UN Climate Negotiators Drop the Ball in Lima—Now It’s Up to the Grassroots to Pick It Up

Negotiators have stopped trying to win a binding international agreement on carbon emissions. Now it’s up to the people to push our governments to action.
COP20 in Lima, Peru. Photo by Presidencia Perú.

Peruvian President Ollanta Humala addresses the Conference of Parties. Photo by Presidencia Perú / Flickr.

During one of the “high-level” climate policy negotiating sessions here in Lima, where the words of the top diplomats seemed to float in to the air and disappear, a senior representative from Mexico used his time to tell a story. He recounted how he had once attended a meeting in Mexico City with an important international delegation when the city’s famous seismic alarm system sounded, signaling a serious earthquake less than a minute away.

“The political battles that matter most will need to be fought country by country and community by community.”

“Our visitors joined us quickly to leave the room for safety,” he noted, adding that not a single one delayed or stopped even to bring along their laptops.

His inference was clear. This week, as leaders from 196 nations gathered for the 20th annual United Nations climate summit, also known as COP 20, the planet is giving us multiple urgent alarms that the crisis is upon us, and yet it seems like our national leaders are content to just keep us all in our seats.

Portraits of a summit

COP 20 is being held here behind the carefully guarded walls of a sprawling military base, where well-dressed representatives of governments, international agencies, NGOs, and the media all mingle together in Wal-Mart style global summit—a rambling assembly of pretty much everything.

The formal negotiations are held in a pair of cavernous halls. To the untrained ear, the discussion sounds like a string of complex acronyms connected by the occasional verb. Another hall features a set of meeting rooms occupied by major players such as the United States, China, the European Union, the Gulf States, and an alliance of global corporations. Here delegates can feast on a string of panels and presentations in which the hosts seek to tout their leadership as saviors of the planet. Across an asphalt walkway, a collection of lesser forces inhabit rows of tiny display stands, from the government of Cuba to a group promoting “climate selfies” as a way to raise public consciousness.

Popular organizing to demand action on climate has never been more urgent.

What is clear is that the negotiations—at least that part played out in public—are not a place where nations facing an unprecedented global crisis put big ideas on the table. Nor is it a place where the voices of those most impacted are put at center stage. The Conference of Parties is a venue of details and technicalities, with debates over the placement of commas and brackets in complex draft agreements. To be clear, with stakes so high, details are important and the people who deal in them are doing important work. But the requirement of entry into the COP is not just a plastic U.N.-issued badge, but also an acceptance that whatever happens here must fit within the narrow constraints of the “politically feasible.”

As with all of these summits, Lima also became a magnet this week for gatherings by those demanding more aggressive action on the crisis. These included a modestly attended Cumbre de los Pueblos, or People’s Summit, of indigenous groups and social movements in a downtown park, a People’s March through the center of the city, an international meeting of unions near the sea to a large chaotic house where young activists prepared for various protests around the city.

In these spaces, the official COP was denounced as a conference of corporate powers. Within the official COP, these outside gatherings went essentially unnoticed.

An agreement of stitched-together promises

Within the negotiations themselves, COP 20 marks a major turning point, and a dangerous one.

The idea of a global agreement in which the nations of the world bind themselves to specific targets for reducing carbon emissions, with penalties for not doing so, is over. In its place the new plan of action is to construct a patchwork of voluntary national pledges known as “intended nationally determined contributions.” Each country will put on the table a package of promises about what they are willing to do and in some undefined way be held to it by collective moral force. These contributions will not go into effect until 2020, which many scientists believe is too late.

The next year is going to be a crucial one for the climate justice movement.

There is little question that the sum of these pledges (to be finalized in Paris at next year’s Conference of Parties), even if kept, will add up to something far less than the carbon reductions needed to keep Earth’s climate from going off the rails. Given the choice between another Copenhagen-style failure and a flimsy stack of promises, the leaders of nations are opting for the stack of promises.

What this means is that popular organizing to demand action on climate has never been more urgent. Should we denounce the proposed plan as being biblically inadequate to stop the crisis at hand? Yes. But we must also develop a set of strategies based on two realities we do not control. First, we will need to find ways to leverage the “contributions” that nations are making this week into actual, serious solutions. Second, we must recognize that governments will continue to craft their climate policies based not on international politics but on the particular stew of domestic politics they face at home.

Examples of this are everywhere. Germany is a leader in sustainable energy among industrialized nations because its corporate sector has bought into the idea of renewables as a stable energy source for the future and because its Green Party has made itself a serious power broker in the electoral process. The United States remains an addict to dirty energy because our political system is largely owned by the fossil fuel industry and because its voters are primed for rebellion any time gasoline prices hit $3.50 a gallon. China is finally feeling pressure to reduce its reliance on coal because decimating the lungs of its people has begun to spark actual rebellion. Bolivia’s destructive oil and mining policies continue—despite the inspirational rhetoric of President Evo Morales about protecting Mother Earth—because Bolivians believe it is their turn to develop and want the revenue from those resources to finance badly needed public works.

It should come as a surprise to no one that nations are unwilling to surrender part of their sovereignty to a global agreement. While we can work across national boundaries in solidarity, sharing ideas, building strategies, and linking arms, the political battles that matter most will need to be fought country by country and community by community.

Meanwhile, on the streets of Lima

On the streets of Lima, as the delegates met and the activists mobilized, life went on this week as normal, as it did in cities and towns across this endangered planet. People went to work, took their children to school, shopped in stores, and texted their friends. Most have certainly heard the alarm that rings in the distance on the climate crisis. But when we see ourselves as just one human being among 7 billion, it is hard to see how we can respond to that alarm and escape the crisis. So we keep doing what we are doing and try not to think too much about it.

The next year is going to be a crucial one for the climate justice movement. In the run-up to next year’s Conference of Parties in Paris, which is the deadline for a new agreement, the climate crisis will once again be at the center of global debate. For the movement, the challenge will be to use that moment to help people see that they are not alone, that they can push their leaders to act, and that escape is possible from the tangled webs of politics and economics that freeze us in place as spectators to a disaster.


The Democracy Center’s coverage from COP20 is available on the web, including, a , and . He is working on an article series for YES! in early 2015 on effective strategies for citizen action on climate.

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