Klein in Bolivia: global democracy is the way forward

Naomi Klein has been to Bolivia. She reports in the Guardian on the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earthheld this week.

The Copenhagen Accord speaks of keeping global warming to two degrees. In fact to date the emissions reductions pledged under the Accord put the world on the path to three degrees. But two degrees, Morales told the conference, “would mean the melting of the Andean and Himalayan glaciers.”

Klein points out that Bolivia is in the midst of a dramatic political transformation which has nationalised key industries and elevated the voices of indigenous peoples.

“But when it comes to Bolivia’s most pressing, existential crisis – the fact that its glaciers are melting at an alarming rate, threatening the water supply in two major cities – Bolivians are powerless to do anything to change their fate on their own.”

Only deep emission cuts in the industrialised world can avert the catastrophe facing countries like Bolivia and Tuvalu. That’s what the leaders of endangered nations argued for passionately at Copenhagen. “They were politely told the political will in the north just wasn’t there.”

They were also shut out of the closed door negotiations which led to the Accord. And when Bolivia and Ecuador refused to endorse the Accord the US government cut their climate aid by $3 million and $2.5 million respectively. “It’s not a freerider process,” was the explanation of US climate negotiator Jonathan Pershing.  That strikes me as an extremely ironic statement given the disproportionate emissions of the US, a point which Klein makes in this way:

“Anyone wondering why activists from the global south reject the idea of ‘climate aid’ and are instead demanding repayment of ‘climate debts’ has their answer here.”

Klein goes so far as to say that the message in Pershing’s words was that if you are poor you don’t have the right to prioritise your own survival. This is the context for her characterisation of the conference as “a revolt against this experience of helplessness, an attempt to build a base of power behind the right to survive.”

There were four big ideas proposed for the conference by the Bolivian government:

  • “That nature should be granted rights that protect ecosystems from annihilation (a ‘universal declaration of Mother Earth rights’);
  • that those who violate those rights and other international environmental agreements should face legal consequences (a ‘climate justice tribunal’);
  • that poor countries should receive various forms of compensation for a crisis they are facing but had little role in creating (‘climate debt’);
  • and that there should be a mechanism for people around the world to express their views on these topics (‘world people’s referendum on climate change’).”

Seventeen civil society working groups worked for weeks online and for a week together to prepare recommendations. Klein describes the process as “fascinating but far from perfect”, and suggests that its most important contribution may be Bolivia’s enthusiastic commitment to participatory democracy.

She thinks this because of her concern that after the failure of Copenhagen the idea that democracy is at fault “went viral”. The UN process of votes to 192 countries is too cumbersome and solutions are better found in small groups.  She sees James Lovelock’s recent statement as an example: “It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while.”

Klein won’t have a bar of this. It is the small groupings which have caused us to lose ground and weakened already inadequate existing agreements. She notes that Bolivia came to Copenhagen with a climate change policy drafted by social movements through a participatory process, resulting, in her view, in the most transformative and radical vision so far.

She sees the people’s conference as Bolivia trying to take what it has done at national level and globalise it, inviting the world to participate in drafting a joint climate agenda ahead of the next UN climate conference in Cancun. She quotes Bolivia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Pablo Solón: “The only thing that can save mankind from a tragedy is the exercise of global democracy.”

Her conclusion:

“If he is right, the Bolivian process might save not just our warming planet, but our failing democracies as well. Not a bad deal at all.”

Whatever one makes of the various avenues being pursued (if that’s not too strong a word) in achieving emission reductions, there is a need for the voices of the most endangered nations to be heard.  It seems likely that they will need to be raised to the level of loud and clear before a great deal of notice is taken of them. Bolivia recognises its vulnerability to glacier melt, and to various other threats which were identified in an Oxfam report last year discussed here on Hot Topic. It would be a failure of a government’s duty to its citizens to remain quiet. Their steps to mobilise global opinion should not be treated with indifference or contempt. And it is to be hoped that the US cutting off of funding will be reversed. It looked suspiciously like punishment, and undeserved at that.

Conference in Bolivia: who pays the price of change?

“We are very worried because we have no water. Half the people of this community have already left. Those who remain are struggling with the lack of water.”


Those are the words of a villager in a small Bolivian village called Khapi which is suffering from the effects of retreating glaciers in the Andes.  A BBC news report explains how it is for the villagers. Over the past 10 or 15 years, changing weather patterns have led to irregular water flows – the streams become torrents or dwindle to just trickles. “Our crops are dry now, our animals are dying; we want to cry.”

There are only 40 families in the village, but they’re ready to take their case to international forums. One of their leaders is Alivio Aruquipa (pictured):

“For the past two decades, we, the people from the Andean regions have been suffering because of the greenhouse emissions from the developed countries. If they don’t stop our glaciers will disappear soon. We want those countries to compensate us for all the damage they have done to nature…

“We don’t know how to calculate the compensation because we are not professionals, we are simply farmers. But we would like assistance, and then to receive some money and, with that money, to build dykes to store the water, improve the water canals.”

Hot Topic carried a post last November on the necessity of adaptation in Bolivia, following an Oxfam report.  The BBC news item is another example of the increasing body of evidence which bears out predictions of likely impacts of climate change. It will be discounted by some as anecdotal but there comes a point where the sheer volume of converging stories means they deserve credence.

The call for compensation is a just one, and rightly part of the price we should pay to assist poorer people already suffering the effects of human-caused climate change. In some respects it is in lieu of the price we ought to have put on carbon some years back. It’s a call which the Bolivian government is pushing. They would like to see an international environmental court where compensation claims can be made.

Bolivia is right now hosting its own international conference on climate change, the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. It’s attended by a mixture of NGOs and government representatives, and in some respects it’s an attempt to recover the ground Bolivia considered was lost at Copenhagen when the Accord was put together by a small group of larger countries. Pablo Solon, Bolivia’s UN ambassador, who has been prominent in the organising of the conference says:

“The only way to get climate negotiations back on track, not just for Bolivia or other countries, but for all of life, biodiversity, our Mother Earth, is to put civil society back into the process. The only thing that can save mankind from a [climate] tragedy is the exercise of global democracy.”

Robert Eshelman describes the conference in the Huffington Post:

“…participants [include] Bill McKibben, NASA scientist Jim Hansen, Martin Khor, G77 + China negotiator Lumumba Di Aping, and Vandana Shiva. Throughout the conference, seventeen working groups will convene to discuss issues ranging from deforestation and climate migrants to the rights of indigenous peoples and developing technologies for poor and low-lying nations to adapt to the impacts of climate change.”

He sees divergence from the kind of path the US is wanting to follow:

“While the U.S. will use the Major Economies Forum and the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas to spotlight how small group and bilateral discussions among leading economies, rather than the 192-nation U.N. process, is the best way forward on climate negotiations, participants at the Bolivian conference argue that the conversation about, and the process for, developing strategies to address climate change needs to be expanded, not narrowed, bringing more voices into the debate around climate change.”

Hopefully this needn’t indicate stalemate, but both paths can be pursued. If they’re not there is real danger of the poorest nations suffering the injustice of neglect.

Bolivia: the necessity of adaptation

Oxfam’s messages on the battering effects of climate change on poorer countries continue with the publication this week of their report Bolivia: Climate Change, Poverty and Adaptation. Poverty and injustice in many countries of the world is what Oxfam works on, and this focus has inevitably led to concern about what climate change is adding to the problems faced by the poor.  This report, like their others, includes a number of interviews with local people whose livelihoods depend on the food they grow. It can be argued that this is anecdotal evidence of climate change and not to be trusted. I don’t see it that way. What the local people are experiencing fits with what we would expect from the predictions of climate science. I see no reason for Oxfam to withold their stories on the grounds that we can’t be absolutely certain that all of what the locals report is down to global warming. If we wait for absolute certainty on such matters we will have waited until it is too late.  Climate change is always going to be mixed with natural variability but the underlying warming trend is as apparent in the human stories as it is in the global temperature graphs. And the stories are certainly guides to the kind of adaptation measures that need to be urgently addressed.  Continue reading “Bolivia: the necessity of adaptation”