“Change the System, Not the Climate!” Voices from the Social PreCOP

A warm ocean breeze rolled across the picturesque beach on Venezuela's Caribbean island of Margarita.


This is the introduction to an audio report on the PreCOP gathering, which can be listened to on VA.com here.

A warm ocean breeze rolled across the picturesque beach on Venezuela’s Caribbean island of Margarita. Sitting directly on the coastline, the expropriated Hotel Venetur, formerly the Hilton, was transformed this past week into a site for social movements and government representatives to address climate change policy in preparation for the upcoming United Nations Climate talks (COP20). According to a recently released report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Caribbean islands like Margarita, will be the first to be impacted by rising sea levels as a result of a changing climate.

In a brave attempt to initiate dialogue between members of civil society and government ministers, the Venezuelan government hosted two gatherings, called Social PreCOPs. The first Social PreCOP was held on Margarita island in July, and representatives of social movements, grassroots leaders and NGOs, drafted an ambitious document, called the Margarita Declaration. The goal of the second Social PreCOP was to adapt that document into a policy platform and create a dialogue between members of civil society and UN delegates and ministers prior to the COP20 summit which will be held in Lima in the beginning of next month. Over 80 organizations from around the world were represented at the Social PreCOP.

A report by Australia’s Climate Commission that concluded that in order to maintain the global rise in temperature at below 1.5 degrees Celsius, only 20 percent of the fossil fuels that we know of can be extracted, and therefore 80 percent must be “unburnable.” This demand has been characterized by the slogan “keep the oil in the soil.”

Some of the solutions presented at the Social PreCOP came from examining the roots of the climate crisis. Members of civil society and especially those from the Global South pointed to the contaminating impact of the industrialization, extraction, and resource accumulation of Europe and the United States and therefore introduced the concept of historical debt, or a disproportionate responsibility to address the climate crisis.

In addition to presenting the goal of reducing fossil-fuel emissions and transitioning towards community controlled renewable energy many people also asserted the urgent need to adopt adaptation strategies that can be employed in the face of a changing climate. Labor organizations spoke to the particular impact that an economic transition might have on workers. Members of civil society representing the voices of indigenous peoples, women, and youth asserted the ways in which climate change were impacting them as well as the unique role that each group plays in building solutions to the climate crisis. The working document that was brought to the ministerial meeting states “Youth plays a crucial role. It is essential to create and promote participation mechanisms enabling the youth to generate transformations.”

After participants in the Social PreCOP worked through many drafts of a revised version of the Margarita document with the Venezuelan government representatives, they finally reached consensus on a document that could be presented to the 47 government ministers and ambassadors from around the world who attended the dialogue with civil society. Thirty civil society representatives were chosen to attend a session with government representatives and each delegate was given the opportunity to speak and address the group.

Since the formation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992, in their 19 Conference of Parties (COP) representatives of civil society have never been granted this type of access to the official proceedings. While some high-level NGOs have been allotted 2 minutes for testimony, grassroots leaders and social movements have been denied a place at the table. The Social PreCOP is truly historic because it sets a precedent for more participation of civil society in official climate change proceedings which, Ministers also welcomed.

Asad Rehmen of Friends of the Earth (FoE), stated that based on historical responsibility and capacity, the US is responsible for 47% of historical global emisions, Europe is responsible for 11% and the developing world is responsible for zero point, zero zero 8 percent of the emissions. While representatives of the United States were present at the Social PreCOP, they declined to speak to the press.

Despite disagreements in positions, and frustrations around process, participants in the Social PreCOP broadly recognized the significance of creating such a unique venue for participation and dialogue between governments and civil society. While some grassroots leaders thought Venezuela played too heavy-handed of a role in drafting the working document, everyone commended their bravery in opening up such a distinct and historic space for debate and discussion.

The slogan of the Social PreCOP is “change the system, not the climate.” While social movement leaders where not shy to mention the irony of the host country’s vast oil reserves, most felt that hosting the Social PreCOP was a great use of Venezuela’s oil money.

Foreign Minister Rafael Ramirez represented Venezuela at the Social PreCOP and Venezuelan Lead Climate Negotiator Claudia Salerno, chaired the summit and closed the sessions by acknowledging that the process is just the beginning. The Ministers will meet in Lima next month for the last round of climate change talks before the 2015 COP21 in Paris, where binding agreements are to be made. Hopefully the urgency for action and the demand for justice expressed by social movements will be heard at the highest levels.