A Strategy for Change?

The climate summit in Bolivia is based on the start of a strategy—to bring social movements inside discussions about combating climate change—but more careful planning is needed.
Morales in crowd

Photo by Tupac Saavedra and Lauren Rosenfeld.

We don't have time to waste. When we talk climate change we are talking about a crisis in which human behavior needs to change very much, very fast—and the only way that change that fast happens is by changing public policies. So my beat here at the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth is about looking for the strategies to make that policy change happen. What are the objectives? Who does the climate movement need to move to achieve them? How are they going to do that? What are the arguments, alliances and actions that will make that happen?

Climate change is not going to be combated without public policies, and governments are not going to enact those polices without a heavy push from their people.

I have a bias. I believe that if you don't have a strategy you are just screwing around in the dark, and the planet doesn't have time for us to go screwing around in the dark.

The climate summit here this week is based on the start of a strategy—to move past a formula where social movements meet outside the doors of government summits and try to influence what goes on inside. This is a meeting of the people and groups that were outside the negotiations in Copenhagen. Pablo Solon, Bolivia's Ambassador to the United Nations and a major force behind this week's climate summit, was on Democracy Now! just after me; he explained the strategy behind the summit this way:

What is the point? To organize. We need to organize a worldwide coalition of social movements, of networks, of NGOs—all of them with different perspectives, maybe, in Asia, Africa, Europe or here in Latin America, but all with a common purpose: how we are going to save the future of humankind and of our Mother Earth by trying to have enough force to press developed governments to have a real commitment to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

That makes sense, a lot of sense. Climate change is not going to be combated without public policies designed to do that and governments are not going to enact those polices without a heavy push from their people. So, what are we pushing them to do and how are we pushing them to do it?

I spent some time today listening to people talk about two ideas on that front, both promising on the surface.

Climate Debt

One is the idea of "climate debt." This is basically a way to frame a fundamental moral fact, that the wealthy nations of the globe have already emitted all the greenhouse gases we can afford to produce. It is like a speaker at a workshop using up all the airtime before anyone else can get a word in. Among the people I spoke to today who are keen on this idea is Naomi Klein, whose thinking on serious subjects I respect a good deal.

The climate debt idea has two big implications (among many smaller implications). One is that developing countries can't follow the same path of industrialization as their rich predecessors without making the climate crisis even worse. The other is that wealthy nations, in addition to reducing their own emissions, have a moral responsibility to help poorer countries to adapt to climate change and to industrialize in ways that won't deepen the problem.

But arguing moral responsibility is one thing; being able to make it a legal responsibility is another. Is there any treaty or institution in the world that can force the United States, for example, to make such payments? No. Is there any chance whatsoever that the U.S. would voluntarily subject itself to what would be an international tort system for climate damage? Well, look how happily U.S. lawmakers subjected the country to the world criminal court. Not quite.

So, if forcing rich countries to pay a climate debt is a dead end, what is the plan to move "climate debt" from a catchy idea to a real proposal with a chance of delivering some results? At a workshop today on that topic, there was an abundance of declarations about why climate debt is important, but few ideas of how to make it real. So we keep waiting for signs of a strategy.

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A Global Referendum

Another idea popular here is a proposal to work toward a global voter referendum on climate change. Advocates argue, with reason, that the people of the Earth are truly in the same sinking boat with regard to climate change and that we ought to have a vote on how to deal with it. But, as a student of the referendum process (in California I wrote a book on ballot measure politics, The Initiative Cookbook), I am stunned by the lack of serious thought that has been put in on two essential points.

The first is about what question to ask. The referendum is not planned as a binding law on government, the way an initiative is in California, for example. It is designed to be a collective public expression that can help pressure governments to act. So with such a referendum you need to think about what question will push governments in precise ways and to be damned sure you will win. Losing a referendum election doesn’t advance your cause.

At a meeting today on the referendum idea, a packed room debated a proposal to put a set of questions on the ballot, including:

  • Are you in favor of restoring harmony with Mother Earth?
  • Are you in favor of changing the model of super consumerism?
  • Shall we rededicate the funds now dedicated to war to defense of the environment?

I left in the middle of a discussion over whether an additional question should be added about the abolition of capitalism.

These questions may speak to people's ideological desires but they do not speak to specific actions that governments should take; they do not likely to win broad public support; and they are not serious questions for a global referendum.

The second point is about the mechanisms of arranging a public vote. Not all countries have such mechanisms and in many that do the time and cost of trying to secure such a vote is enormous. In California alone, for example, getting a measure on the ballot is a million dollar proposition. Does the climate justice movement really have the resources of time and energy to do this worldwide, and is this really the best use of the limited resources it has?

There is an alternative that makes far more sense if organizations want to go this route: citizen-organized referendums, or consultas. Mexican activists pioneered this technique a decade ago, setting up tables across the country and asking (in a single weekend) a basic question. For example, are you in favor of the government's economic reforms? The organizers of the Cochabamba Water Revolt also used this tactic in 2000. A citizen referendum that asked people if they favored breaking the government's contract with Bechtel drew more than 60,000 people, 10 percent of the city's population, in three days. As Oscar Olivera told me later, "The consulta made our movement much more participatory."

But these basic strategic questions seemed to have little place in the discussions I saw here today. I was not the only person there who observed this. Tomorrow I'll begin my "search for strategy" once more.

Jim Shultz


from the Global People's Conference in Bolivia.

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