With the Occupy movement spreading faster than wildfire, it's hard not to ask how every issue relates to it. Climate change is no exception. The question is particularly compelling right now because representatives of 194 countries are gathered in Durban, South Africa, to negotiate next steps for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
The connection is easy to make, actually. Like the economic crisis that sparked the Occupy movement, climate change is about inequality.
A few countries are responsible for releasing the vast majority of the global warming pollution that’s in the atmosphere. And they got rich pumping the subsidized oil and burning the cheap coal that produced those emissions. Their wealth did come at a cost — but to poor communities, especially in the global South. And, ironically, the countries and communities that are least responsible for today’s climate crisis are some of the most vulnerable to its impacts and have the fewest resources to respond.
A cacophony of global voices comes together at the annual UN climate summit. Policymakers, indigenous nations, labor unions, youth activists, environmentalists — you name it, they’re probably here, trying to stop global warming.
But powerful corporations whose bottom line depends on access to cheap energy, land, water, and other natural resources are here as well. Not surprisingly, their mission is to defend the status quo, and they wield the political weight of some of the richest nations and the most influential financial institutions (like the World Bank).
Frustrated with the seemingly boundless clout of corporate interests and those heralding the benefits of market-based solutions, like carbon trading, critics have taken to referring to this 17th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the climate convention as the Conference of Polluters. They're calling to #OccupyCOP17. @ (Twitter
José María Figueres, a former Costa Rican president, echoed the sentiment. Calling on all vulnerable countries to occupy the meetingand refuse to leave until progress is made, he said, “ We need an expression of solidarity by the delegations of those countries that are most affected by climate change, who go from one meeting to the next without getting responses on the issues that need to be dealt with."
Figueres was referring to two key goals. First, developed countries must renew their commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under the Kyoto Protocol — the only internationally binding treaty on climate pollution. Second, they must commit to providing developing countries with the money they need to support their adaptation to a warmer world and the transition to low-carbon economies. The United States and other rich countries are sidelining both of these broadly shared objectives.
We are the 99 Percent
Before condemning the UN climate convention, which is still the most democratic space to hold negotiations about our planet's future, it’s helpful to borrow a tool from the Occupy movement: an analysis of the 1 percent and the 99 percent.
The 1 percent in this struggle can be checked off in order of culpability:
1. Elite individuals and ideologues who’ve used their wealth to build the media empires that shape public opinion and to buy political influence. This includes billionaire climate denying spin-doctors like the media mogul Rupert Murdoch, and David and Charles Koch, the oil tycoon brothers who finance the ultra-conservative and astroturf tea party “movement.”
2. The polluting corporations like BP, Cargill, and Monsanto, and obstructionist trade associations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is challenging the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases.
3. The politicians and officials these people, corporations, and lobbyists buy. There are too many to name, but here are a few recently purchased by the coal industry: Representatives Eric Cantor (R-VA), Michele Bachmann (R-MN), and Jim Matheson (D-UT).
4. The governments and institutions that represent their interests. At the top of the list in the climate negotiations are the United States and the World Bank.
The 99 percent are the millions starving in the Horn of Africa, drowning in Bangkok, and forced from their homes in the lower 9th ward of New Orleans. They (we) are the people suffering around the world from a problem they (we) didn’t cause and can’t solve alone.
The heroes in this struggle include anyone who chooses to stand together in solidarity to oppose these injustices — the people on the street, the movements, the voices, such as Pablo Salon from Bolivia, who are willing to speak the truth in the halls of power.
The fight for climate justice is a fight for economic justice in a climate-constrained world. It's a call for a new economic model of broad-based wealth, local democratic control and new measures of well-being like climate resiliency.
The climate negotiations are one battleground among others where this struggle is playing out — not the only one or even the main one, but one we ignore at our peril.
Janet Redman, co-director of the Sustainable Energy & Economy Network at the Institute for Policy Studies, is observing the United Nations climate talks in Durban, South Africa.
Join the global call for climate justice by participating in 1,000 Durbans in conjunction with the December 3rd Day of Action on Climate Justice.
Many thanks to Matthew Stilwell, Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development, for contributing to this commentary.