Climate Alarm Bells Ring but UN and Obama Administration Fail to Act

The recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the most worrisome so far. Paired with data from the 2014 National Climate Assessment, there is no question that the climate crisis is here and is accelerating at a faster pace than predicted. Its effects are widespread and dangerous, yet real solutions are being suppressed.

The climate crisis is a ticking clock that demands immediate effective action, but the United Nations Conference of Parties (COP), which is the international body responsible for creating agreements on climate change, has become nothing more than a tool for multinational corporations and financiers to force a neo-liberal agenda and profit from the crisis. The false solutions being promoted displace and exploit people, destroy the environment and worsen climate change.

The climate crisis is our greatest challenge. Significant work has been done over the past decade by civil society groups around the world cooperating to create plans for resistance to the corrupt COP process and a vision for a just transition to sustainable systems. Now is the time for organizations throughout the United States that advocate for justice to recognize that the climate crisis affects all of us and to participate in this global movement.

Effective strategy requires knowledge of the political environment, the entities involved and an understanding of real versus false solutions. The United Nations, the United States government, Big Green Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and the corporations that exert influence over them all are obstacles to effective action. Solutions exist but they won’t be coming from above, rather they will come from a mobilized grass roots demanding transformation to a carbon-free, nuclear-free energy economy.

This month, when the United Nations holds climate meetings in New York, people in the US have an opportunity to gather, raise awareness of the roots of the crisis and build a broader movement of movements that cooperates through a unified strategy. We must be clear in our demands and goals and lay a foundation to build a sustainable energy economy that provides universal access to basic necessities from the bottom up.

The Climate Crisis is Here

The IPCC was created in 1988 as a way for scientists from around the world to collaborate on reports that cover the environmental and economic impacts of climate change. As a large consensus-based body, the IPCC reports are considered to be generally conservative in their findings.

That is one of the reasons why the most recent IPCC report is so striking. It reports that Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions are rising at an alarming rate. In the 25 years between 1986 and 2011, GHG emissions were equal to the amount released in the previous 236 years. And according to the New York Times, one of the media outlets that previewed the report, the IPCC states that rising GHG’s are increasing “the risk of ‘severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts’ over the coming decades.” This is strong language for the IPCC.

At the current rate of GHG emissions, processes such as the melting of Greenland’s ice sheet will begin and won’t be possible to stop. This would raise the sea level by an estimated 23 feet by the end of the century and flood many major cities around the world. Melting in the Antarctic would add to that amount of rise.

Also worrisome are the impacts that are already occurring and the lack of preparedness for the ensuing crises. Water sources are being impacted in an overall negative way by weather changes and likewise agricultural production of staples such as wheat and corn has decreased. Temperature changes decrease food production by livestock too. Lack of access to drinking water and food insecurity will grow, especially for marginalized communities.

In the United States, the 2014 National Climate Assessment which reports on the current and expected impacts of climate change finds that some areas, particularly in the West, are using water at unsustainable levels. They predict increased competition for water and a reduction in water quality. By 2050, 32% of counties will experience high or extreme risk of water shortages. While some areas of the US will experience droughts and shortages; other areas, particularly in the East, will have increased rainfall, risk of flooding and damage to necessary infrastructure.

Ecosystems are already being disrupted causing changes in migration patterns and the extinction of species. Changes in temperature and seasons are affecting plant life by altering their growing seasons, geographical distribution, the prevalence of wild fires and exposure to pests and diseases. The National Climate Assessment reports that “many iconic species, may disappear from regions where they have been prevalent or become extinct, altering some regions so much that their mix of plant and animal life will become almost unrecognizable.”

Overall, the reports list a number of impacts that need to be considered. These include disrupted livelihoods, health effects, injuries and death where there is inland flooding, a rise in sea level or extreme heat; a breakdown in necessary infrastructure for electricity, water or emergency services due to extreme weather events; risks of lack of access to water and a breakdown in the food system; and risks of economic impacts from loss of ecosystems such as freshwater and marine life. You can review the IPCC report by clicking here and the National Climate Assessment by clicking here.

Recent research into the short term impacts of GHGs needs to be considered as well. Bruce Melton writes that the usual framework that is used for policy decisions is one hundred years, but that misses important short term consequences of current policy decisions. For example, burning coal emits sulfates that actually reduce the impact of global warming by acting as air coolants. Melton estimates that they have “masked up to 57% of warming that should have already occurred.” The negative effect of sulfates is acid rain. When scrubbers are added to coal plants, they reduce the emission of sulfates and their cooling effect. Replacing coal plants with methane gas (inaccurately called natural gas) plants will result in greater warming because methane has a stronger GHG effect than CO2. Melton also warns us to consider the possibility of abrupt climate change in which there can be a rapid rise in temperature over a short time period such as a decade.

The bottom line is that we are experiencing the climate crisis now and the climate alarm has been ringing for decades. Fifteen years have been wasted by political leaders so we must take urgent steps to both mitigate climate change and adapt to the expected impacts so that we can meet our basic needs.

The COP Process is Broken

Following the creation of the IPCC, in 1990, the United Nations General Assembly created a committee for a “Framework Convention on Climate Change” (UNFCCC) to develop an international treaty that would set binding emission targets, financial mechanisms for changes and different responsibilities for different countries based on various factors such as their level of development and GHG emissions. They introduced a convention in 1992 and by 1994, 196 countries had signed the agreement. These countries were called “parties” and they became the Conference of Parties (COP) which is the decision-making body of the UNFCCC.

The COP 3 (third yearly meeting of the Conference of Parties) adopted the Kyoto Protocol, the first international agreement on GHG emissions, in 1997, although it did not go into effect until 2005. Most countries signed onto the Kyoto Protocol which set targeted reductions in GHGs. The United States did not join, and Canada dropped out in 2011 rather than having to pay billions in fines because it could not meet its emission reduction requirements (think tar sands). Despite widespread participation in the Kyoto Protocol, worldwide GHG emissions increased 40% between 1990 and 2009.

The Kyoto Protocol includes a carbon-trading scheme in which certificates can be sold if an entity (power plant or factory) emits less than it is allowed or that can be bought if emissions are greater than are allowed.  The scheme failed. One reason was an oversupply of certificates. Prices for the certificates fell and it became cheaper to use dirty energy and purchase certificates than to reduce emissions. A similar mechanism in the protocol allows polluters to build ‘clean energy’ projects in developing countries and receive certificates that allow them to continue polluting at home.

Over its history, the COP process has failed to produce significant reductions in GHGs and instead has become increasingly dominated by corporations seeking to profit from the climate crisis. The decisions made by the COP reflect business interests rather than the needs and interests of civil society. In fact, civil society groups are being excluded more and more from the process. And major decisions are being made by private entities and dominant countries behind closed doors.

Anne Petermann and Orin Langelle of the Global Justice Ecology Project have been participating in the COP process since 2004. They work with civil society groups around the world, particularly youth and Indigenous Peoples, to elevate their voices. Over the past decade, they’ve observed the demise of COP to the point where it has become largely irrelevant and mostly an industry trade show or as they call it, the World Carbon Trading Organization. Similar to the World Trade Organization, the COP meetings are a place where industries can force countries to accept neo-liberal agreements that create ‘public-private partnerships’ (PPPs), publicly financed private enterprises by which corporations profit from false solutions.

In The Green Shock Doctrine, Petermann and Langelle write:

…rather than seriously responding to climate change, rich and corrupt governments are teaming up with corporations, the United Nations, World Bank, and other institutions to implement a new type of ‘disaster capitalism,’ which advances market-based climate mitigation strategies to create new business opportunities. These schemes do nothing for the climate, but rather promote and prolong the dominant development model that is unjust, immoral, genocidal, and ultimately, suicidal.

Petermann and Langelle noted a significant change in the COP13 meetings in Bali in 2007 when Big Business entered in a significant way. The following year at the COP14 in Poland, more than 1,500 industry lobbyists participated either as observers or as part of government delegations. They were given preferential treatment over civil society observers and delegates from poorer countries whose visas were delayed.  No significant action was taken except that outside the COP meeting civil society groups from around the world created their own framework, Climate Justice Action, to organize for a strong presence in 2009.

The COP15 meeting took place in Copenhagen. Activists organized multiple days of action and were met with pre-emptive arrests and police in riot gear. On one day of action, accredited delegates from the COP meeting planned to join the activists for a general assembly but were blocked and beaten by police. In all, there were more than 2,000 arrests. So many civil society delegates had their badges confiscated that the NGO booths in the exhibition hall were empty.

Negotiations at the COP15 were a shambles. Dominant countries strong-armed weaker countries by threatening their access to necessary funds. Snowden documents revealed that the NSA spied on various countries and leaked documents to undermine proposals for enforceable emissions reductions. Diplomatic cables leaked by Wikileaks show the United States scheming to undermine mandatory emission targets. After creating a mess, President Obama came in at the last minute and pretended to be a hero ‘saving the conference’ with a phony non-binding agreement with China, Brazil, South Africa and India, presented as a take-it-or-leave-it option. This was blocked by Venezuela and Sudan, the only two countries willing to stand against the US.

The only positive aspect of COP15 was an alternative people’s summit called Klimaforum09 which issued its own statement, A Peoples Declaration on Climate Change, outlining the causes of the climate crisis, demands and the path for a just transition. It concluded with a call for a global ‘movement of movements’ and stated “Together, we can make global transitions to sustainable future.”

The situation did not improve over succeeding COP meetings. At the COP16 in Mexico, a Green Climate Fund was established to be managed by the World Bank for private sector investments which would operate similarly to other neo-liberal World Bank projects. Youth who marched out in protest were sent on buses away from the conference area. The COP17 in Durban, South Africa was called the “Durban Disaster.” Twenty to thirty dominant countries held private talks that resulted in placing a dollar value on the carbon in soil and required all climate-related decisions to be compliant with WTO rules. Activists again held daily protests and their own general assemblies as “Occupy COP17.”

COP18 was supposed to be held in South Korea, but was moved to the very repressive country of Qatar to prevent protests. And by the COP19 in Poland, the whole COP process was irrelevant. Big Business held its own private parallel World Climate Summit. False solutions based on the market were promoted such as REDD+ that would result in exploitation of people by displacing them from their land and forests, restricting their access to food and water, forcing them into slave labor and promoting violence against them including assassination of activists. A program known as the misleading “Sustainable Energy 4 All” pushed damaging and dirty biofuels, hydroelectric dams, fossil fuels, methane gas, waste incinerators and nuclear power. We encourage you to read more about these false solutions in The Green Shock Doctrine.

Currently the COP process is working on a binding agreement for 2015 called the Paris Treaty. Rather than addressing the climate crisis, the treaty is expected to continue market-based inadequate solutions that further commodify nature and exploit people. Like the rigged corporate trade agreements, the TransPacific Partnership and TransAtlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, the Paris Treaty will be another tool for corporate profit.

The US is Headed Down the Wrong Path

Despite evidence that the United States can move rapidly to a carbon-free, nuclear free energy economy, the opposite is happening. While Obama has been adept at using the language that most people want to hear when it comes to the climate crisis, his actions have done the opposite. His administration has a close relationship with the fossil fuel and nuclear industries and so an “all of the above” energy strategy that includes fracking for oil and gas, offshore drilling for oil, building pipelines and allowing oil trains to move oil and gas, mountaintop removal for coal and nuclear energy is being promoted. Corporations are even moving to mine tar sands in the United States.

The United States has become a great source of fossil fuel for China and the European Union. Bloomberg News reports that the US is “the world’s biggest oil producer this year after overtaking Saudi Arabia and Russia…” primarily due to fracking in North Dakota and Texas. Although the oil and gas boom in the US was initially portrayed as a mechanism for energy independence, infrastructure is being put in place to export oil and gas. As is characteristic of markets, as the price of methane gas fell in the US, corporations looked to export it to places where they could find a higher price.

Although sustainable sources of energy are being developed in the United States, according to Sean Sweeney of Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, renewables are not rising fast enough and are merely supplementing the use of fossil fuels which continues to rise. The Nuclear Information and Resource Service reports that Obama’s new EPA rules are incorporating nuclear energy as a core element even though nuclear is expensive, unnecessary and is problematic throughout its lifespan from the excavation of uranium to the production of radioactive long-term waste.

Big Energy Industry’s influence over the political system at every level in the US is obvious. There are two oil and gas industry lobbyists for each member of Congress. Many industry lobbyists have an inside advantage as they are former members of Congress or staffers. Across the country, Big Energy pressures state and local governments for permits and policies that allow more extraction of fossil fuels and uranium and less regulation of their activities.

Big Energy and other corporate entities that profit from fossil and nuclear fuels also influence NGOs including those that are considered to be environmental groups. The Non-profit Industrial Complex is used to maintain the status quo in the US by promoting a political party or industry agenda under the guise of environmentalism. We wrote about this previously in more depth in Gang Green versus Fresh Greens.

This was evident when Obama announced the new inadequate EPA rules on coal this summer. Ken Ward reports that within a day, the 15 top environmental groups in the US endorsed it rather than calling it what it is, “too little, too late.” Some of the worst players are involved in the US Climate Action Plan, a group of corporations that includes Dow Chemical, Duke Energy, Exelon, Shell and more which have joined with the Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resource Defense Council and Nature Conservancy to promote climate injustice energy policy. The role of the environmental groups is to give the policies legitimacy while the polluters continue to pollute and profiteer.

Corporations that are working to profit from the climate crisis will do all kinds of things to advance their agenda, including the use of language that sounds like climate justice. For example, this month, the People’s Climate March being organized prior to UN meetings on climate change in New York City is being promoted by a broad set of organizations including the Climate Group which is holding parallel meetings in New York.  The Climate Group includes Duke Energy, Goldman Sachs and a long list of multinational corporations that pursue market based approaches to profit from the climate crisis.

Seeking climate justice

To counter corporate influence, the climate justice movement must be clear in what it stands for. Petermann describes the People’s Climate March as “A big tent, as in, the circus is coming to town… But this tent is so big that it even includes organizations that support fracking and the tar sands gigaproject…. According to some of the organizers, as long as everyone agrees that climate action is needed, then it’s all good. But are all climate actions created equal? No.”

There are organizations that are organizing around climate justice and real solutions. The Climate Convergence is planning a two day conference to discuss the roots of the crisis, obstacles to change and how to build a larger, more connected and effective movement of movements. The Climate Justice Alliance is participating in the Convergence and is organizing additional activities and direct action.

Similar to Climate Justice Action which developed as a movement of movements to resist the COP process, climate justice organizations in the United States also need to recognize that all of our issues are related to the climate crisis and build a similar movement of movements. It should be self-evident that the climate crisis which impacts the planet in so many ways, affects us all. The September events in New York provide a platform on which to build.

This article is part of a series in the lead up to the UN Climate Summit and the activities occurring around that event. It is being produced by Popular Resistance in alliance with The first article was: the “Climate Crisis Connects Us

Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers are co-directors of Popular Resistance. Margaret serves as co-chair of the Green Party of the United States. Read other articles by Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers.