If at first you don’t succeed, redefine success. This phrase has become the unofficial motto of this year’s United Nations climate conference in Cancun, Mexico.
A week out from Cancun, which runs over November 29 to December 10, there is little hope of meaningful progress. Yet key players have sought to throw a shroud of official optimism over the looming failure.
Few Western politicians want a repeat of last year’s Copenhagen climate conference. They consider it a public relations disaster.
In the lead-up to Copenhagen, public expectations were high. There was a widespread feeling that politicians could no longer ignore the warnings from climate scientists. Many politicians said they agreed strong, decisive action to curb emissions was needed.
But when the big polluting nations blocked a new legally binding treaty at Copenhagen, they were badly exposed.
Europe’s biggest-ever climate demonstration — involving 100,000 people — took over Copenhagen’s streets.
Up to 50,000 people took part in the Klimaforum, a radical counter-event to the official Copenhagen summit. Klimaforum issued a call for “system change, not climate change”.
Its “people’s declaration” said the climate emergency “urges us to unite and transform the dominant social and economic system as well as global governance, which currently block necessary solutions to the climate crisis”.
The dissent on the streets outside the official summit was matched by dissent within. Delegates from the world’s poorest nations denounced the rich nations’ agenda to destroy the Kyoto Protocol and hold off from making deep emissions cuts.
Lumumba Di-Aping, spokesperson for the G77 group of 130 underdeveloped nations, said the rich nations’ target to allow temperatures to rise by 2° C was like asking Africa “to sign a suicide pact”.
“I would rather die with my dignity than sign a deal that will channel my people into a furnace”, he said. Third World delegates repeatedly walked out of summit sessions in protest against the rich nations’ attempts to kill off the Kyoto treaty.
From the Copenhagen rostrum, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez repeated the slogan chanted by the protesters outside: “If the climate were a bank, they would have bailed it out already.”
At the last minute, the US, China, India, Brazil and South Africa introduced a new proposal — the Copenhagen Accord. The accord was not binding on any nation, set no timeline to achieve emissions cuts and insisted on the dangerous 2°C warming target.
The summit did not adopt the Copenhagen Accord. Outraged delegates pointed out it would be a step backward from the Kyoto Protocol, not a step forward.
Copenhagen ended in disarray. Confidence in the UN process was weakened. The hypocrisy and double-dealing of nations such as the United States, the European Union and Australia was exposed to millions.
As a consequence, the publicity for the Cancun summit has been far more about managing public expectations than managing humanity’s relationship with the natural world.
“Cancun will be a success, if parties compromise”, said UN climate chief Christina Figueres on November 15. “They have to balance their expectations so that everyone can carry home a positive achievement while allowing others to do the same.”
Figueres said the Cancun talks could reach a deal on protecting forests, making technology more widely available and helping poor countries adapt to climate change.
However, she said a deal to make deeper cuts in greenhouse gas emissions — the most important measure — would not be made.
Can Cancun be successful if it won’t agree to cut emissions? If this were the outcome, it would be as much a “success” as a peace conference that failed to end a war.
But as at Copenhagen, the poor nations that will bear some of the worst impacts of climate change will fight for far stronger climate action at Cancun.
The most strident resistance will likely come from the nations grouped in the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA).
Ministers from the ALBA nations Bolivia, Ecuador, Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua issued a joint declaration about Cancun on November 5. The ministers declared that “nature has no price”, and warned they would resist proposals for the UN to endorse new carbon market schemes.
“Instead of promoting the privatisation of goods and services that come from nature, it is essential to recognise that these have a collective character, and, as such, should be conserved as public goods, respecting the sovereignty of states.”
The five nations said the world could not afford for Cancun to be a repeat of Copenhagen: “We hope that accords will be reached [at Cancun] in which developed countries … effectively assume their obligation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, without making climate change into a business through the promotion and creation of carbon market mechanisms.”
At Cancun, the Bolivian delegation will also present the key proposals from April’s World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. The conference was held in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba and involved about 35,000 climate activists and indigenous representatives from around the world.
The Cochabamba proposals included:
• cuts in greenhouse gas emissions of more than 50% by 2017;
• recognition and legal protection of the rights of indigenous peoples and people forced to migrate due to climate change;
• the formation of an International Climate Justice Tribunal empowered to penalise nations and corporations that flout international law;
• opposition to any new carbon markets for greenhouse gases or forests; and
• compensation paid by the developed countries most responsible for causing climate change to poor nations suffering its worst impacts. Bolivia proposes developed countries allocate 6% of their annual GDP to adaptation and development projects in the global South.
Further, Bolivia wants the UN to put its proposals to a global referendum on climate change.
The odds will be stacked against the ALBA nations at Cancun. Relentless pressure from the US and the EU has meant about 130 countries have now endorsed the Copenhagen Accord, even though most rejected it at first.
But there will be resistance to this business-as-usual agenda at Cancun, which is a cause for hope.
A successful outcome at Cancun will be not be measured by the compromises struck with the powerful interests prepared to sacrifice the integrity of the Earth’s ecosystems on the altar of profit.
Success at Cancun will depend on how loudly the voices for climate justice are heard and the contribution that makes to arouse wider resistance.