Countering climate change: Latin American left leads the way

November 2, 2007

A new UN report that tracks the world's progress in achieving sustainable development goals, as recommended in the UN's historic 1987 Our Common Future report, has painted a grim picture of across-the-board environmental deterioration.

While the UN Environment Program's (UNEP) report, Global Environment Outlook: environment for development (GEO-4), blames the inadequate response of the world's governments, today a new radical pole of leadership is emerging from Latin America that is beginning to redraw the boundaries of the climate change debate.

The 1987 report warned that rising CO2 levels would lead to a mean temperature increase of up to 4.5oC by the middle of the 21st century, which would cause catastrophic climate change. The report proposed that immediate action be taken to counter global warming through massive investment in renewable energy sources, with the onus upon wealthy industrialized nations to take the lead.

Twenty years later, the GEO-4 report, which is the most comprehensive of its kind, notes that "there are no major issues raised in Our Common Future for which the foreseeable trends are favourable".

In an October 25 media release, UNEP executive director Achim Steiner noted that, "The systematic destruction of the Earth's natural and nature-based resources has reached a point where the economic viability of economies is being challenged — and the bill we hand on to our children may prove impossible to pay.

"Without an accelerated effort to reform the way we collectively do business on planet Earth, we will shortly be in trouble if indeed we are not already. There have been enough wake-up calls. I sincerely hope this is the final one."

But why has there been so little action over the last 20 years despite the incredibly high stakes? Hidden within the 1987 report was the answer. It drew the conclusion that combating the predicted climate-change catastrophe would require "profound structural changes in socioeconomic and institutional arrangements" to enable decisions to be made in the "common interest" of humanity rather than being subordinated to "
"production for the market".

Of course, in the wealthy countries that are responsible for the vast majority of historical and current CO2 emissions, there has been no such "structural change", but rather the continuation of political and economic policies that put corporate profits above the needs of the environment and the majority of ordinary people's welfare.

The US, responsible for almost a quarter of the entire world's CO2 emissions, has refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol (despite its minute emission reduction targets) and organised a "big polluters" meeting in Washington in September for the sole purpose of de-legitimising and undermining the upcoming negotiations for the second phase of Kyoto.

Washington's policies flow from the fact that the US is home to three of the world's six oil supermajors — ExxonMobil, Chevron Texaco and ConocoPhillips. ExxonMobil is the largest publicly traded company in the world, raking in US$39.5 billion in profits in 2006.

Earlier this year, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a report that noted that "ExxonMobil has funnelled nearly US$16 million between 1998 and 2005 to a network of 43 advocacy organizations that seek to confuse the public on global warming science".

Australia, with the second-highest emissions per capita (just after the US), has also refused to ratify Kyoto and backs the US in its campaign against mandatory emission reduction targets. Canberra is also seeking to minimise any loss in profits to Australia's emission intensive companies, in particular the coal industry which is worth A$22 billion annually. BHP Billiton, the world's largest mining company and Australia's largest coal exporter, reported a record A$13.7 billion profit in 2006.

However in another part of the world — Latin America — where some governments driving through real "structural changes" to transform their societies from those that are dominated by the interests of profit-hungry corporations to truly democratic societies where the needs of working and the environment come first.

On September 24 UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon convened a climate change meeting in New York City that drew together 150 heads of government in an attempt to build up momentum for the upcoming Kyoto negotiations in Bali.

While the conference was dominated with the usual vague rhetoric of moving beyond "business as usual" and calls for "decisive action", left-wing Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa made a bold offer — that Ecuador would keep some of its oil in the ground for the sake of humanity's future. Correa said that the Ecuadorian government would make a "commitment not to exploit nearly 920 million barrels of petroleum, thereby preserving one of the most bio-diverse regions in the world [the Yasuni National Park that has an area of 982,000 hectares and is home to more than 500 species of birds, 173 mammals, 100 amphibian species, 43 tree frog species and 100 reptile species]".

Correa noted that this commitment would keep 111 million tonnes of carbon out of the air, but would also entail a huge financial loss, of about $720 million per year, to the Ecuadorian people, half of whom live in poverty. He therefore called for offers of financial help from the rich countries to offset the economic losses of keeping the oil in the ground.

Correa, who was elected into office in 2006 on a wave of popular struggles against neoliberal globalisation, now aims to strengthen a "citizens' revolution" in order to build "socialism of the 21st century" — a phrase first advanced by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Chavez openly proclaims that his inspiration is socialist Cuba, which has been rated by the World Wildlife Fund as the only nation in the world to have achieved sustainable development.
Cuba has managed to make the only large-scale transition to organic, low-input agriculture; the Cuban government has provided its citizens with free, new, energy efficient light-bulbs as part of a national energy-saving policy that has saved the country more than $1 billion per year in imported fuel oil. By 2005, Cuba had cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 40% compared with 1990.

The Venezuelan government has also launched an "energy revolution" similar to Cuba's and in March this year Chavez announced a ban on the construction of any new coalmines, or the expansion of existing mines, on indigenous-controlled land in Zulia state. Chavez has also launched a program to plant 100 million trees over five years.

At a conference in Venezuela in 2005, Chavez put a challenge to the world saying, "We don't have centuries in front of us. It could be decades at most that are left for the peoples of this planet to make a decision. Either we really change the social and economic order, we say now we must have a new, renovated socialism of the 21st century, or we decide that life finishes on this planet."

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