It has been a month now since more than thirty thousand climate change activists descended on the small Bolivian village where I live, Tiquipaya. And a month has been time to think more about the question that has lingered with me since the “People’s Summit”: Where is the strategy?
This post, based on the latest issue of our Democracy Center newsletter, ties together some of the things I wrote about during the cumbre and some additional reflection since.
I also want to draw your attention to a very well done short film above (also here) by Avi Lewis, Hanaan Sarhan and the team at Fault Lines. It is the best reporting yet on what climate change means to Bolivia and provides a well-crafted summary of the cumbre as well.
Finally, thanks for the great interest in our report on Bolivia and its Lithium, which has been downloaded now by nearly 10,000 readers. That report is available for download here, and the page also includes a new video of some of the diverse opinions we heard during our research.
In Search of a Strategy: A Climate Summit Comes to Bolivia
The small Bolivian village where I live is back to normal now. The people-to-cow ratio has returned to where it belongs at roughly one-to-one. But last month things were very different here. More than thirty thousand climate justice activists from all over the world descended on this small pueblo, for a “People’s Summit” on climate change convened by Bolivian President Evo Morales. It was an impressive gathering, full of passion and commitment and declarations.
But what did the Bolivia summit accomplish to move us forward toward real action on the climate crisis? What new strategic course did it lay out for the climate change movement?
A Response to Copenhagen
The Bolivia conference was a response to a very different climate summit last December in Copenhagen. That one, hosted by the United Nations, brought together the presidents of more than sixty nations and high-level delegations from more than a hundred others. The result, however, was not one of hope but of warning. The world’s political leaders aren’t even close to an agreement to take serious action. Our planet and all of us on it remain on autopilot headed for a climb in atmospheric temperature that will make seas rise, glaciers melt, and hand to our children an environmental calamity. Not good news.
That failure at Copenhagen prodded many in the climate change movement to look for a different way forward. Following country negotiators from one UN summit to another, demanding action from the outside, seemed to some to have become a waste of time and resources. The person who made that point loudest was President Morales, who denounced the Copenhagen accord as, “an agreement reached between the world’s biggest polluters that is based on the exclusion of the very countries, communities and peoples who will suffer most from the consequences of climate change.” He then added, “If the leaders of countries cannot arrive in an agreement, why don’t the peoples then decide together?”
It was that pronouncement that begat the meeting last month here in Tiquipaya. The people who have been excluded on the outside of climate negotiations – both governments and citizens – came together for talks of their own.
Bolivia was an appropriate place to have such a meeting. Here climate change is not a theory or a projection about the future. It is an all-too-real problem in the present. In the Bolivian Andes, glaciers that have endured for millennia are melting in the course of decades, and melting with them is the water supply of the country’s most populous urban area, La Paz/El Alto. If climate change has a ground zero, Bolivia is it.
The Bolivian “People’s Summit” was a three-day beehive of speeches, workshops, panels, chanting, and declarations. Discussions ranged from the concrete (how to address the needs of “climate refugees”) to the ethereal (how to communicate with Mother Earth). The official People’s Agreement that came from the summit pulled no punches in its rhetoric: “Humanity confronts a great dilemma: to continue on the path of capitalism, depredation, and death, or to choose the path of harmony with nature and respect for life.”
It then laid out a set of demands aimed at the wealthy nations that have caused the climate crisis (and at the U.S. most especially). Three of these are central. One calls on developed countries to make deep cuts in their carbon emissions, not only to combat climate warming but to make “atmospheric room” for poor countries to industrialize and develop. Another calls on those countries to accept responsibility for a “climate debt” owed to the nations impacted by climate change, including the financing of adaptation projects. A third calls for the establishment of an international tribunal empowered to assign blame for climate change and enforce penalties.
On the one hand, the Bolivia summit achieved something important. It gave, for the first time, a clear voice to the people who are facing the nightmare scenarios of climate change right now and who will suffer its most brutal impacts in the future. On the other hand, however, demands and declarations mean nothing if they aren’t backed by a viable strategy to actually win them. And it is here that climate change activists have some serious work to do.
What’s the Strategy?
Most credible scientific estimates give us a decade or two at the most to take decisive action on climate change before cataclysmic impacts become inevitable. That means that the global movement to solve this crisis has no time to waste.
As I wandered from one discussion to another at the Bolivia summit I found myself thinking of a sermon delivered a half-century ago by the Rev. Martin Luther King. He warned, “The shape of the world today does not permit us the luxury of soft mindedness,” and he beckoned us as activists to have not only “tender hearts” but also “tough minds.”
In the world of political movements, having a “tough mind” is about having a serious strategy with a realistic chance of winning what you want. Dr. King, we should remember, was not only inspirational but also wickedly shrewd. What is the political strategy that can win real action on climate change? I don’t have the answer to that tough question and the climate change movement is struggling with it as well. But after more than two decades of working with activists on five continents, I think I know what questions the climate change movement needs to be asking itself in order to get to that strategy.
Whether your aim is to put up a stop sign on a street corner or to enact policies that can stop the heating of the planet, the basic questions of advocacy strategy are the same. Who do you need to move in order to get what you want? What will it take to get them to move? And how can you increase your power to make them take action?
Who do we need to move in order to get action on climate change? It is a plain fact that to achieve any of the goals declared in Bolivia last month, and any real action on climate change, we have to move policy-makers in the U.S., Europe, China, and other countries that are in the lead of heating up the atmosphere. Whether it is raising auto emission standards or appropriating public funds for adaptation projects in developing countries, that is who will need to take action, and we fool ourselves if we pretend otherwise.
What will it take to move them? First, let’s be clear about what won’t move them. Rhetoric and declarations alone won’t do it. What member of the U.S. Congress, for example, will be moved any closer to action because of the words coming out of the People’s Summit? Nor are international agreements likely to have much impact. As the author Naomi Klein pointed out at the Bolivia summit, her native Canada has been a signatory to the Kyoto Agreement since 1998 but has violated it over and over again, increasing its carbon emissions by 35%. National governments treat international climate agreements the way drivers in Bolivia and Boston treat red lights, as advisory at best.
Real action on climate change will be a country-by-country battle in which we will have to go back to the basics of dealing with politics and power. That means understanding the political calculus that drives what lawmakers do and having a plan to alter that calculus.
In other words, how do we make inaction politically painful and make real action politically viable?
That involves forming alliances that will give the demand for real change more clout. It involves using language, arguments, and stories that will broaden and deepen the movement’s appeal. It also involves figuring out what actions we will take. In some cases we will need to be more audacious and radical and in others we will need to entertain compromise.
Those are the hard but urgent challenges involved in forming political strategy. They are challenges and questions that climate activists have to dive into with all the energy and wisdom they can muster. And together with our friends in this movement, they are what will drive much of the Democracy Center’s work in the months ahead. Stay tuned.