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« Cancún suprises logistical and political | Main | Will the UN repeat Copenhagen's mistakes? »

December 02, 2010

Same old snake oil at Cancún climate talks

IATP President Jim Harkness is blogging from Cancún, Mexico where the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is being negotiated.

The setting for the climate talks is truly surreal. As if to distract us from the dirty dealings going on inside the halls, our Mexican hosts have us staying along the beautiful (if over-developed) Yucatan coast. The ocean is blue, the sand is white and squadrons of Brown Pelicans and Magnificent Frigatebirds patrol the skies. There are “Iguana Crossing” signs along the side of the road, and I almost butted heads with an emissions trader this afternoon when our shuttle bus braked suddenly to allow a troop of Coatimundi to cross the road.

But Mother Nature is also onto the game. Skies have been dark and stormy, and the puddles at our feet remind us that the land we are standing on will be underwater by the end of the century because of the greed and cowardice we are witnessing from rich country governments and corporations here in Cancún.

Much of the talk in the corridors and press halls today was about Japan’s announcement yesterday that they will neither place their emissions targets under the Kyoto Protocol nor even accept a second commitment period when the current one expires in 2012. Their statement elicited a general outcry from delegates and civil society observers alike.

Speaking at a press conference this afternoon, IATP Board Member Sivan Kartha (his day job is with the Stockholm Environment Institute) debunked, point by point, Japan’s flimsy arguments for their abandonment of an agreement signed in their own ancient capital. You can watch his presentation here.

But while Japan’s move is making headlines, the global community’s collective response to climate change is under much more insidious attacks in myriad meetings and processes that are either closed to the public or deemed too arcane to be newsworthy.

A few I heard about today:

  • Brazil is pushing for inclusion of “forests in exhaustion” as a category eligible for Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) funds. As explained by Ecosystems Climate Alliance, this is a cynical rhetorical sleight of hand that would build on an existing loophole in the Kyoto Protocol in order to provide new incentives for clearcutting of rainforests. (All at a healthy profit for both logger and plantation owner.)
  • I heard from a couple of insiders that the concept of geo-engineering seems to be gaining legitimacy within the UNFCCC. This term covers a wide range of massive techno-schemes based on the idea that we can treat the earth like a chemistry set, combining elements here and there, to cool it just like we’ve warmed it up. The specific ideas range from biochar (burying billions of tons of charcoal to sequester carbon underground) to fertilizing the oceans with billions of tons of iron filings, to pumping (yes, billions of tons) of cold water from the deep oceans to the surface. Elizabeth Kolbert has written a brilliant introduction to and critique of geo-engineering, which you should read.
    These schemes are the climate change-equivalent of Hail Mary passes in football. That they are getting any serious attention betrays a troubling new degree of desperation.

The International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) is here in force, hosting over 70 events during the two-week talks. I sat in on one of them, a press conference, and heard their new refrain, that 85 percent of funding for climate change adaptation and mitigation will “have to” come from the private sector.

The common denominators in all three examples are markets and technology, the same snake oil and lottery tickets the rich have been selling the poor for years. (The World Is Flat!) The problem is, the mystique surrounding these two ideas permeates not just the developed world, but also the mentality of elites in the global South. How much simpler our lives would be if all we had to do was wait for the climate problem to be solved not by some inconvenient redistribution of resources or change in consumption patterns, but by the Invisible Hand and the next (Bengali or Nigerian?) Thomas Edison? It is these fantasies, not the tropical drinks with umbrellas in them, which are distracting negotiators (and many large Northern NGOs) from the intellectually straightforward, but politically difficult task at hand.

The consolation in this otherwise grim tableau is that ordinary people are here as well: youth, people from faith communities, farmers, fishers, waste pickers, trade unionists, students, people from indigenous communities and grassroots greens. They want solutions from governments, but they know that they already have many of the solutions on their own farms and in their own communities, and they are here to share them. These people hope that they can make their case and be heard by their elected representatives, but know that even if all they do in Cancún is refuse to remain silent while those representatives sell them out, it will still have been worth the trouble.

Ben Lilliston

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