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A Climate Change Summit Comes to Bolivia

Last December, leaders and negotiators from more than a hundred countries went to Copenhagen for a global summit that was supposed to produce a set of actions to aggressively tackle the crisis of climate change. The summit failed. No binding agreement was forged and a global response to the crisis was set adrift once more.

This coming week here in Bolivia, a very different sort of global climate summit will be convened. This one will be a “People’s Summit”, drawing what is expected to be more than 7,000 climate justice activists from at least 100 countries, along with four heads of state, and a handful of high profile celebrities.

The People’s Summit called by Bolivian President Evo Morales is actually going to be held here in Tiquipaya, the tiny village of cows and corn where my family and I live. I’ll have the good fortune to walk or ride my bike to the meeting. City leaders have been doing there best to spruce things up. An alcohol ban is supposedly in place during the time of the meeting, which will certainly have no impact whatsoever on drinking here. A local taxi driver told me last night that he and the other drivers will all be wearing neckties next week. That will be a big change for sure (and a goofy one).

Here is a preview of what is to come, and of how the Democracy Center and I will be providing live coverage here on the Blog.

Hot Air or a Strategic Plan?

When I mentioned the coming of the summit to my older brother in Southern California he replied, “Great, more hot air to make things worse.” He is not without reason in his skepticism. Any meeting of this size that brings together people who basically have the same perspective is likely to be full of self-righteous noise. That’s true if it is one of the recent giant right-wing gatherings in the U.S. (“Drill baby drill, you betcha!”) or a group of climate activists sitting down in rural Bolivia.

But given the failure of the world’s governments to take aggressive action against a crisis that is already real and shoving us toward events far worse, it is essential for climate activists to get together in a forum that is not about pushing at authorities in the room next door but getting a whole lot more strategic in its actions and plans. There is not more time to waste time on actions and strategies that take us nowhere other than making us feel like we are doing something.

The bottom line on climate change is that the people of the planet need to move quickly in three directions at once:

First, we need to take action to reduce the carbon emissions that are trapping the sun’s heat into the atmosphere and raising the Earth’s temperature. We are already going to have a hell of a time dealing with emissions that are there now following a century of oblivious industrialization. The more we keep adding the worse things will get, much worse.

Second, we need to start on adaptation projects now. No matter how aggressively we address future carbon emissions the fact is that climate change has already begun. Here in Bolivia glaciers that have existed for thousands of years are already melting with huge effects on the people who live here (see our video). In a few years the water supply for Bolivia’s largest urban area, La Paz/ El Alto, will be severely diminished. We need to deal with these impacts, worldwide, now.

Third, global policies on climate change need to address the stunning inequalities involved. The fact is that it is the wealthy nations of the world that have created this crisis and it the poorest countries that will suffer the soonest and the most. There has to be a viable and real system under which wealthy nations address the damage they have done and finance the changes that need to be made.

How will this summit, and the climate justice movement in general, address these three key challenges?

It reminds me of a story, the one about the three blind men who run into an elephant. One of them grabs the leg and declares, “It is like a huge tree!” Another grabs its tail and yells back, “No, it is like a snake!” The third grabs the elephant’s ear and announces to the others, “No, it is like a giant leaf!” The strategies we need to employ to combat climate change are not one thing but several. It won’t do the movement, or the planet, any good to waste time arguing which of them are the true path to change. They all are:

1. Public Education and Consciousness Raising: Al Gore aside, there is still a lot of education that needs to be done not only about the scientific proof of climate change, but about the actions we must all take to make a difference.

2. Policy Change: It is a fact that if you want to change the behavior of masses of people quickly (which is what we must do on climate change) then the most certain way to do that is policy change. If carbon taxes raise the cost of gasoline that will affect the car-driving choices people make more certainly than anything else we can do, for example. But policy change inherently pulls us into a world where compromises get made and compromise is something that some movement activists can’t tolerate at all.

3. New Technologies: While it is certainly true that technology has played a leading role in getting the world into this mess, it is also true that new technology has a crucial role to play in getting us out of this mess. Whether it is new solar panels to generate clean electricity or devices that clean-up factory emissions, we need to see technology as an ally not just a threat, and wealthy nations or going to have to finance both its development and global application.

4. Resistance and Direct Actions: The less radical in the movement may not approve, but the fact is that with a planet in peril there are going to be many instances where direct action and resistance are going to be needed, legal or not, to stop the damage in motion. As Martin Luther King wrote in his famous Letter from the Birmingham Jail nearly half a century ago, ” Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.

That’s what we’ll be looking for at the People’s Summit and what we will try to support – real conversations that are about thinking strategically and making plans for action that have a chance to make a real difference.

What the Democracy Center Will be Doing at the Summit

First, if you are coming to Bolivia for the meeting, please join us for two workshops we are hosting:

Taking strategic action against the corporations damaging the climate: Thursday April 21, 4:30-6:30, Univalle Room: AV Soc 1:Multinational corporations cause some of the worst damage to the Earth’s climate, through both their economic acts and their political ones. Join us for a forum and discussion that will look at the lessons learned from some of the major global anti-corporate campaigns (Bechtel, Chevron and others) and how we can take the most effective action possible.

Internatio
nal Trade Tribunals: A Threat More Powerful than Nations:
Thursday April 21, 2:30-4:30, Univalle Room: AV Soc 1:Trade tribunals in institutions such as the World Bank are a powerful tool for multinational corporations to overrule the will of the people and even of national governments. It is through this system that Bechtel tried to sue Bolivia for $50 million after the Cochabamba Water Revolt, and that the cigarette giant Phillip Morris is now suing the people of Uruguay to overturn important health protections. It is also going to be a process through which corporations can challenge new rules to curb global climate change. Learn about the threat this system poses and what we can do about it.

And if you are coming, please drop us a note so we can get connected: contact@democracyctr.org

If you aren’t coming, have no fears, the Democracy Center will be reporting daily on the key events. The entire Democracy Center team will be there – from Bolivia, Australia, the U.S. and Denmark – scouting out the stories and people we find of interest and that we think you will as well. Starting Monday, each night we will post a new Blog, including written reports and a new video capturing some of the voices from the conference you might not otherwise hear. We are very interested in knowing what you’d like us to cover, so if you have suggestions, please post them here in the comments section!

Following the meeting we’ll be producing a series of analysis articles, both her on the Blog and for publications including the NACLA Reporter, Foreign Policy in Focus, YES Magazine, In These Times, and others.

Voices from the People’s Summit

In advance of the meeting here we asked some of our friends who are coming to tell us why:

“I am coming to Cochabamba both to celebrate its historic struggle against water privatization and also to take part in the creation of another world centered on the rights of the Earth and all her people.” –Vandana Shiva, environmental activist, eco-feminist, author, and physicist, Delhi, India

“The Copenhagen climate talks proved those who gain most from ‘business as usual’ find it very difficult to stand up against the pillage of Mother Earth. Greed gets in the way. So, now it’s up to us all. Bring on Cochabamba, for a chance to work strongly together from here on in, for Mother Earth and all her good folks. – Steve Denshire, Rising Tide Australia and Naomi Hogan, Climate Action Newtown, Australia.

“As we saw in Copenhagen, many governments are unwilling to commit to changes that are needed to avoid a truly catastrophic future for our children and theirs. I hope that in Cochabamba we will be able to strengthen the global climate movement that will make it impossible for governments to avoid change. I’m especially interested in the proposed global referendum on climate change, which could be a valuable organizing and educating tool for movements around the world. –David Kane, Associate for Latin America and Economic Justice, Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, Washington, USA

We have to bring together our voices and come out with a clear and coordinated plan of action, with mobilizations in the streets and strong proposals in the negotiations, for COP-16, which will be held in Cancun in December of this year. La Via Campesina in Mexico hopes to receive the social movements of the world at this event, and we must come out of Cochabamba with a plan and with agreements with Evo and other friendly governments.”-Alberto Gomez, co-coordinator of the Via Campesina for the North America region, and a member Union Nacional de Organizaciones Campesinas Autonomas (UNORCA), Mexico.

“For me, the main reason for going is to connect with and learn from the other social movements that will be present, so we can collectively explore how to build an effective global movement for climate justice. Also, it is important to communicate to those on the front line of the struggle that there are others from more affluent parts of the world who are working towards the same goals, who understand that climate change is a symptom of a crisis within our political and economic systems, and that capitalism is a fundamental part of the problem.”-Chris Kitchen, independent climate justice activist involved with Climate Justice Action network and Camp for Climate Action UK, England

“In Copenhagen, the ALBA countries resisted the imposition of a non-solution. This showed that Latin America was not afraid to speak the truth to power, water is important, food is important, the climate and biodiversity must be protected. These are simple truths that even my grandmothers would understand were they still alive. I am still hopeful in spite of the mining, the oil and gas exploitation and the genetically modified monocultures in the Argentine pampa and the plains of Southern Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia that South America can show some leadership in protecting Planet Earth.”-Tony Phillips, Friends of the Earth Argentina, Project Allende Argentina


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