One government — that of Bolivia — stood alone against the world at December’s UN climate conference in Cancun, Mexico. It dared to reject an agreement endorsed by 191 other nations.
And Bolivia was right to do so. Cancun was a step backwards for action on climate change.
Pablo Solon, Bolivia’s ambassador to the United Nations, explained his country’s stance in the December 21 Guardian: “The text replaces binding mechanisms for reducing greenhouse gas emissions with voluntary pledges that are wholly insufficient.
“These pledges [to cut emissions] contradict the stated goal of capping the rise in temperature at 2°C, instead guiding us to 4°C or more. The text is full of loopholes for polluters, opportunities for expanding carbon markets and similar mechanisms — like the forestry scheme REDD — that reduce the obligation of developed countries to act.”
So far, the voluntary pledges made under the Cancun agreement add up to cuts of just 13% to 16% by 2020 on 1990 levels.
By contrast, Bolivia pointed to the scientific evidence that says much deeper cuts are needed to avoid runaway climate change.
Despite this, most big environmental NGOs and mainstream environmentalists have welcomed the flawed Cancun deal as a step forward. Some conservative environmentalists have savaged the Bolivian government for opposing the deal.
A December 10 Grist.org article by the US Center for International Policy’s Glenn Hurowitz accused Bolivia of “abuse of the consensus process”.
Hurowitz even compared Bolivia to Saudi Arabia (a US backed, oil-rich dictatorship): “During the 1990s, Saudi Arabia played the obstructionist role that Bolivia is playing today: using any tactics at its disposal to disrupt progress, even if it meant stopping every other country from acting.”
But these accusations against Bolivia turn reality on its head. Hurowitz could not be unaware of the Wikileaks cables released on December 3 that revealed the US not only “abused process” and “disrupted progress” — it also embarked on a campaign to threaten and bribe poorer nations to sign on to its business-as-usual climate agenda.
The December 4 Guardian summarised the cables: “The US diplomatic cables reveal how the US seeks dirt on nations opposed to its approach to tackling global warming; how financial and other aid is used by countries to gain political backing; how distrust, broken promises and creative accounting dog negotiations; and how the US mounted a secret global diplomatic offensive to overwhelm opposition to the controversial ‘Copenhagen accord’, the unofficial document that emerged from the ruins of the Copenhagen climate change summit in 2009.”
As the Transnational Institute’s Nick Buxton said after the summit had ended: “Bolivia was not an obstacle to progress, it was rather the only nation daring enough to tell the truth.
“Rather than less Bolivias, we need more willing to stand up and say that the agreement was ‘naked’ and unacceptable.”
Given the blatant manipulation by rich nations at the Cancun summit, and the paltry emissions cuts agreed to, it is troubling that so many environmental NGOs have backed the outcome.
For example, the big US environment group Sierra Club said Cancun “represents a shift toward a more productive negotiating dynamic that can help build trust for the bigger and harder decisions that lie ahead”.
Climate Action Network Australia was even more enthusiastic. It said Cancun was “a breakthrough in international cooperation on climate change … The Cancun Agreements are less than world-saving, but much, much more than we hoped would be possible.”
But Solon said Cancun delivered, at most, a “false victory”.
“Some claim the best thing is to be realistic and recognise that at the very least the agreement saved the UN process from collapse,” he said.
“Unfortunately, a convenient realism has become all that powerful nations are willing to offer, while they ignore scientists' exhortations to act radically now … The attempt in Cancun to delay critical decisions until next year could have catastrophic consequences.”
Below: Democracy Now! speaks to Bolivian ambassador to the UN Pablo Solon during the Cancun climate conference.