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Lessons of the Occupy movement for the climate talks

Posted Dec. 7, 2011 / Posted by: Kate Horner

With only two days left in the Durban climate negotiations, we are frighteningly close to locking in low ambition and inaction for the next decade.  The US, a consistent and major impediment to progress, thinks that what the world agreed last year in Cancun is sufficient for the next ten years.

Several studies show that the greenhouse gas emission reduction pledges agreed in Cancun may deliver in excess of 5 degrees of warming.  After having worked on climate change policy for several years, even I have a hard time wrapping my head around what these temperatures mean, but the point was made clearly in Grist earlier this week: even 4 degrees warming is "incompatible with an organized global community."

Despite clear, compelling evidence of the need for immediate and aggressive action, many ask why politicians still fail to heed the call. The Occupy movements around the world provide a powerful lesson and path forward for the climate talks.    

As we wrote in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement several weeks ago, “Over the last two decades, Wall Street’s growing economic power also provided it with greater political and marketing power; not only was the financial sector able to buy deregulatory favors in Washington, but it also wove an enticing narrative around the wisdom and superiority of financial markets that captured the imagination of policymakers and the public alike.”

The parallels with the climate talks are striking.  The US is aggressively advocating for complete deregulation of international climate law and, and rather audaciously, claims that this new deregulated, corporate driven approach, is the only effective strategy for moving forward, much as they have done with the financial sector. 

The U.S. is the only wealthy country that has failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, the only internationally legally binding instrument to address climate change.  Four years ago, in Bali, the world agreed to a compromise solution to accommodate the intransigence of the US: the Kyoto Protocol would continue while the US agreed to take on comparable action, without having to join the Kyoto Protocol itself.  The wealthy world would also provide finance and technology for developing countries to help them meet the challenges of a warming world and avoid dirty development. Instead of honoring this basic bargain to maintain the existing rules and to lift up the standard of the US, the US has vocally and forcefully advocated for a weaker, ineffective system of voluntary pledges. 

Unfortunately, this kind of behavior from the US is not new. The US has played a constructive role at the UN when working on issues where the US has strong domestic policies and supports multilateral engagement. But the US has repeatedly weakened and delayed international deals related to other issues, including the International Criminal Court, biosafety, hazardous wastes and indigenous peoples’ rights.

The position of the United States in international climate negotiations is shaped substantially by its failure to secure domestic climate legislation, which is largely the result of actions by powerful economic lobbies and the lobbyists and politicians they fund in Washington.  The fossil fuel industry and polarized politics in the US is ruining any prospect of positive engagement in the international climate talks. 

Instead, the US system, called ”pledge and review,” would mean that the rich countries most responsible for the problem will only reduce their emissions according to political pressures at home, not according to the increasingly dire scientific realities.   There would be no internationally binding commitments, no comparability of efforts among developed countries, and no assurance that the global effort would be adequate to keep the world safe. The system of common rules and international compliance in the Kyoto Protocol that give meaning to these commitments would be abandoned.  Such an approach would effectively deregulate the climate regime, and if agreed to in a new treaty, would mean that a deregulated approach is enshrined in international law.

This deregulatory approach will allow dirty corporations to continue polluting with consequence, privileging wealthy corporations and financial institutions at the expense of the world’s people and the planet. 

At the behest of Wall Street, the US is also trying to hijack funding for developing country climate needs for the benefit of multinational corporations in the wealthy world, meaning that many of the world’s poorest will once again be bypassed as the 1% grow even wealthier. 

In Durban, countries are supposed to agree to set up a new fund for developing country climate action.  The Green Climate Fund was intended to help poor countries both deal with the increasingly dire impacts of climate change and avoid locking in to dirty development pathways that have caused this problem in the first place.

At the last meeting of the committee tasked with designing the fund, the US blocked consensus, arguing, among other things, that the role of the private sector was too limited.

The expansive role of the private sector poses a serious danger that a new climate fund will mirror the failures of past development finance.  The International Finance Corporation, the private sector arm of the World Bank, has preferentially financed multinational corporations in the rich world while consistently bypassing the entrepreneurial class in poorer countries.  Small business enterprises in poor countries, which experience extreme credit scarcity and onerously high borrowing costs, are precisely those in most dire need of development financing and yet are consistently ignored. 

Relying on institutional investors, which seek commercial rates of return and profit maximation, or risky financial instruments, like carbon credits or loan guarantees, to deliver desperately needed climate finance is unlikely to help poor countries deal with climate change.  A hedge fund may finance an energy project but it is rather unlikely that a hedge fund is going to fund the resettlement of climate refugees.  Several studies also confirm that the vast majority of carbon credit financing is captured by intermediaries, not capitalizing emissions reducing projects.

The presumption that a deregulated private sector will deliver the change we seek in the climate talks is just as unlikely as it has proven to be in other sectors, like education and health care.

As the Durban talks enter the final days, governments must remember that we won’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking that caused the problem.  

The deference to the 1% -- including the dirty corporations and financial interests that benefit from weak, ineffective climate action -- will cause harm not only the American citizens, but to the fate of the planet and its people.  Indeed, the Obama administration’s claim that America is committed to a “new era of multilateralism” is increasingly hard to square with reality.  We simply cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of the past. We have already witnessed the devastation wrought by the financial crisis; we need not and cannot allow the climate crisis to continue unabated. The consequences will be more dire than perhaps any of us can truly imagine. 

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