Changing the System, Not the Climate: July Social PreCOP begins

by nathan thanki

Greetings from Las Islas Margaritas, the site of the first ever social preCOP on climate change. Over the past few years on this website you may have read many dispatches, reports, polemics, and laments from the prefabricated halls of various UN climate change negotiations. We have watched and written as the process to negotiate a new global climate treaty (or whatever) was launched in 2011 and stumbled clumsily forward ever since.

photo credit Zack Embree

In case you didn’t notice, those writings have become increasingly frustrated. The “international community” of diplomats has, with only a few notable exceptions, back-slapped itself towards the edge of a climate cliff. We are now faced with the scary reality that collectively, but especially among rich industrialised countries, the ambition level is so low that keeping further warming below dangerous levels is essentially impossible. The unfairness (the inequity) of the situation is also a sore point and the cause of much of our frustration—large parts of the “developing” world are already struggling with the concurrent forces of increasing poverty, energy and food shortages, and privatisation of the commons—consequences of unfair international trade rules. Now they must also suffer the impacts of a changing climate, impacts they had relatively little hand in producing. As far as we’ve seen, the negotiations are going off down the wrong track of doing nothing more than establish new carbon markets, as if that would address systemic problems. We can and do write a lot about the many reasons behind this, but largely it is due to powerful lobbies and an imbalance of geopolitical power—exemplified by last year’s preCOP in Warsaw, which was exclusively for the (mainly fossil fuel) private sector.

All that being said, here in Margaritas we are not reporting on the formal negotiations themselves, but rather on a daring attempt by the Venezuelan government, in partnership with social movements particularly in the global south, to inject the concerns and demands of the people into what is a highly technical and disempowering space. While most governments say “change how much carbon the system emits,” the Venezuelans are saying “change the system, not the climate.” We tend to agree.

In a last roll of the die before the UN climate negotiations conclude in December 2015 in Paris, the Venezuelan Government has gone to considerable trouble to pull off Chavez’s vision of shifting the debate around climate change by gathering several hundred members of social movements and civil society organisations here in Las Margaritas for the social preCOP. As well as the international contingent* of climate activists, there are around 140 Venezuelan activists and academics from over 70 groups, working on a diverse range of social and environmental issues, not just the niche “climate” issues. From the 15-18 of July, the preparatory meeting will begin the difficult but necessary work of establishing the foundation for what will become—in November at the formal social preCOP gathering—some sort of People’s Declaration on climate change. Those of you with a more than four year memory might be thinking of the somewhat similar Cochabamba Declaration. What emerges from the social preCOP can and should be in the same vein, but it will be more pointed—it must galvanise the movements into more impactful action while also being a useful tool for the fight being waged in the UN.

photo credit Zack Embree

To this end, the organising team has, with input from civil society, proposed five “mesas” (roundtables) which have been set up as follows, each with a corresponding list of points, or “guides for discussion” in order to offer a structure to the conversation. By their own admission, their guide is neither exclusive nor exhaustive, but rather a starting point for us to build on.

I. Social Impacts of Climate Change

II. Climate Ethics: Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities

III. Social Participation in Decision Making

IV. Combating Climate Change: Direct Action for Transformation

V. North-South Responsibilities: Commitments of the North to enable actions in the South

They have deftly elaborated a methodology for our work, which will see each mesa elect a facilitator at its first meeting. One lucky person will have the job of rapporteur/secretary, to work with the facilitators to ensure that the vision and points of consensus from each mesa are appropriately captured. One even luckier person will be tasked with “introducing” the theme of each mesa, complex and interconnected as they may be, by giving a brief overview of the issues and questions.

At the end of the intense few days here, we should be left with something resembling a draft, or at least basis of a people’s declaration. In order to ensure widespread support, between July and November there will be a process to elicit feedback and input from social movements at key moments around the world so that by November, the groups present in Margaritas can take forward a People’s Declaration to the preCOP ministerial meeting. Where the process goes after that point is less clear—figuring out how this effort can best “land” within the formal negotiations is not a job for the faint hearted. But what is clear is that the gauntlet has been thrown down as we head round the corner of Lima into the final stretch on the road to Paris.


photo credit Zack Embree

*Due to administrative issues around visas we are sadly missing quite a few international participants—as usual, those from developing countries were hardest hit. However, the Venezuelan organising team will undoubtedly have learnt many lessons in relation to the logistics off arranging travel for so many people from all over the world, and will hopefully be able to ensure full participation at the Social Pre-COP in November. The final regional breakdown of representatives from 79 international organisations is as follows: 12 from Africa, 26 from North America, 80 from Latin America (excluding Venezuela), 34 from Asia-Pacific, and 20 from Europe.

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