About a week ago, I got an email from a European friend who is part of the European Youth Climate Movement. My friend was sharing his frustrations and concerns regarding the views of many Western organisations and media outlets with regards to the upcoming preCOP in Caracas, a big climate gathering organised by the Venezuelan government to bring social movements, NGOs, and government from all over the world to come together free from corporate lobbyists to make progress on the issue internationally. The issue being raised by many of these European and North American activists is that Venezuela is a major oil producer and that attending such an event would lend tacit support to their fossil fuel extraction. As a Bolivian, I believe the reality is more complex; this piece is my attempt to add nuance, as well as to call out some of the underlying assumptions of my Northern colleagues and allies in the climate fight.
We all know that part of Venezuela’s motivation to host the PreCOP is to gain some badly needed political coverage and legitimacy with civil society around the globe. Let’s remember that many left-leaning developing countries have used climate change as a political tool against the US, EU, and powerful International and Regional Financial Institutions, by insisting on the argument that anthropogenic climate change is a product of an early form of capitalism, and it evolved with it.
Even though I do agree with this basic premise, I think that any society with an economic system based on natural resource extraction at a massive scale and limitless consumption will inexorably result in environmental degradation, regardless of its ideology or discourse. History is full of examples of previous civilizations that followed this path before they went into oblivion. These civilizations were not capitalist and they hadn’t “invented” the rates of hyper consumption and resource cannibalism that we see today, but they used beyond their means and collapsed. That is why we see some of the most progressive governments in Latin America, such as Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia in the awkward position of critiquing the aggressions of neoliberal capitalism to nature while also relying on extractive industries, such as oil. Their economies are highly dependent on activities that trash the environment. For example, right now Bolivia has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world, most of it in the Amazon. Also, private and state companies are running exploration and extraction projects in at least three national parks by both private and state companies. And the new mining law (Spanish speakers can find more about the resistance against this law here) passed early in May is one of the weakest in the region (lax regulations, low environmental standards, and poor evaluation and control mechanisms), certainly worse than Peru’s, which is widely known for having poor environmental standards for their mining sector.
SO, I understand the frustration and criticism of those who want to see progressive developing countries show and walk an alternative path to the current one, though they seem to be doing just the same. But the reality is much more complex. Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela or any other developing country are in a different reality than developed countries… they are not developed! Thus, they should not be judged by the same standards. A fair assessment of a country’s discourse and actions should include a whole range of other criteria and considerations. For instance, which countries are most responsible for climate change? We tend to think of China and US as the worst emitters (China as the number one). But this is a limited observation, climate change is not the result of a decade of fuel burning. That is why smart people have come up with something called historical responsibility (for those who like numbers and graphs, check out this equity calculator), which basically accounts for a country’s total contribution to climate change (greenhouse gas emissions). The historical responsibility of today’s worst emitters, for the period 1900-2004, is 314772.1 for the US and 89243 for China (in Million metric tons of carbon dioxide). In other words, the US historical contribution towards climate change is 3.5 times larger than China’s, and that is ignoring population. Based on per capita emissions, China and India (a third of the world population) emitted less than the US since 1900. But the US is not the only country with a shameful track record, most developed countries have emitted outrageously larger amounts of climate change causing gases to the atmosphere than most of the rest of the world. Here are just a few examples for comparison: Germany 73625.8; Japan 42696.2; Bolivia 260.1; Venezuela 5004.4; Zambia 178.8 (Million metric tons of carbon dioxide). (This is a good interactive and quick way to understand the concept of historical responsibility).
In addition, poverty levels should always be considered as part of the equation, this is an important determinant for “social flexibility”. If you want to introduce a new policy, lets say cutting down oil subsidies, you should have some idea of what the social flexibility is of the people who will be affected. In the case of gasoline subsidies (for consumption, production subsidies are a whole different story), you might have the political will and social support from important political and economic groups to implement the policy, but when you have more than half the population living below the poverty line and you increase gasoline prices by 70%… well, you get riots. That has been the case in many countries: it happened in Bolivia in 2011 when the president, Evo Morales, had more than 60% of support. Subsidies were back in effect 5 days after they announced the cuts. The examples are many, but the point is the same: if the people are poor and their basic need are not met, no country can afford tighter environmental regulations, emission cuts and renounce resource exploitation, even if that is oil. Making energy more expensive for poor people is an insane strategy to fight climate change.
Now, parallel to the unprecedented economic bonanza of the last decade in Latin America, poverty rates have come down. Social conditions have improved substantially, especially in countries with progressive governments that focus their policies on the poor. In Bolivia, poverty rates dropped from 62.9% to 40.9%, and extreme poverty dropped from 24.3% to 12.2% between 2005 and 2013. Meanwhile, in Venezuela poverty rates are now at 30%, down from 54% only 14 years ago. How did these countries reduce poverty, end illiteracy,fund universal health care (far more effective than Obamacare), increase life expectancy, and reduce child mortality? The answer is: By exploiting their natural resources (oil, minerals, timber from the Amazon, etc…) and attempting to equitably distribute the profits.
I think most people would agree that all humans have the right to a life with dignity and a right to get out of poverty. That same logic, when applied to countries, is called the Right to [Sustainable] Development. Ironically, if the world continues on business-as-usual track, it is the poorest countries and the least responsible for climate change that will be hit hardest. In other words, developing nations are trapped in a difficult dilemma: either they abstain from doing what every wealthy nation has done to lift its people out of poverty and develop or they contribute to cause the environmental catastrophe that will threaten their existence. At least the first option improves the chance of limiting global warming, which will benefit everyone… although not everyone will pay the same price. Why would a developing country do as much or more (proportionally with its size or capability) than an already developed one? That is simply unfair! Yes, we all have to do our part if we are to tackle climate change, its a common obligation, but different countries have different capabilities and responsibilities, each country should be taking on their fair share.
The current development model, based on extractive industry, endless growth, and unlimited consumption, is unsustainable, even when it is tweaked to a gentler version and it attempts to eradicate poverty. Unfortunately, it has been the path for every single country that has developed. In his popular book “Kicking Away the Ladder” the economist Ha-Joon Chang explains how developed countries are attempting to constrain the development of the “third world” by denying, forbidding and condemning the same tools they used the get themselves where they are now. He explains how every country goes through a series of stages before it develops, in which it adopts and replicates technology from more advanced countries (piracy), encourages its own industry (protectionist policies) and extracts-export natural resources (trashes the environment). All of these “tools/ techniques” have been condemned and made illegal by the rich countries, even though every single one of them used them as they rose. How can we not understand the frustration and distrust of southern nations have for rich ones? How can we not understand why developing countries demand bold action from the north (deep emissions cuts before 2020 and sincere commitments to support developing country adaptation) instead of accepting the burden of a problem they didn’t cause (aka. climate change)?.
I don’t think developing countries, at least in Latin America, are following exactly that same path of development drawn by the “graduated” nations. We have avoided some mistakes, such as wars, fascism, and colonizing the entire planet, and Latin America is certainly achieving many “development” landmarks at a record rate. From reducing poverty and providing basic needs to establishing democratic systems and de-carbonizing the economy (generating more cash/GDP with less CO2), Latin America is “developing” much faster and in a better way than what the developed world did.
Is this enough? definitely not. Should we be content with it? Of course not. Not being as bad as the others doesn’t make it any better. We should not give a free pass to any developing country, “right to development and Common But Differentiated Responsibilities” are not excuses to not do more and better. And perhaps more importantly, everyone’s government should be answering to the question: when is enough? At what point do we prioritize the environment? But, when we ask the questions or when we decide to take actions, to put pressure, to blame or applaud a country for what they do or didn’t do, let us not forget the whole picture, with all its complexity. Let us not be too quick and simplistic with a few countries like Venezuela, Bolivia, China, Nigeria and India while letting the truly responsible ones off the hook. Let us be clear, climate change is happening because a few developed countries burned fuel frenetically, exterminated their own forests and those of others, and consumed beyond excess.
But, lets not stop at this framing either, and lets observe the picture in more detail, lets go deeper. Rich industrialized countries are not homogenous societies, within those countries there are elites, the one percent, and the powerful corporations, the oil and auto industries, among others. They are the ones that have reaped most of the benefits. They are the ones driving most country’s politics with regards to climate change, trade, development, natural resources, etc…This is also the case in many, if not all, developing countries. There are few elites, corporations and groups of power that got rich at the expense of the poor. They, all of them are the ones that need to be the target of our voice and actions. The contribution of concerned citizens, activists, and writers from the North with regards to public policies in the South can be very beneficial and appreciated, but they must take into consideration the context, politics, and realities of the South, as well as the voice of the people living there. Too many times and for too long have developed countries impose their views on the rest of the world, unfortunately often times with good intentions but it didn’t make it any better. Bolivia is not France and Uruguay is not Switzerland, but if people insist in evaluating developing countries with the same criteria used to evaluate an industrialized rich country…they shouldn’t be surprised to be disappointed.
The most important thing to remember is that the fight to stop climate change is not a South vs North scenario, in fact, it is a matter of addressing structural problems and reforming the system, because it is destroying people and the environment, both from the North and from the South. We have to stand together and fight to change the system because it is not just responsible for climate change, it is also responsible for countless social injustices.
As a Bolivian, and as a member of the larger human family, I simply refuse to be part of a climate movement that aims to save the environment at the expense of the fight against human misery.