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A New Climate Movement in Bolivia

Naomi Klein

 by The Nation

Cochabamba, Bolivia

It was 11 am and Evo Morales had
turned a football stadium into a giant
classroom, marshaling an array of props: paper plates, plastic cups,
disposable raincoats, handcrafted gourds, wooden plates and multicolored
ponchos. All came into play to make his main point: to fight climate
change, "we need to recover the values of the indigenous people."

Yet wealthy countries have little interest in learning these lessons and
are instead pushing through a plan that at its best would raise average
global temperatures 2 degrees Celsius. "That would mean the melting of
the Andean and Himalayan glaciers," Morales told the thousands gathered
in the stadium, part of the World People's Conference on Climate Change
and the Rights of Mother Earth. What he didn't have to say is that the
Bolivian people, no matter how sustainably they choose to live, have no
power to save their glaciers.

Bolivia's climate summit has had moments of joy, levity and absurdity.
Yet underneath it all, you can feel the emotion that provoked this
gathering: rage against helplessness.

It's little wonder. Bolivia is in the midst of a dramatic political
transformation, one that has nationalized key industries and elevated
the voices of indigenous peoples as never before. 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.

That's because the actions causing the melting are taking place not in
Bolivia but on the highways and in the industrial zones of heavily
industrialized countries. In Copenhagen, leaders of endangered nations
like Bolivia and Tuvalu argued passionately for the kind of deep
emissions cuts that could avert catastrophe. They were politely told
that the political will in the North just wasn't there. More than that,
the United States made clear that it didn't need small countries like
Bolivia to be part of a climate solution. It would negotiate a deal with
other heavy emitters behind closed doors, and the rest of the world
would be informed of the results and invited to sign on, which is
precisely what happened with the Copenhagen Accord. When Bolivia and
Ecuador refused to rubber-stamp the accord, the US government cut their
climate aid by $3 million and $2.5 million, respectively. "It's not a
free-rider process," explained US climate negotiator Jonathan Pershing.
(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.) Pershing's message was chilling: if you are poor,
you don't have the right to prioritize your own survival.

When Morales invited "social movements and Mother Earth's
defenders...scientists, academics, lawyers and governments" to come to
Cochabamba for a new kind of climate summit, it was a revolt against
this experience of helplessness, an attempt to build a base of power
behind the right to survive.

The Bolivian government got the ball rolling by proposing four big
ideas: 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").

The next stage was to invite global civil society to hash out the
details. Seventeen working groups were struck, and after weeks of online
discussion, they met for a week in Cochabamba with the goal of
presenting their final recommendations at the summit's end. The process
is fascinating but far from perfect (for instance, as Jim Shultz of the
Democracy Center pointed out, the working group on the referendum
apparently spent more time arguing about adding a question on abolishing
capitalism than on discussing how in the world you run a global
referendum). Yet Bolivia's enthusiastic commitment to participatory
democracy may well prove the summit's most important contribution.

That's because, after the Copenhagen debacle, an exceedingly dangerous
talking point went viral: the real culprit of the breakdown was
democracy itself. The UN process, giving equal votes to 192 countries,
was simply too unwieldy--better to find the solutions in small groups.
Even trusted environmental voices like James Lovelock fell prey: "I have
a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war," he
told the Guardian recently. "It may be necessary to put democracy
on hold for a while." But in reality, it is such small groupings--like
the invitation-only club that rammed through the Copenhagen Accord--that
have caused us to lose ground, weakening already inadequate existing
agreements. By contrast, the climate change policy brought to Copenhagen
by Bolivia was drafted by social movements through a participatory
process, and the end result was the most transformative and radical
vision so far.

With the Cochabamba summit, Bolivia is trying to take what it has
accomplished at the national level and globalize it, inviting the world
to participate in drafting a joint climate agenda ahead of the next UN
climate gathering, in Cancún. In the words of Bolivia's
ambassador to the UN, Pablo Solón, "The only thing that can save
mankind from a tragedy is the exercise of global democracy."

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.

This column was first published in The Nation (

© 2017 The Nation
Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein is Senior Correspondent at The Intercept and the inaugural Gloria Steinem Chair of Media, Culture and Feminist Studies at Rutgers University. Her books include: "No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump's Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need" (2017),  "This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate" (2015);  "The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism" (2008); and "No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies" (2009).  To read all her writing visit

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