After Bali Climate Talks: Toward a People’s Agenda for Climate Justice

But in the end, the so-called "Bali roadmap" added little beside a vague timetable to the plans for renewed global climate talks that came out of a similar meeting two years ago in Montreal. With support from Canada, Japan and Russia, and the acquiescence of former ally Australia, the US delegation deleted all references (except in a nonbinding footnote) to the overwhelming consensus that reductions of 25 to 40 percent in annual greenhouse gas emissions are necessary by 2020 to forestall catastrophic and irreversible alterations in the earth’s climate.

In Kyoto in 1997, then Vice President Al Gore was credited with breaking the first such deadlock in climate negotiations: he promised the assembled delegates that the US would support mandatory emissions reductions if the targeted cuts were reduced by more than half, and if their implementation were based on a scheme of market-based trading of emissions. The concept of "marketable rights to pollute" had been in wide circulation in the US for nearly a decade, but this was the first time a so-called "cap-and-trade" scheme was to be implemented on a global scale. The result, a decade later, is the development of what British columnist George Monbiot has aptly termed "an exuberant market in fake emissions cuts." Of course, the US never signed the Kyoto Protocol, and the rest of the world has had to bear the consequences of managing an increasingly cumbersome and ineffectual carbon trading system.

Given the increasingly narrow focus on carbon trading and offsets as the primary official response to global climate disruptions, it is no surprise that Bali resembled, in the words of one participant, "a giant shopping extravaganza, marketing the earth, the sky and the rights of the poor." All manner of carbon brokers, technology developers and national governments were out displaying their wares to the thousands of assembled delegates and NGO representatives. Numerous international organizations used the occasion of Bali to release their latest research on various aspects of global warming, including an important new report from the Global Forest Coalition highlighting the consequences for the world’s forests of the current global push to develop so-called "biofuels" from agricultural crops, grasses and trees.

Indeed, the problem of deforestation, which is now responsible for 20 of worldwide carbon dioxide emissions, was very much on the agenda in Bali. In anticipation of a future UN scheme to address what it calls "Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation" (REDD), the World Bank announced the creation of a new "Forest Carbon Partnership Facility." World Bank funds will now be available for governments seeking to preserve forests, but given the Bank’s long history of funding environmental destruction, observers remain skeptical. The effort mainly perpetuates the fatuous idea that wealthy nations (and individuals) can "offset" their excessive carbon dioxide emissions by paying for nominally carbon-saving projects in poorer countries.

Carbon offsets have already spurred the replacement of vast native forests with timber plantations, more readily assessed for their carbon sequestration potential, and able to be harvested for "energy crops" such as palm oil and highly speculative cellulose-derived ethanol. A statement issued by nearly 50 critical NGOs assembled in Bali stated, in part, "The proposed REDD policies could trigger further displacement, conflict and violence; as forests themselves increase in value they are declared ‘off limits’ to communities that live in them or depend on them for their livelihoods." A central underlying assumption of the REDD, as with similar World Bank initiatives in recent years, is that traditional forest dwelling communities are incapable of managing their forests appropriately, and that only international experts affiliated with the Bank, national governments, and compliant environmental organizations such as Conservation International and the World Wildlife Fund are capable of doing so. Ultimately, timber companies and plantation managers, in league with the World Bank, will be demanding, in the words of Simone Lovera of the Global Forest Coalition, "compensation for every tree they don’t cut down."

The Bali meetings also led to the creation of a new UN fund to help poor countries adapt to climate changes. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made it clear in their exhaustive 2007 report that the people least responsible for climate change will likely bear the worst consequences, as they are most vulnerable to the widespread increases in floods, droughts, wildfires and other effects of a rapidly changing climate. The UN’s biannual Human Development Report, also released in Bali, states that at least one out of every 19 people in the so-called developing world was already affected by a climate-related disaster between 2000 and 2004.

The new UN adaptation fund will be managed by the Global Environment Facility, a semi-independent partnership of the UN’s environment and development programs and the World Bank, and funded through a two percent levy on carbon offset transactions under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). The CDM’s carbon offset schemes, however, have been widely criticized for manipulations, abuses and the funding of highly questionable projects including, once again, large scale commercial timber plantations displacing tropical rainforests. The new adaptation fund binds governments of poor countries even more tightly to the questionable practice of carbon offsets, even as it offers only a miniscule fraction of the estimated $86 billion needed just to sustain current UN poverty reduction programs in the face of the myriad new threats related to climate change.

So while the continued obstructionism of the Bush administration is the main story in the international press, the successful entrenchment in the UN system of "market-driven" policies introduced by the Clinton-Gore administration may prove to be the more lasting obstacle to real progress on global warming. Carbon trading and offsets help to further enrich Gore’s colleagues in the investment banking world, but contribute almost nothing to actually reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. What are we to do?

Over the past year, activists across the US and in other industrial countries have begun to dramatize the reality of potentially catastrophic global warming and pressure their governments to do something about it. Al Gore’s movie has had a positive educational impact, as has the latest IPCC report, documenting the "unequivocal" evidence that global warming is real and that we can already see the consequences. But most public events up to now, at least in the US, have been rather timid in their outlook, and minimal in their expectations for real changes. The failure of the Bali talks suggests the urgency of a far more pointed and militant approach, a genuine People’s Agenda for Climate Justice. Such an agenda would have at least four central elements:

1.  Highlight the social justice implications of global climate disruptions. Global warming is not just a scientific issue, and it’s certainly not mainly about polar bears. As the UN’s Human Development Report describes so eloquently, global warming is a global justice issue, and its implications for the half of the world’s people that live on less than $2 per day are truly staggering. Bringing home these implications can go a long way toward humanizing the problem and raise the urgency of global action. (My article on "Global Warming and the Struggle for Justice" in the forthcoming January Z Magazine takes this discussion much farther.)

2.  Dramatize the links between US climate and energy policies and US military adventures, particularly the war in Iraq, which is without question the most grotesquely energy-wasting activity on the planet today. Author Michael Klare has documented that troops in the Persian Gulf region consume 3.5 million gallons of oil a day, and that worldwide consumption by the US military-about four times as much-are equal to the total national consumption of Switzerland or Sweden. This past October, people gathered under the banner of "No War, No Warming" blocked the entrances to a Congressional office building in Washington, demanding an end to the war and real steps to prevent more catastrophic climate changes. Similar actions across the country could go a long way toward raising the pressure on politicians who consistently say the right thing and blithely vote the opposite way.

3.  Expose the numerous false solutions to global warming promoted by the world’s elites. Billions of dollars in public and private funds are wasted on such schemes as a revival of nuclear power, mythical "clean coal" technologies, and the massive expansion of so-called biofuels (more appropriately termed agrofuels): liquid fuels obtained from food crops, grasses, and trees. Carbon trading and offsets are described as the only politically expedient way to reduce emissions, but they are structurally incapable of doing so. We need mandated emission reductions, a tax on carbon dioxide pollution, requirements to reorient utility and transportation policies, public funds for solar and wind energy, and large reductions in consumption throughout the industrialized world. Buying more "green" products won’t do; we need to buy less!

4.  Envision a new, lower-consumption world of decentralized, clean energy and politically empowered communities. Like the antinuclear activists of 30 years ago, who halted the first wave of nuclear power in the US, while articulating an inspiring vision of directly democratic, solar-powered communities, we again need to dramatize the positive, even utopian, possibilities for a post-petroleum, post-mega-mall world. The reality of global warming is too urgent, and the outlook far too bleak, to settle for status-quo false solutions that only appear to address the problem. The technologies already exist for a locally-controlled, solar-based alternative, at the same time that dissatisfaction with today’s high consumption, high debt "American way of life" appears to be at an all time high. Small experiments in living more locally, while improving the quality of life, are thriving everywhere. So are experiments in community-controlled renewable energy production (see Al Gore is correct when he says that political will is the main obstacle to addressing global warming, but we also need to be able to look beyond the status-quo and struggle for a different kind of world.

Brian Tokar’s books include Earth for Sale (South End), Redesigning Life? (Zed Books), and Gene Traders (Toward Freedom).