Activist Outrage at the UN Climate Conference

During protests against the WTO (World Trade Organization) meetings in Cancún, Mexico in September 2003, Lee Kyung Hae, a South Korean farmer and La Via Campesina member, martyred himself by plunging a knife into his heart while standing atop the barricades at Kilometer Zero. Around his neck was a sign that read, "WTO Kills Farmers."


At that time, activists around the world were rallying under the umbrella of the global justice movement. Now the umbrella is the climate justice movement. But the root cause of the problem is the same—the neoliberal oligarchy: i.e., the corporate and government leaders bent on ruling the world and running it into the ground.


In 2003, Robert Zoellick was the U.S. trade representative who tried to force unjust trade policies down the throats of so-called "developing countries" under the auspices of the WTO. Today he is the president of the World Bank and is forcing unjust and ineffective climate policies onto the developing world under the auspices of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Convention (UNFCCC)—aka the World Carbon Trade Organization, as it was called by Silvia Ribeiro of the conservationist ETC Group in an article she wrote for La Jornada, Mexico's largest leftist newspaper.


The UNFCCC 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) in Copenhagen in 2009 exposed the true nature of the UN Climate body as it amassed the forces of the Danish Police to beat down any unpermitted protests against its inaction. When Barack Obama waltzed in with his secretly negotiated Copenhagen Accord after months of UN climate negotiations, developing countries were outraged and the Accord was not adopted.


In November-December 2010 in Cancún, the UN Climate Conference (COP16) took it even further. They laid to rest any notion that the negotiations were either democratic, multilateral, or consensus-based. Countries that had opposed the Copenhagen Accord were bribed, blackmailed, or cajoled into going along with the so-called "Cancún Agreements." When Bolivia alone refused to go along with a text they saw as ineffective and anti-democratic, they were ignored and consensus was declared. Meeting over.


The UN heralded the meetings as "restoring the faith in the multilateral process" and hailed the process as "transparent and inclusive." Todd Stern, the U.S. climate negotiator, considered Cancún a victory, stating, "Ideas that were…skeletal last year and not approved, are now approved and elaborated." Many other organizations had a very different analysis of the outcomes.


While there was much ado about multilateralism being restored, in reality, final approval came from informal meetings and small group negotiations. Developing countries already being impacted by climate chaos were singled out and offered climate funding to entice them to change their positions. Global justice movement veterans charged that the process was like the worst of the WTO negotiations, where powerful countries imposed their will on the rest—tactics that led to the dramatic and powerful shutdown of WTO negotiations in Seattle in 1999.


Indigenous Environmental Network and allies protest the Canadian Tar Sands gigaproject scheme


The Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) also voiced the much more widely held opinion of the conference when they proclaimed their "outrage and disgust" at the outcomes of the meetings. IEN states, "As was exposed in the WikiLeaks climate scandal, the Cancún Agreements are not the result of an informed and open consensus process, but the consequence of an ongoing U.S. diplomatic offensive of backroom deals, arm-twisting and bribery that targeted nations in opposition to the Copenhagen Accord during the months leading up to the COP16 talks.


"We are not fooled by this diplomatic shell game…. The agreements implicitly promote carbon markets, offsets, unproven technologies and land grabs—anything but a commitment to real emissions reductions."


The WikiLeaks scandal was a major focus of media attention during the climate conference. WikiLeaks' disclosures of U.S. diplomatic cables from last February noted that the developing countries that had been most vocally opposed to the undemocratic and secretly negotiated Copenhagen Accord in 2009 were offered "financial incentives" to change their position in Cancún in 2010. This was a successful tactic, leading many countries and even small island nations whose existences were threatened, to endorse the ineffective Cancún Agreements.


Friends of the Earth Executive Director Nnimo Bassey, winner of this year's Right Livelihood Award, explains why the Cancún Agreements failed their mandate: "The agreement reached here is wholly inadequate and could lead to catastrophic climate change. The rich countries that are primarily responsible for climate change, led by the U.S., with Russia and Japan, are to blame for the lack of desperately needed greater ambition. This is a slap in the face of those who already suffer from climate change. But in the end, all of us will be affected by the lack of ambition and political will of a small group of countries."


The Bolivian government added, "While developing nations—those that face the worst consequences of climate change—pleaded for ambition, we were instead offered the 'realism' of empty gestures. Proposals by powerful countries like the U.S. were sacrosanct, while ours were disposable…. An accord where only the powerful win is not a negotiation, it is an imposition."


When the UNFCCC's negotiating text was released on November 24, five days before the official conference opening, all language from the Cochabamba People's Agreement—a document developed by 35,000 people at the historic World People's Conference on Climate Change in Cochabamba, Bolivia last April—had been removed. In its place was a warmed-over version of the widely rejected 2009 Copenhagen Accord.


In response, Bolivia asserted, "Bolivia came to Cancún with concrete proposals that we believed would bring hope for the future…solutions to the climate crisis that address its root causes. In the year since Copenhagen, they were integrated into the negotiating text of the parties, and yet the Cancún text systematically excludes these voices. Bolivia cannot be convinced to abandon its principles or those of the peoples we represent. We will continue to struggle alongside affected communities worldwide until climate justice is achieved…"


As the official UN negotiations get narrower and shallower in their response to the oncoming climate catastrophe, social movements are uniting to expose and address the root causes of the crisis. The Cancún Declaration of the South-South Summit on Climate Justice and Finance, which occurred from November 26 to December 4, stated: "Through our sharing of experience and analysis, we have seen that the current crisis is not just about global warming or the science surrounding it; it is also an economic and social crisis, a political crisis, a food and energy crisis, and an ecological crisis. In sum, a systemic crisis that the peoples of the South, more than anyone else, fully understand is about our lives and futures. It is about our food, health, lands, seeds, rights, and livelihoods. It is about further discrimination and violence against women, in particular, forced migrations, loss of sovereignty over natural resources, the impossibility to continue existing as original communities living in harmony with nature. Above all, it is about justice: climate justice, ecological justice, economic justice, gender justice, historical justice."


Sunyoung Yang from the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance expresses her outrage at REDD as she is removed for protesting

Emblematic of the unjust and heavy-handed tactics of the UN were the actions of the Mexican government in preparation for COP16. According to Soumya Doutta, of the South Asian Dialogues for Ecological Democracy, "Along with the government delegates of the world, as the rich business groups descended on Cancún, hawk-eyed for new 'green profit' killings…. Cancún and all its approaches…have been filled with armed-to-the-teeth, machine-gun-toting 'Policia Federal,' 'Policia Statal,' and 'Policia Municipal.' And the fisher-people for kilometers off the coast in these outlying areas have been told not to go out for fishing until the 'threatened' guests leave. For nearly two weeks, livelihoods of these fisher-people, of many small street vendors, have been badly affected. After all, security of the 'delegates' are paramount, the security of livelihoods for these people can jolly well wait."


Among the greatest criticisms of the official outcomes of the Cancún COP was the refusal of developed countries to accept any mandatory emissions reductions targets. The key word at Cancún was "voluntary." A major loophole in the original climate agreement, the Kyoto Protocol, was used in Cancún to give Kyoto signatories a way to shirk their legal obligations to reduce emissions. The loophole in the original 1997 climate treaty states that no country is obligated to take targets under the second phase of Kyoto—which begins in 2012. How Kyoto would move forward—or not—was a central focus of much of the Cancún talks.


While the 1997 targets of the Kyoto Protocol (emissions reductions of 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2012) were already scientifically inadequate to make a difference on climate change, even they have not been met by the developed countries that signed the legally binding agreement. Now, however, countries like Canada and the U.S., that have seen their emissions steadily climb since 1997, refuse to make any agreement that is not wholly voluntary in its compliance. This has outraged many developing nations since it ensures there will be no real or effective action to halt the climate crisis.


Patrick Bond, of Climate Justice Now! South Africa, explains what the Cancún Agreements really mean, "Most specialists agree that even if the unambitious Copenhagen and Cancún promises are kept (a big if), the result will be a cataclysmic 4-5°C rise in temperature over this century, and if they are not, 7°C is likely. Even with a rise of 2°C, scientists generally agree, small islands will sink, Andean and Himalayan glaciers will melt, coastal areas such as much of Bangladesh and many port cities will drown, and Africa will dry out—or in some places flood—so much that nine of ten peasants will not survive."


The REDD Controversy


One of the biggest items on the "solutions" table was REDD, the highly controversial UN scheme to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation. While supposedly created to help stop climate change, Chris Lang, founder of the watchdog NGO blog REDD-Monitor, explained why REDD is bound to fail: "Protecting intact natural forest and restoring degraded natural forest is not a 'core objective' of the REDD deal agreed in Cancún. We still don't have a sensible definition of forests that would exclude industrial tree plantations, to give the most obvious example of how protecting intact natural forest isn't in there—also 'sustainable management of forests' is in there, which translates as logging."


He adds, "The rights and interests of indigenous peoples and forest communities are not protected in the Cancún REDD deal…with a note that 'safeguards' should be 'promoted and supported.' That could mean anything governments want it to mean." Ricardo Navarro of Friends of the Earth El Salvador commented: "In regards to safeguards, what would you say if Pinochet said he would give safeguards for human rights. Who's going to believe him, by god? It's a bank for Christ's sake, why would we expect a bank to promote human rights?" (The World Bank is one of the entities overseeing REDD.)


Likewise, Global Forest Coalition's report "Getting to the Roots," which analyzes the underlying causes of deforestation through a global series of workshops, insists that deforestation will not be stopped until the system driving it is changed. The conclusions of the report state, "Neoliberal economic policies were identified as an underlying cause by several workshops, not least because they themselves are at the heart of many of the other drivers and underlying causes.… It is most unlikely, for example, that climate change can be halted or demand for wood and land can be reduced without a fundamental review of neoliberal economic policies and trade regimes.


"Likewise, it is the neoliberal vision of many international financial institutions that causes them to invest significantly more money in forest-destroying industries than in forest conservation (and to justify doing both at the same time). In the end, forest loss will not be halted if we do not achieve a profound change in the system itself, which continues to promote unlimited growth on a limited planet."


While fundamentally flawed, REDD continues to plow ahead. Prior to Cancún, the Mexican government was determined that, if nothing else, there would be a REDD deal. As Bond points out, this is because "REDD is one of several blackmail tactics from the North by which small sums are paid for projects such as tree planting or forest conservation management. Then the Northern corporations which buy the emissions credits can continue business-as-usual without making the major changes needed to solve the crisis."


Silencing Civil Society


And just as social movements, indigenous peoples' organizations, and non-governmental organizations (NGO) have been developing a deeper and more pointed critique of the root causes of climate change and the false solutions being put forward, the UN has been systematically shutting them out of the debate. This "silencing of civil society" was denounced in Cancún by numerous organizations through both action and word.


At the interim UN climate meeting in Bonn, Germany last May, the UNFCCC had a special meeting to discuss the participation of NGOs, social movements, and indigenous peoples' organizations in the climate COPs. When Friends of the Earth prepared an intervention for this meeting to emphasize the importance of this participation to the UN Climate Conferences, they were prohibited from reading it.


On the "1,000 Cancúns" day of action called for by the global peasant's movement La Via Campesina, an estimated 3,000-5,000 people marched in Cancún against market-based solutions to climate change, such as REDD.


From the Hindu, India's national newspaper: "Social movements and civil society representatives, together with Bolivian Ambassador Pablo Solón and Chief Paraguayan Adviser Miguel Lovera, joined the small farmers, indigenous people, women, environmental groups, and other activists who marched for hours in the blazing sun. The march ended in a meeting of sorts. The Mexican authorities had lined up large numbers of federal policemen along the way to Moon Palace."


Just before the march started, there was a press conference hosted by Global Justice Ecology Project and organized by La Via Campesina and Indigenous Environmental Network. The speakers condemned the "false solutions and backroom deals" in the negotiations and called for worldwide actions for climate justice solutions that are based on traditional knowledge, community-based practices, and human rights. The press conference ended with Luis Henrique Moura of MST leading the group in the chant: "Globalize the struggle, globalize hope."


"We have called for 1,000 Cancúns around the world today," said Josie Riffaud of La Via Campesina later at the march. "The first of these took place this morning inside the Moon Palace." The press conference turned into one of the 1,000 Cancúns protests when youth delegates from Grassroots Global Justice Alliance led a march out of the building in protest of the silencing of peoples' voices in Cancún. Outside of the building, Pablo Solón joined the group on the stairs to deliver a speech, causing a media stampede. He was followed by Indigenous Environmental Network's Tom Goldtooth, who gave a second impassioned speech to the media.


The three youth leaders were hustled onto a waiting bus by UN security and deported from the UN grounds. Fifteen people accused of participating in the protest found themselves barred from entering the UN meeting the next day. Among them was Goldtooth. Only through diplomatic pressure was he allowed to return to the talks. Almost no one else was allowed to return, including several observers accredited by Global Justice Ecology Project. One of these was Diana Pei Wu of Grassroots Solutions to Climate Change North America who was banned from the grounds for live-streaming the press conference and protest web.


A final day protest against the silencing of civil society voices at COP 16


In response, the Global Justice Ecology Project organized an unpermitted protest. On the last day, a dozen activists staged an action at the Moon Palace in Cancún to protest the silencing of civil society voices. Wearing signs saying "Global South," "Women," "Indigenous," "Youth," "No REDD," and "Cochabamba," most of the group had their mouths taped over with signs reading "UNFCCC." All locked arms in front of the escalators leading to the closed chambers where high-level negotiations were taking place. Representatives from Global Justice Ecology Project, Biofuelwatch, Global Forest Coalition, and Focus on the Global South shouted, "The UN is silencing dissent."


"We took this action because the voices of indigenous peoples, of women, of small island countries, of the global south, must be heard," they told the police, media, and a crowd of onlookers and supporters. Nicola Bullard of Focus on the Global South and Climate Justice Now!, who was standing by, added, "What we see here is a group of people representing the voices that are silenced in the UN process. In the past couple of weeks we've seen the exclusion of countries of the global south, and their proposals ignored. We've seen activists and representatives from civil society excluded from the meetings and actually kicked out of the UNFCCC itself. This is a symbolic action to show the delegates here that we think this process is exclusionary, that there are voices that must be heard, that there are perspectives and ideas and demands that must be included in the debates being held in this building today."


Later in the day, a permitted youth action turned into chaos when their "permit time expired" and they were hauled onto a waiting bus. A Reuters photographer was grabbed by UN Security who confiscated his camera, dragged him onto a bus, and beat him. This led to a near media riot as other journalists and photographers pounded on the sides of the bus and blockaded it from leaving.


These events carried forward the violence and repression of the Copenhagen Climate Conference, where Climate Justice Action organizers and others who participated in the Reclaim Power action were beaten, arrested, and charged under Danish terrorism laws. Nearly a year after Copenhagen and just before the Cancun talks, on November 25, 2010 in Denmark, Stine Gry Jonassen and Tannie Nyboe, two of the main Danish spokespeople and organizers for Climate Justice Action, were sentenced to four months of probation for violating Denmark's anti-terrorism laws.


Next year the climate COP will be held in Durban, South Africa and the UNFCCC will face the people's movement that, against all odds, brought down apartheid.


Anne Petermann is the executive director of Global Justice Ecology Project (GJEP) and North American Focal Point for Global Forest Coalition. Orin Langelle is the co-director and strategist for GJEP and a professional photographer. All photos are by Orin Langelle/GJEP-GFC.