Cancún Climate Summit: Time for a New Geopolitical Architecture

As we approach crucial climate change negotiations in Cancún, Mexico, the key question on many people's minds is this: What nation or nations will have the courage to stand up to the United States, which still represents the key obstacle to a binding agreement on global warming?

As we approach crucial climate change negotiations in Cancún, Mexico, the key question on many people’s minds is this: What nation or nations will have the courage to stand up to the United States, which still represents the key obstacle to a binding agreement on global warming? If it looked unlikely that the U.S. would reduce carbon emissions before, the recent midterm elections have made such a possibility seem even more remote: many incoming Republican legislators simply deny that global warming exists.

Without any targets set for emissions cuts in the U.S., it will be difficult for Washington to fulfill its obligations under the Copenhagen accord, an agreement which many feel is already hopelessly watered down. A U.S. refusal to substantially decrease its emissions could in turn bode ill for future negotiations, since China will certainly claim that Washington is more historically responsible for global warming and is not doing its fair share to halt climate change.

Developing nations need to get their act together and exercise more pressure on the U.S. In recent years, a leftist bloc of Latin American countries, chiefly Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador and Venezuela, have sought to challenge the U.S. when it comes to setting climate change policy. Ringleader Bolivia, which was particularly opposed to the Copenhagen deal, wants to limit any increase in world climate change to less than 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit).

Yet, major emitters have failed to even meet Copenhagen’s far less ambitious target of limiting the rate of increase to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). President Evo Morales, who some are pushing for the Nobel peace prize, recently organized a counter climate summit in Cochabamba. The Bolivian declares that $300 billion a year is necessary to cope with global warming and is lobbying hard for the formation of an innovative international climate court.

Bolivia vs. the United States

There’s been an escalating war of words between the U.S. and the so-called Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas or ALBA when it comes to climate change. Take, for example, U.S. climate envoy Jonathan Pershing who recently lambasted Bolivia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba. The ALBA nations, Pershing claims, saw the Copenhagen process “not so much as a solution to climate change, but in fact as a mechanism to redistribute global wealth.” Somewhat superciliously, Pershing added, “Well, surprise, surprise, surprise, the rest of the world doesn’t want to do it that way.”

Not to be outdone, Bolivia’s ambassador to the United Nations Pablo Solon tartly hit back “The US’ deliberate attempts to sideline both democracy and justice in the climate policy debate is holding humanity hostage — and will be viewed as both reckless and immoral by future generations.” “It is time,” Solon continued pointedly, “the US read the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s own reports, which in the Fourth Assessment clearly noted that ‘Adaptive capacity is intimately connected to social and economic development, but it is not evenly distributed across and within societies.’ Furthermore it states: ‘Vulnerability to climate change can be exacerbated by… poverty, unequal access to resources, food insecurity, trends in economic globalization, conflict and incidence of diseases such as HIV/AIDS.'”

Hardly amused by Solon’s broadside, the U.S. suspended its climate aid programs to Bolivia and Ecuador for not backing the Copenhagen accord. “The threats don’t intimidate us,” exclaimed Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa. “We weren’t necessarily expecting this administration to…so blatantly use [the aid cutoff] against one of the poorest countries in Latin America,” indignantly remarked Angélica Navarro, Bolivia’s lead climate negotiator.

The AOSIS Plea

On the surface at least, one might expect the Group of 77 or G-77, a coalition of more than 130 developing nations, to be taking up Bolivia’s call and to lead the charge against the U.S. However, internal cohesion is difficult to come by within the group as China, India and Brazil, all major carbon emitters, constitute part of the bloc. Together, these major “advanced industrialized economies,” along with South Africa, have presented an obstacle toward reaching a binding agreement and have actually cut backroom deals with the U.S. to limit the scope of climate change negotiations.

With the G-77 fraying at the edges, what types of geopolitical alliances are we likely to see in future? The increasingly restive AOSIS bloc or Alliance of Small Island Nations, which stands to be inundated — literally — by climate change, is looking for diplomatic support. AOSIS believes that the world must limit warming to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius to avoid the worst ravages of climate change. There’s some disagreement on this score, however, and some fear that if climate change rises to more than 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) that many islands will disappear and Africa will be severely impacted.

Compromising somewhat at Copenhagen, the island nation of Tuvalu proposed that the UN climate treaty be amended so as to oblige nations to keep the increase in global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. In addition, the island nation sought to open discussions on a legally binding agreement to the Kyoto Protocol which would set greenhouse gas emissions targets for emerging economies starting in 2013. Tuvalu’s move was backed by dozens of the poorest countries exposed to climate change including the Cook Islands, Barbados, Fiji and some African nations such as Sierra Leone, Senegal, and Cape Verde. “Our future rests on the outcome of this meeting,” Tuvalu delegate Ian Fry declared.

The Anachronistic G-77

In a snub of small island nations, however, Brazil, China and India shot down Tuvalu’s proposal and, in the end, the Copenhagen accord wound up backing a dangerous two degree Celsius temperature rise above pre-industrial levels. “Tuvalu has a very legitimate preoccupation for a most ambitious possible agreement,” declared Sergio Serra, Brazil’s climate ambassador during Copenhagen. “But we would not agree on a mandatory reduction target. This is not something Brazil is ready to discuss.”

“What Copenhagen made blindingly clear,” notes a recent column for the BBC, “is that the world has changed. We are in a new geopolitical era.” There is no such thing as “developed” and “developing world,” the article continues, as China and India will act as nakedly in their self interest as western powers when it comes to climate change. The traditional United Nations geopolitical blocs are out of date and have not allowed for “the creative emergence of hybrid coalitions from North and South.” Instead of “anachronistic” groupings like the G-77 plus China, the world should look toward new blocs which recognize the future peril of climate change.

If it were to step up to the plate and become a leader on climate change, the European Union would receive effusive thanks from the likes of AOSIS and the Maldives Islands. In 2008, the EU said it would unilaterally cut carbon emissions by 20 percent by 2020 as compared to the earlier benchmark year of 1990. Adding a further ray of hope, following pressure from Britain, France, Germany and the European Commission, the EU said it would reduce its emissions even further by 30 percent if other industrialized nations followed its example [needless to say, when the EU put its proposal on the table at Copenhagen, the measure was not reciprocated].

Sounds all fine and good, but when you get down to the nitty gritty of the negotiating table the EU has been way too timid. Indeed, the 27-nation group has signaled that it will only sign on to a new UN treaty if other big economies agree to make deeper cuts in their emissions. Der Spiegel meanwhile reports that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was frustrated by the lack of progress at Copenhagen and is moving away from her goal of limiting climate change to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Merkel has even signaled to the rest of the EU that she does not support the idea of the EU going it alone on climate change. The EU is now dumbing down its expectations for Cancún, hoping to achieve modest agreements on climate financing and a climate warning system.

Even worse, EU member Britian has resorted to some of the same strong-arming as the U.S. Take for example climate secretary Ed Miliband, who has accused Bolivia and other left wing Latin American countries such as Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua of hijacking UN climate talks and “holding the world to ransom” to prevent a deal being reached. In a show of force, Miliband said the UK would make it clear to those countries holding out against a binding treaty that “we will not allow them to block global progress.” In a rapidly deteriorating diplomatic imbroglio, environmental groups hit back at Britain and the U.S. for dictating the weak terms of the Copenhagen agreement and for imposing it upon the world’s poor.

Forging a New Geopolitical Bloc

With the U.S. stonewalling any prospects for a good climate deal, and the EU, China, Brazil and India failing to heed the call of small island nations, environmentalists hope that ALBA may rise to the occasion. To be sure, individual nations within the ALBA bloc have, at times, conducted themselves rather questionably from an environmental standpoint. Take for example Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa, whose government sought to shut down the offices of Quito-based Acción Ecológica, and then, perversely, called indigenous peoples “infantile” when they protested unfair mining and petroleum laws.

Then there’s Venezuela, a major world oil producer which has been contributing mightily to global warming through its petroleum exports since the 1920s. President Hugo Chávez, moreover, has pursued boondoggle development projects such as the South America Regional Infrastructure Integration Initiative (known by its Spanish acronym IIRSA), which aims to integrate and synchronize strategic infrastructure works that will facilitate the development of natural resources. From a social and environmental standpoint IIRSA is a nightmare and, according to the environmental group Conservation International, could destroy much of the Amazon rainforest by mid-century, thereby exacerbating climate change. Perversely, once again, Venezuela has recently sought to downplay the warming component of its oil industry, arguing that other greenhouse gases are more potent.

Despite these serious environmental drawbacks, ALBA is still the only bloc of countries to advocate a more radical environmental critique. ALBA, however, does not have serious heft on the world stage. Aware of Bolivia’s relative weakness, Morales has urged Japan not to sign on to the watered down Copenhagen accord in the hopes of preserving the tenets of the earlier Kyoto Protocol. AOSIS, ALBA and African nations could also lobby Brazil to abandon its counter-productive negotiating within the so-called newly formed group known as BASIC which includes China, India and South Africa, and move into the more progressive environmental camp.

Accomplishing such a feat would be, admittedly, quite an uphill struggle. It was Brazil, after all, which cut a backroom deal with the U.S. at Copenhagen and which is determined at all costs to develop its burgeoning agribusiness sector. One cannot discount the possibility however that Brazil might become more of a progressive player at some point in future: in the first round of the country’s recent presidential election Green Party candidate Marina Silva garnered a whopping 19% of the vote, a clear reflection of rising environmental consciousness.

As we approach the Cancún climate talks, activists might consider making friendly overtures toward Brazil in hopes that the South American giant might come round. Incoming president Dilma Rousseff, a protégé of Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, is hardly known for her green credentials though she is sympathetic toward the ALBA bloc in wider South America. Environmentalists might approach Brazilian officials at Cancún, yet another possibility is the United Nations at New York. Just seven years ago, activists paid visits to various European missions in the hope of stirring opposition to U.S. multilateralism in the Middle East. In the end, the Bush administration went to war in Iraq anyway, but that doesn’t mean a concerted and friendly campaign directed at Brazil is not worth pursuing. What is more, the media is concentrated around the United Nations and small actions might attract world attention in advance of the climate summit in Mexico.

Activists can’t do it alone, however: without the support of other South American leaders in the ALBA bloc Brazil is likely to do what is simply politically and economically expedient. ALBA leaders Morales and Chávez have been railing against the Global North for the last couple of years. Brazil, however, is now the third largest greenhouse gas emitter and a rising problem for everyone. ALBA leaders must now make a choice: what is more important, preserving their leftist alliance in Latin America or putting some more public pressure on Brazil?

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave, 2008) and No Rain in the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet (Palgrave, 2010). Visit his website, www.nikolaskozloff.com