” This is strong language for the IPCC.

At the current rate of GHG emissions, processes such as the melting of Greenland’s ice sheet will begin and won’t be possible to stop. This would raise the sea level by an estimated 23 feet by the end of the century and flood many major cities around the world. Melting in the Antarctic would add to that amount of rise.

Also worrisome are the impacts that are already occurring and the lack of preparedness for the ensuing crises. Water sources are being impacted in an overall negative way by weather changes. Agricultural production of staples such as wheat and corn has decreased and temperature changes decrease food production by livestock too. Lack of access to drinking water and food insecurity will grow, especially for marginalized communities. Learn more about the IPCC reports here.

The usual framework used for policy decisions is 100 years, but that misses important short-term impacts of GHGs that are starting to be discovered. As Bruce Melton writes, for example, burning coal emits sulfates that actually reduce the impact of global warming by acting as air coolants. Melton estimates that sulfates have “masked up to 57% of warming that should have already occurred.”

The negative effect of sulfates is acid rain, but when scrubbers are added to coal plants, they reduce the emission of sulfates and their cooling effect. Replacing coal plants with methane gas plants (inaccurately called natural gas) will result in greater warming because methane has a stronger GHG effect than CO2. Melton also warns us to consider the possibility of abrupt climate change in which there can be a rapid rise in temperature over as short a time period as a decade.

The bottom line is that we are experiencing the climate crisis NOW and the climate alarm has been ringing for decades. Political leaders have wasted 15 years dealing with the crisis, so we must take urgent steps to both mitigate climate change and adapt to the expected impacts so we can meet our basic needs moving forward.

The COP Process Is Broken

Following the creation of the IPCC in 1990, the UN General Assembly created a committee for a “Framework Convention on Climate Change” (UNFCCC) to develop an international treaty that would set binding emission targets, financial mechanisms for changes and different responsibilities for different countries based on various factors such as their level of development and GHG emissions. They introduced a convention in 1992 and by 1994, 196 countries had signed the agreement. These countries were called “parties” and they became the Conference of Parties (COP) which is the decision-making body of the UNFCCC.

In 1997, the COP 3 – the third yearly meeting of the Conference of Parties – adopted the Kyoto Protocol, the first international agreement on GHG emissions, although it did not go into effect until 2005. Most countries signed onto the Kyoto Protocol, which set targeted reductions in GHGs. The United States, however, did not join and Canada dropped out in 2011 rather than face paying billions in fines because it could not meet its emission reduction requirements (think: tar sands). Despite widespread participation in the Kyoto Protocol, worldwide GHG emissions increased 40% between 1990 and 2009.

The Kyoto Protocol includes a carbon-trading scheme in which certificates can be sold if an entity (power plant or factory) emits less than it is allowed, or can be bought if its emissions are greater than are allowed. The scheme failed, in part, because of an oversupply of certificates: prices for the certificates fell and it became cheaper to use dirty energy and purchase certificates than to reduce emissions. A similar mechanism in the protocol allows polluters to build “clean energy” projects in developing countries and receive certificates that allow them to continue polluting at home.

Over its history, the COP process has failed to produce significant reductions in GHGs and instead has become increasingly dominated by corporations seeking to profit from the climate crisis. The decisions made by the COP reflect business interests rather than the needs and interests of civil society. In fact, civil society groups are being excluded more and more from the process. And major decisions are being made by private entities and dominant countries behind closed doors.

Anne Petermann and Orin Langelle of the Global Justice Ecology Project have been participating in the COP process since 2004. They work with civil society groups around the world, particularly youth and indigenous peoples, to elevate their voices. Over the past decade, Petermann and Langelle have observed the demise of COP to the point that it’s become largely irrelevant and mostly an industry trade show – or as they call it, the World Carbon Trading Organization.

The Business of Climate Change

Similar to the World Trade Organization, the COP meetings are a place where industries can force countries to accept neo-liberal agreements that create “public-private partnerships” (PPPs), publicly financed private enterprises by which corporations profit from false solutions.

In The Green Shock Doctrine, Petermann and Langelle write, “…rather than seriously responding to climate change, rich and corrupt governments are teaming up with corporations, the United Nations, World Bank, and other institutions to implement a new type of ‘disaster capitalism,’ which advances market-based climate mitigation strategies to create new business opportunities. These schemes do nothing for the climate, but rather promote and prolong the dominant development model that is unjust, immoral, genocidal, and ultimately, suicidal.”

Petermann and Langelle noted a significant change in the COP13 meetings in Bali in 2007 when Big Business entered in a significant way. The following year at the COP14 in Poland, more than 1,500 industry lobbyists participated either as observers or as part of government delegations. They were given preferential treatment over civil society observers and delegates from poorer countries whose visas were delayed. No significant action was taken except outside the COP meeting, where civil society groups from around the world created their own framework known as Climate Justice Action, to organize for a strong presence in 2009.

The COP15 meeting took place in Copenhagen. Activists organized multiple days of action and were met with pre-emptive arrests and police in riot gear. On one day of action, accredited delegates from the COP meeting planned to join the activists for a general assembly but were blocked and beaten by police. In all, there were more than 2,000 arrests. So many civil society delegates had their badges confiscated that the NGO booths in the exhibition hall were empty.

Negotiations at the COP15 became a shambles. Dominant countries strong-armed weaker countries by threatening their access to necessary funds. Edward Snowden documents revealed that the NSA spied on various countries and leaked documents to undermine proposals for enforceable emissions reductions. Further diplomatic cables leaked by Wikileaks show the United States scheming to undermine mandatory emission targets.

After U.S. negotiators created a mess in Copenhagen, President Obama came in at the last minute and pretended to be a hero “saving the conference” with a phony non-binding agreement with China, Brazil, South Africa and India, presented as a take-it-or-leave-it option. This was blocked by Venezuela and Sudan, the only two countries willing to stand against the US.

The only positive aspect of COP15 was an alternative people’s summit called Klimaforum09 which issued its own statement, A Peoples Declaration on Climate Change, outlining the causes of the climate crisis along with demands and a path for a just energy transition. It concluded with a call for a global “movement of movements” and stated, “Together, we can make global transitions to [a] sustainable future.”

The situation did not improve over succeeding COP meetings. At the COP16 in Mexico, a Green Climate Fund was established to be managed by the World Bank for private sector investments which would operate similarly to other neo-liberal World Bank projects. Youth who marched out in protest were sent away on buses from the conference area.

The COP17 in Durban, South Africa, was called the “Durban Disaster” after 20 to 30 developed countries held private talks that resulted in a dollar value being placed on carbon in soil, and required all climate-related decisions to be compliant with WTO rules. Activists again held daily protests and their own general assemblies as “Occupy COP17.”

COP18 was supposed to be held in South Korea, but was moved to the very repressive country of Qatar in an effort to prevent protests. By the time of COP19 in Poland, the whole COP process was irrelevant. Big Business held its own private parallel World Climate Summit. False solutions based on the market were promoted there, such as REDD+, which would result in exploitation by displacing people from their lands and forests, restricting their access to food and water, forcing them into slave labor and promoting violence against them including assassination of activists.

A misleading program known as “Sustainable Energy 4 All” pushed damaging and dirty biofuels, hydroelectric dams, fossil fuels, methane gas, waste incinerators and nuclear power. Read more about these false solutions in The Green Shock Doctrine.

What’s Next?

Currently, the COP process is working on a binding agreement for 2015 called the Paris Treaty. Rather than addressing the climate crisis, the treaty is expected to continue pushing inadequate, market-based solutions that further commodify nature and exploit people. Like the rigged corporate trade agreements, the TransPacific Partnership and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, the Paris Treaty will be another tool for corporate profit.

Just as we have built a movement of movements to stall the TransPacific Partnership, we must understand that the climate crisis connects all of us and work together to build a broad climate justice movement. Hundreds of organizations are making plans in New York City and across the country to coincide with the next climate change meetings at the United Nations, occurring later this month. In addition to the People’s Climate March there will be a Climate Convergence conference and various forms of direct action. These events provide opportunities to build a stronger and more effective climate justice movement.

In the next installments in this series, we will expose the failures of the U.S. government to step forward and help lead the process, describe what the “movement of movements” looks like, examine real versus false solutions to the climate crisis and present a vision of what a “climate smart” planet would look like. Stay tuned for the next article, tomorrow, covering Big Business and its corrupting grip on U.S. government climate policy.

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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

Let’s Save Each Other

Let’s Save Each Other

Illustration by Stephanie McMillan. Used with permission