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New Year, No Resolutions on Climate Change

by Yifat Susskind and Diana Duarte

With the dramatic wrap-up of the UN climate change conference in Bali, 2007 is drawing to a close. Now we have seven short years-until 2015-to reverse the rise of greenhouse gas emissions and avoid a global temperature increase of two degrees Celsius. Worldwide scientific consensus says that going above a two degree increase would usher in the worst effects of climate change. Picture another 200 million people displaced by floods and an additional 600 million people suffering from hunger.

As maddening as the doomsday scenarios are terrifying is the fact that climate change can be controlled. Although there are challenges, the toughest obstacles are not scientific or technical or even financial. They are political. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Bali last week.

"If You're Not Going to Lead, Get Out of the Way"

From the outset of the Bali negotiations, the US delegation obstructed a key solution to climate change: mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions. They insisted that the conference produce only a blueprint for further negotiations, instead of outlining the emergency measures that are needed on climate right now. The US was repeating its standard argument, namely, that economic growth must meet no obstacles, especially in the form of limits on greenhouse gas emissions for US industries.

But economic growth is just another way of measuring natural resource consumption, and consumption (particularly of fossil fuels and forests) is what is driving climate change. The Bush Administration's fantasy of endless economic growth is putting us on a collision course with reality. The reality is that the planet has its limits, and we are fast approaching them. That means that economic policy needs to be crafted within a broader framework of environmental policy, and not the other way around. In other words, the Administration's approach needs to be turned on its head.

Yet, thanks to US intransigence, backed by Canada and Japan, the European Union's proposed 25-40% cut in emissions by 2020 was dropped from the final "Bali Action Plan." And the EU didn't pull those numbers out of a hat. That 25-40% figure comes from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world's foremost expert body, whose numbers, if anything, are turning out to be conservative. The US made sure that the Bali Action Plan ignores their findings.

Frustration with US obstinacy came to a head in the final day of negotiations. While the US was chipping away at the draft outcome document, pressure on the US delegates became increasingly vocal, with one representative from Papua New Guinea stating, "If you're not going to lead, get out of the way."

Climate Justice

Papua New Guinea, whose representatives made international headlines on the last day of the conference, is one of many developing countries where harrowing predictions about climate change are happening now. In some areas of Papua New Guinea, rising sea waters are already destroying homes and communities. Developing countries with large populations vulnerable to disasters like droughts and floods have seen little attention or money from developed countries to help them cope. In Bali, the consensus reached by African governments underscored the need for more funds to deal with climate catastrophes.

In fact, a growing divide between developed and developing countries was on full display in Bali, with developing country representatives, like Munir Akram of Pakistan, voicing some of the strongest criticism of US actions. For instance, in addition to stonewalling any real progress in the Bali Action Plan, the US worked to shift the debate away from its own culpability for climate change (the US, with the world's biggest economy is also the worst carbon polluter) and onto developing countries. According to Akram, some rich countries (though he refused to name names) threatened poor countries with trade sanctions if they did not commit in the Action Plan to cut their own emissions.

Developing countries in fact do have an obligation to avoid the same carbon-intensive development path as industrialized countries. There is simply no more room in the atmosphere for carbon emissions. Rich countries have used it all up through the same processes of industrialization that made them rich in the first place. This patently unfair dynamic leaves industrialized countries with the primary responsibility not only for vastly reducing carbon pollution, but also for providing the "technology transfers" (as they're called in the Action Plan) to enable poor countries to develop economically without doing more damage to the atmosphere. Finally, developed countries need to shoulder the burden for "adaptation" as the Action Plan refers to it, or the measures needed to enable developing countries to survive and adjust to the climate crisis that the rich have created. These imperatives flow directly from the language of "common but differentiated responsibilities" in the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change of which the Bali talks were part.

Gender Justice

Bali was an opportunity for developing countries to highlight the ways in which the world's poor are being hit first and worst by climate change. But no government, North or South, emphasized the fact that worldwide, 70% of poor people are women. Nor was there a focus on the importance of women's knowledge and skills to the survival of poor communities facing climate change. It is rural women, after all, who have historically developed and enacted solutions to ecological challenges that we need to adapt and replicate today. Worldwide, women in communities are responsible for developing sustainable agriculture, preserving biodiversity, securing fresh water supplies, building wind-resistant housing, and more. These kinds of local solutions, and a gender perspective more broadly, must be integrated into climate policy at all levels.

What Next?

Thanks in large part to pressure brought to bear by other delegates, the US representatives finally signed the Bali Action Plan. But what sort of a plan is this? The best that delegates in these climate change negotiations were able to say is that the path is open for progress in 2009, when a presumably more amenable US administration will be in office. In short, the Bali Action Plan represents the lowest common denominator of government positions and barely advances the climate agenda.

The UN has already scheduled another four negotiating sessions on climate change for 2008. But a significant shift is required before these discussions can begin to generate positive change. As far as global climate policy is concerned, the US is clearly a rogue state. But even governments that are not subsidiaries of the oil industry tend to be staffed by people with a vested interest in the economic status quo. All governments need to feel the pressure from a climate movement demanding social and economic justice as the starting point for a new climate regime.

Yifat Susskind is MADRE Communications Director, and Diana Duarte is MADRE Media Coordinator.

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