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Survival is Non-Negotiable!

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Section: Environment Geography: Canada Canada, Poland Topics: climate change

January 19, 2009

Survival is Non-Negotiable!

Are climate talks the new World Trade Organization?

by Ben Powless

A march in Poznan, Poland, during the COP 14 meeting on Climate Change. Photo: Ben Powless

POZNAN, POLAND– The conclusion of December's climate change negotiations in Poznan, Poland, put another nail in the coffin for our collective survival. The event brought together tens of thousands of participants from environmental groups, Indigenous Peoples, other civil society groups, youth groups, and business interests, but meaningful action on climate change was railroaded by vetos enacted by a handful of nations, including Canada.

Be it stupidity or malice, coming from a country that is 60 per cent Arctic with an Inuit culture completely threatened by climate change, Canada’s position only helped to further the marginalization Indigenous groups have faced at these negotiations.

At the conference, I was part of the Indigenous Peoples’ Caucus, as a representative of the Indigenous Environmental Network. Only recently being recognized by the UN as distinct from ‘environmental groups,’ we have struggled to have our voices heard in the debates and have our rights protected. We have often had to contend with the countries who claim to represent us telling us they are selling out our future for our best interest.

Despite being the most impacted by climate change, Indigenous Peoples often have the most to share, and our effective exclusion from the talks only shows how little concern Canada has with dealing with climate change and aboriginal issues.

In fact, Canada won the daily "fossil award" for worst performance 10 times during the conference. Canada also won the overall "colossal fossil award," at the end of the conference, for winning the most fossil of the day awards.

Canada outperformed even the United States, who had little mandate to negotiate with a lame-duck President, which left the world waiting to see how things would change under Barack Obama. Canada’s performance - which included such episodes as Minister of the Environment Jim Prentice making the members of the Canadian youth delegation cry with his frivolous jokes about the environment and forcing them to take down a photo exhibition of the tar sands - should make every Canadian wonder whose interests were being represented at the conference.

To drive the point home, Canada even brought out the ‘Minister of the Tar Sands,’ Alberta’s Environment Minister, to play cheerleader for the Tar Sands.

It wasn’t the first climate conference to end without action and it likely won’t be the last. But the successor conference to the 2007 UN Climate Change Conference in Bali, Indonesia, failed to deliver even on the most modest aspirations held to it. This puts humanity on shaky ground as nations and civil society representatives proceed to the next round of negotiations in December 2009, in Copenhagen, Denmark, to come up with a plan to tackle climate change after 2012.

In 1998, countries agreed to (and failed miserably to meet) the Kyoto Protocol, which had a series of weak targets by which developed countries would reduce their emissions levels by 2012. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, comprised of over 2,000 scientists from around the world, tells us we need to cut our emissions levels from 25 to 40 per cent (from our 1990 levels, the universal baseline) by 2020 to have a chance at survival. Common sense tells us we should set our aims much higher.

Sadly, in Poznan, countries were not able to agree on any limits to the destruction we are wreaking. Survival should not be something we are negotiating, on behalf of ourselves or the planet.

The event in Poznan was held under the umbrella of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the same organization responsible for the Kyoto Protocol.

Consensus was not reached on a number of important issues, particularly on whether or not developing countries are to be expected to curb their development in the name of reducing their emissions.

Decisions at COP meetings are made by the few thousand representatives of countries around the world. Other participants were limited to protesting or watching from the sidelines. Resolutions are made by consensus, and in Poznan countries like Canada and the US once again stuck up for the oil companies and their friends, continuing their effective opposition to any positive action against climate change, and putting all our lives at risk.

A polar bear takes his last gasps on the sidewalk in Poznan, Poland. Photo: Ben Powless

At the talks, a colleague remarked that climate negotiations were increasingly assuming the same atmosphere that surrounded the World Trade Organization talks. Instead of civil society groups trying to influence specific decisions, they have become critical of the process itself, and many see the talks as doing more harm than good. While this view may not be universal, it is part of the growing consensus of a number of groups that make up the environmental justice-oriented group Climate Justice Now!

Among the prime criticisms of environmental justice campaigners over the years has been the reliance of the Kyoto Protocol on market solutions to climate change, such as selling carbon credits (essentially pollution permits) from developing countries to developed ones, in return for funding for “clean development” projects.

The problems are many, but central is the equity issue: Why should developing countries have the responsibility of cleaning up the mess that Western countries have made?

That many so-called clean development projects have been proven not to generate any environmental benefits (such as when dams were going to be built anyway, but received emissions credits for business-as-usual), have caused human rights abuses (forced evictions, for example, from such dams), and are opposed by local residents, should truly trouble us.

About a quarter of all Clean Development Mechanism projects are based on hydroelectric dams, provoking concern about displacement from many Indigenous Peoples who stand between governments, corporations, and millions of carbon-financed dollars. The basic methodology for actually verifying emissions reductions has been criticized by many groups, such as environmentalists, Indigenous groups, and even carbon traders, as being riddled with corruption, having negative impacts on local communities, being mismanaged, and in many cases, not having any verifiable reductions.

There is now a similar mechanism regarding stopping deforestation on the table, referred to as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD). It is based around giving forests a value while they are standing, so that they have worth while they are alive and not just as furniture in someone’s living room.

The REDD scheme seems innocuous enough, until you realize it shares many of the same risks as carbon trading, since most would like it to be a credit-generating scheme. In fact, REDD goes further by dealing explicitly with the natural environment in which many Indigenous and traditional peoples live.

We know some of the threats posed by a scheme such as REDD because of past experiences with biofuels, which have devastated territories in many places. If Indigenous rights and other crucial social concerns are not incorporated, REDD schemes may similarly force people out of their traditional homelands. Think of Indigenous groups being forced out of the Amazon in the name of ‘protecting’ the forests.

There was an effort led by Bolivia and a few other governments sympathetic to Indigenous concerns in Poznan(including Panama and Ecuador, with the support of some EU countries) to incorporate some of these concerns, but this initiative failed due to the opposition of countries like Canada and the US, provoking a large protest by Indigenous Peoples and supporters.

At first, Canadian representatives denied this, but later, embarrassed by international media coverage, they went on the offensive, proclaiming Indigenous rights had no part in a climate change agreement.

This does not have to be the case. In a last minute attempt to raise the stakes and bring attention to the talks, youth staged a protest in the UN on the last day, many risking their passes to raise the banner ‘Survival is Not Negotiable.’

In the run-up to the 15th COP in December in Copenhagen, it may take a regime change in Canada to allow for the world community to come up with an agreement that is just and climate-friendly.

Already, in anticipation of COP 15 failing wretchedly, civil society groups worldwide are planning massive mobilizations around the world and in Copenhagen on the occasion of the summit. It is up to all of us to force Canada and other countries to come up with a plan that will safeguard the survival of all peoples and living things, but that work needs to start now, because by the time we get to Copenhagen it may be too late.


Ben Powless is a Mohawk student at Carleton University who works with the Indigenous Environmental Network and Canadian Youth Climate Coalition on climate justice issues.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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