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Climate Game Changer

Can Cochabamba pick up where Copenhagen failed?
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Evo Morales, photo by Paulo Filgueiras/UN

Evo Morales, President of Bolivia, addresses the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues on the role that indigenous peoples may play in combating climate change.

Photo by Paulo Filgueiras/UN

President Barack Obama's offshore drilling announcement is bad news for efforts to stop runaway climate change, especially following December's failed climate talks in Copenhagen.

But there is hope — and a whole new approach — coming from an unusual gathering later this month. Representatives of 50 governments will meet with ordinary people and social movement leaders from around the world in Cochabamba, Bolivia, to work on solutions to what may be the biggest threat ever faced by humankind.

The Copenhagen talks ended with little more than some nonbinding goals that, even if they were met, would result in nearly four degrees Celsius of warming. That's nowhere near the one to two degrees that scientists say is the most the climate can safely withstand if we are to maintain human civilization as we've known it. The gathering in Bolivia will differ radically from Copenhagen.

The Bolivia talks, entitled "The Peoples' Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth," turn away from the failed approaches of the world's rich and powerful governments and corporations, which are reluctant to risk losing wealth and status due to the scale of change needed to address climate disruption. Instead, the Cochabamba meeting will start with the values and priorities of ordinary people—those who did little to create the climate crisis and did not profit from it, but who will lose big if nothing is done to stop it.

December's climate talks in Copenhagen took as a given the worldview that got us into this climate quagmire — the belief, for example, that the Earth is primarily a source of raw materials and a dumping ground for the pollution and throw-away products that result from a global corporate economy.

The summit in Cochabamba comes at the climate crisis from a very different direction, beginning with the call from Evo Morales, the first indigenous president of Bolivia, to recognize the rights of Mother Earth.

"If we are all part of a single interdependent system, why should only humans have rights, and nature be treated simply as the object of human interests?" reads a conference statement. "Only by recognizing and defending the rights of Mother Earth can we restore balance on the planet. ... As long as humans treat Mother Earth as a slave with no rights, it will be impossible to recover our humanity."

The rural community of Khapi in BoliviaAs Glaciers Melt,
Bolivia Fights for the Good Life

Rural Bolivians want the rest of the world to reevaluate what it means to "vivir bien."

Unlike the Copenhagen process, which was built on the belief that humans will always strive for more and more economic growth and consumerism, the Bolivian organizers draw on a strong indigenous tradition that emphasizes living well over having more. And organizers question the assumption that global capitalism will continue to dominate an ever-growing world economy. Instead, the Cochabamba summit will explore alternatives that "challenge the current system based on consumption, waste, and the marketing of all aspects of life and nature."

And summit organizers promise an open process: "Unlike Copenhagen, there will be no secret discussions behind closed doors," writes Pablo Solón Romero, Bolivia's ambassador to the United Nations, in a March 19 column in the UK's Guardian newspaper. Instead, the process will be led by those "on the frontlines of climate change, and by organizations and individuals dedicated to tackling the climate crisis."

Participants at the Cochabamba summit will develop ways to measure the climate debt that the wealthy nations—where just 20 percent of the world's population lives—owe the rest of the world for having emitted 75 percent of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Organizers are calling for binding agreements, with United Nation sanctions for those who fail to live up to their climate commitments.

Instead of leading the talks, world governments are invited to "listen to the voices of civil society and together develop common proposals," says Solón. "We hope that this unique format will help shift power back to the people, which is where it needs to be on this critical issue for all humanity."

And that shift may be the real game changer as climate talks move from Copenhagen to Cochabamba. The failure of December's talks shows the hazard of leaving this urgent issue to governments, whose close ties to big oil, gas, coal, and the global finance industry make it difficult or impossible for them to lead the way to a future built on clean energy, sustainable agriculture, and climate-friendly forestry.

Cochabamba represents a new mindset with new players taking the lead: the activists who are stopping new coal plant construction; the towns and cities, businesses, faith groups, and farmers who are adopting sustainable practices; and each one of us who cuts back on driving, meat, and waste and works to "live well" where we are, without using up the life-giving capacities of our finite planet.

The People's Summit in Cochabamba could be a turning point where it becomes clear that ensuring a livable planet for our children means we, the people, must stand up to any corporation or government that refuses to either lead on climate solutions or get out of the way. But being part of the Cochabamba movement also means that we step up to the climate challenge by bringing our homes, communities, and workplaces into harmony with Mother Earth and becoming her nonviolent defenders.


Sarah van Gelder bio picSarah van Gelder wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Sarah is co-founder and executive editor of YES! Magazine.

YES! Magazine will be covering The Peoples' Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, which will take place April 19-22, at www.yesmagazine.org.

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