Obama's Pitiful Pledge Epitomizes Failure of UN Summit: Climate Campaigners

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Obama's Pitiful Pledge Epitomizes Failure of UN Summit: Climate Campaigners

Following historic protests, grassroots organizations turned away from UN's 'halls of power' when they attempt to deliver statement

Community leaders from Our Power Campaign attempt to deliver a statement to the UN but are denied entry. They brought "representing our community-led solutions, as plants that clean the soil of toxics," according a group statement. (Photo: Climate Justice Alliance)

Historic crowds gathered in New York City this week to demand drastic action in the face of the ever worsening climate crisis. But at Tuesday's Climate Summit at the United Nations headquarters, heads of state—most notably President Obama—did not come close to heeding the urgent calls for concrete action, say climate justice campaigners.

The summit was convened by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to showcase "government, finance, business, and civil society" solutions to the climate crisis, according to a UN announcement. Politicians, corporations, and token civil society groups were invited to participate, while social movement organizations were excluded from the summit. Perhaps the most notable thing about this year's meeting, which follows a similar gathering in Copenhagen in 2009, was the large role played by corporations in the day's events and plenaries. Justin Gillis pointing out in the New York Times that "companies are playing a larger role than at any such gathering in the past."

By contrast, numerous heads of state did not attend the summit, including Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Superficial Commitments

But at an event billed as an opportunity for corporations and politicians to announce voluntary climate commitments, those who did show were short on concrete and binding action steps.

President Barack Obama gave a speech to the UN that was heavy on passionate rhetoric. "The alarm bells keep ringing. Our citizens keep marching. We cannot pretend we do not hear them. We have to answer the call," he declared. However, his address provided few details on how these intentions translate into action and did not address the critical question of new U.S. emissions targets. Furthermore, Obama made no mention of sending money to developing countries dealing with the impacts of climate change. Obama's announcement of an executive order to consider climate change in international development programs was met with caution due to the Obama administration's continued support of the fossil fuel industry.

“We’re being exploited, assaulted on an everyday basis, by industry that surrounds our community,” said  Yudith Nieto of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, based in Houston, Texas. “We don’t get any support from our representatives. We have to put our two cents in and let them know that we are here.”

"So far, the Obama administration continues to allow the fossil fuel industry to undermine efforts to address climate change by mining and drilling for coal, oil, and gas from our public lands and waters, unlocking huge quantities of carbon pollution," said Greenpeace USA Executive Director Annie Leonard in a press statement.

Obama's announcement of an Oil and Gas Methane Partnership, which is a corporate alliance led by extractive industries and not beholden to binding commitments, was slammed by critics. “President Obama’s executive order today, that hinges on the voluntary initiative, the Oil and Gas Methane Partnership, is more evidence that his administration is not serious about reducing methane emissions from the oil and gas sector," said Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food and Water Watch. "One does not solve the greatest environmental crisis in our lifetime with half measures and by running interference for the petroleum industry."

At the meeting, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called for emissions cuts, declaring, "By the end of this century we must be carbon neutral." Furthermore, he lauded the numerous corporations, including those from oil, gas, and coal extraction industries, for voluntary, non-binding commitments they made at the summit.

As Steven Mufson points out in the Washington Post, countries all over the world are blowing past their emissions targets, and in the United States, greenhouse gas emissions are back on the rise.

Responding to Ki-Moon's declaration, the Climate Justice Alliance warned in a press statement: "On the surface this appears good. In reality, it is thinly veiled language for the promotion of market-based and destructive public-private partnership initiatives such as REDD+, Climate-Smart Agriculture and the Sustainable Energy for All Initiative—which will further exploit human and natural resources to expand the profits of the world’s most wealthy."

Grassroots Organizations Denied Entry

During the UN summit, the Climate Justice Alliance, which represents 35 organizations of communities directly impacted by climate change, attempted deliver to the meeting a coalition statement which reads, “We demand that world leaders support and move money to our community-led priorities and local infrastructure needs to build sustainable community economies, energy democracy, zero waste, food justice, public transit and affordable housing—pathways that can create millions of long-term jobs and put our communities back to work."

But the network was denied entry to the summit, so leaders instead read the statement outside of the UN headquarters.

“Those within the UN Climate Summit need to start thinking about ways to change people’s relationship to the earth, ways to change the definition of prosperity and well-being to something that’s not about money for a few people, but for a good livelihood for everybody,” said Jihan Gearon of Black Mesa Water Coalition on the Navajo Nation.

"World leaders continue not to listen," reads a Climate Justice Alliance statement. "They'll take their photo opportunities in the street, but refuse entrance into the actual halls of power."

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