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Getting Action at Rio+20: Asking Hard Questions in the Marvelous City

We are very happy to repost an excerpt here from a blog by Kylie, a Democracy Center associate who was at the Rio summit in June and wrote this in response. The piece was first published by mutiny zine and we encourage you to read it in full (with references) on their site.

Of countersummits and COPs

We’ve known for a while the limits of what Tadzio Müller called “countersummits-r-us.” The brightest sparks in environmental justice organizing have long said that the UN negotiations are a dead end – as early as 2009 climate justice activists were urging each other not to pin their hopes on a good deal. After Copenhagen, Rising Tide stopped a coal train in Australia, declaring that after the world’s governments had failed, “now it’s up to us.”

And yet we keep devoting time and energy to the UN process. It seems as long as the world’s decision-makers keep gathering, we will keep stalking them. This is to a certain extent inevitable, and necessary. Playing a defensive or blocking role in negotiations remains important, if we are not to see new swathes of resources handed over to privatisation, or (in the case of the Australian government’s policy agenda) large sums of foreign aid money handed over to mining companies. But we need to make sure it’s not taking up so much of our time, resources and energy that we can’t do other work.

If we accept that the countersummits will continue, let’s get the most we possibly can out of them. Even when we’re shunted far away from official spaces, we can still do effective actions. We saw this in Rio, when 3000 people turned up to Vale’s HQ in downtown Rio, listened to spokespeople of communities affected by the company, then projected a target onto the building and left it covered with blood-coloured paint.

And beyond the summit spectacle? Certainly, we can educate each other and reinforce movement ties through actions and workshops “for us, by us” (to borrow a phrase.) But despite a significant degree of randomness at these gatherings – who has funding to travel, who self-selects – they are still an opportunity to strategise internationally. People used this opportunity in Rio, but perhaps not as much as we could have. We should take every opportunity to figure out the nuts and bolts of how we get strong enough to win against fossil fuel profiteers – what messages, what targets, what timelines. And maybe, in the end, less summit-hopping and more door-knocking where we live and work.

The front line is the fenceline: where we’re already winning

This last point brings us to the good news: that struggles under the umbrellla of the ‘global climate movement’ are actually winning, on several fronts. But they’re not always being won as struggles primarily about climate change. In the US, anti-coal activism has brought city-based allies to work alongside communities living in the shadow of mountaintop removal. “Fracking” has become a household word, not because of its climate impacts, but because people are speaking out about their drinking water catching on fire. Communities in California and Chiapas are campaigning against climate legislation that would allow oil companies to buy offsets from Mexican forests, instead of cleaning up the Californian air they are polluting. In Bolivia, indigenous groups have forced the government into a bitter battle over a proposed highway through the middle of a rainforest – and while they have mobilized support from climate activists and others in the cities, they have framed the issue around their right to decide what happens on their land. In Australia, for all the foreboding that leftists may feel about such an alliance, a coalition of farmers and environmentalists is proving to be a formidable enemy for the gas industry. In the UK, climate justice activists are organizing around “fuel poverty”- the inability of people to heat their homes.

All of these struggles are anchored in organizing where people work and live their lives. For those in the climate movement afraid of giving up momentum and power of the larger climate change frame: it doesn’t have to be an either/or. Making the case to nonprofit funders last year, Sarah Hansen argued “[i]t’s not merely that grassroots organizing wins change at the local level but, in case after case, builds the political pressure and climate for national change as well.” Holly Creenaune has argued convincingly that we can support and escalate frontline struggles against fossil fuels as well as strengthening community organizing on climate change in Australia.

We can keep using the climate change frame when it works. We can keep going to summits when it works. But we should make sure that we don’t do either of those things at the expense of building power on the front lines. Because it’s there, ultimately, and not at the negotiating tables of the UN, that the larger struggle is going to be won.

This is just an excerpt – read the complete article at mutinyzine.blog.com

 

Rio+20 and Green Economics

Follow our Reporting from this Week’s UN Conference in Rio!

Dear Friends, 

This week the Democracy Center team, myself included, is in Rio de Janeiro for the United Nations Global Conference on Sustainable Development. Tens of thousands of heads of state, government leaders, UN officials and environmental and social justice activists will gather on what is also the 20th anniversary of the first Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. 

For those interested, I will be providing news and commentary on Twitter throughout the week at: @jimshultz (retweeted by @DemocracyCenter), and we will be posting those and other reports on the Democracy Center Facebook page here. So please visit us in one place or the other. One of the most important debates in Rio will be about the future and shape of ‘Green Economic’ policies around the world. You can read my article on that on AlterNet and also below.  Finally, for any of our readers also headed to Rio this week, here are two events where I will be speaking. 

Dangerous Weapons: How Global Investment Rules Threaten the Environment and Social Justice
Monday, June 18, Hrs. 11:30-13:30 – Tenda 21 / Salón: Margarida Alves
Glaciers and Climate Change
Thursday, June 21, Hrs. 11:30-13:30 – Tenda 29 / Salon: Pe. Josimo Tavares

Thank you everyone for your interest! 

Jim Shultz

 

Will ‘Green Economics’ Help Save the Environment or Just Sell it Off to Corporations?

By Jim Shultz, AlterNet
Posted on June 15, 2012, Printed on June 15, 2012

 

In May at the headquarters of the United National Development Program in New York, I asked a dozen UNDP staff members to each define the term ‘green economics.’ From one end of the conference table to the other their answers were largely the same – green economics is about fusing environmental values into the marketplace so that economic growth does not have to come at the expense of environmental destruction.

At a meeting here this month in Bolivia, Latin American organizations preparing for this week’s UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, described ‘green economics’ very differently – “turning nature into a commodity…a huge false solution…green structural adjustment…a new plan to deliver the environment over to corporate control…”

As presidents, UN officials, local government leaders, and thousands of environmental and social movement leaders from across the world all head to Rio, they are also headed into a battle over what ‘green economics’ really means. At the heart of that debate is a basic question: Is the goal is to harness economic forces in service to the environment or to harness the environment in service to powerful economic interests?

The classic ‘green’ approach to economic policies aims at building environmental costs into the price of products and services, through taxes and regulation. As conservative icon Milton Friedman argued, accurate pricing is essential in a free marketplace because it allows consumers to make real comparisons about the actual costs of rival goods, and even Friedman conceded that environmental costs ought to be factored into that equation. If coal energy prices, for example, included coal’s long-term environmental costs we would make very different choices about its use. The environmentalist approach to green economics also includes public support for industries and technologies that move us in a more ecologically sustainable direction, such as solar power.

Corporations don’t care much for building environmental costs into their production and spend millions of dollars in political efforts aimed at blocking such policies. Political conservatives don’t care much for public subsidies for green industries and jobs, something GOP candidate Mitt Romney decries as government sticking its nose into venture capitalism.

However, there is a new definition of ‘green economics’ in circulation that many corporations and their political boosters like a good deal. It comes under the title ‘ecosystem services’.

The logic goes like this: A rainforest in Bolivia, for example, not only serves the people who make their lives in it, but also provides environmental benefits to the world at large by sucking climate-altering carbon out of the atmosphere. That value can be calculated in economic terms and be used as the basis for payments to governments and the peoples living in those forests as incentives for their preservation.

This idea of ‘payments to preserve’ may sound solid in theory, but it is the reality on the ground that has many in Latin America up in arms. The current financing mechanism of choice is carbon offset credits, essentially permission slips purchased by corporations and governments to allow continued dumping of carbon into the stressed atmosphere. As Latin American environmental and indigenous leaders point out, carbon offsets are a recipe to keep the planet on the same trajectory toward steep climate change, with people in impoverished countries, like Bolivia, paying its harshest price.

Environmental and indigenous groups also warn that when their water and lands become just another global commodity up for trade, the loss of control is soon to follow. Looking at the big global plans ahead for their natural resources, what many here see is a 21st century version of the resource theft that began when the Spanish first began mining silver out of the mountains of Potosí five hundred years ago.

As the Bolivian Climate Change Platform writes, “The proposals of the ‘Green Economy’ expressed [in the draft Rio agreement] are not an answer to the current environmental and climate crisis. Putting a price on nature is not the solution and will only benefit big capital.”

It is a fact that the climate and environmental crisis that we are handing to our children requires deep and rapid changes in the actions of billions of people. One of the few tools we have capable of provoking such change is using public policy to alter markets and the mass incentives they create.

This debate over how environmental demands combine with economic interests is crucial. We can neither afford to abandon the idea of green economic policies, nor can we allow that idea to be morphed into something else entirely. The stakes are too high. What we need most in Rio is not a superficial battle over a phrase, but a deep discussion about what it must mean.

 

Jim Shultz is the executive director of the Democracy Center, based in Cochabamba, Bolivia and San Francisco. He has worked with both Latin American social movements as well as the UN in their preparations for the Rio conference. Jim will be Tweeting from Rio all week at: @jimshultz.

 

Follow our Reporting from this Week’s UN Conference in Rio!

Dear Friends,

This week the Democracy Center team, myself included, will be in Rio de Janeiro for the United Nations Global Conference on Sustainable Development. Tens of thousands of heads of state, government leaders, UN officials and environmental and social justice activists will gather on what is also the 20th anniversary of the first Earth Summit in Rio in 1992.

For those interested, I will be providing news and commentary on Twitter throughout the week at: @jimshultz and we will be posting those and other reports on the Democracy Center Facebook page. So please visit us in one place or the other, and join in the conversation. One of the most important debates in Rio will be about the future and shape of ‘Green Economic’ policies around the world. You can read my article on that on AlterNet here: Will ‘Green Economics’ Help Save the Environment or Just Sell it Off to Corporations?

Finally, for any of our readers also headed to Rio this week, below are two events where I will be speaking.

Thank you everyone for your interest,

Jim Shultz
The Democracy Center

Democracy Center Co-Sponsored Events at the Rio Summit
Dangerous Weapons: How Global Investment Rules
Threaten the Environment and Social Justice
Monday, June 18, Hrs. 11:30-13:30
Tenda 21 / Salón: Margarida Alves

Glaciers and Climate Change
Thursday, June 21, Hrs. 11:30-13:30
Tenda 29/Salon: Pe. Josimo Tavares