Perspectives from a People’s Summit

Contrasting with UN negotiations on climate change, debates about climate justice at the People’s Summit demanded a departure from the neoliberal economic model.

Orion Cruz 5/27/2015

A popular slogan from the People's Summit (Orion Cruz)

On December 8th of 2014, a variety of progressive social groups gathered for a People's Summit in Lima, Peru to discuss and demand climate justice. From their perspective, achieving climate justice will involve confronting the root causes of climate change while also ensuring that those responsible for contributing to rising temperatures are held accountable. In addition, the global poor will need to benefit from that international effort, rather than being left to suffer unjustly for the actions of others. Understanding how participants in the Summit intend to accomplish these goals and how commitment to these principles unified people contributes to the climate debate and suggests the climate movement could benefit from adopting a more radical vision of climate justice.

The People’s Summit was timed to coincide with the latest round of global climate change negotiations taking place within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), also hosted in Lima. These UNFCCC conferences, which currently include 196 countries, have been held annually since 1995 to provide a framework for negotiating agreements on climate change. This overlap in timing, however, wasn’t because those attending the People’s Summit wanted anything to do with the official negotiation process. Instead, they believed the action necessary to achieve climate justice was so far from the approach being contemplated within the UNFCCC that an alternative was needed. "I've been involved in the corridors of the UN negotiations since 1999 and we as indigenous people have done everything we can with conscience to try to change their thinking in there, but I'm angry to say that it's nothing but a corporate takeover," said Tom Goldtooth, executive director of Indigenous Environmental Network. This frustration with the UNFCCC process, a sentiment shared by many, inspired the organization of the People’s Summit. The dominant views expressed at this Summit can be understood by considering the different perspectives the participants of these two climate change meetings have on three basic questions: 1) how to address climate change, 2) how to determine responsibility for global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and ensure accountability, and 3) who should decide what climate solutions to implement.

The first and most fundamental difference of perspective relates to what kind of actions should be taken to combat climate change. The aim of the UNFCCC since its creation in 1992 has been to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of GHGs to avoid “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” The two main “workstreams” on the agenda at this year’s conference, known as COP20, were designed to make progress toward this objective (as well as others that have been adopted over the years, such as limiting the global average temperature rise to 2°C above pre-industrial levels). The first workstream aimed for agreement on the outline of a new climate treaty, which would be finalized in 2015 and eventually come into force in 2020. The second was to make progress on the implementation of “new policy options” that would enhance pre-2020 efforts to combat climate change within the currently existing climate agreements, such as the Kyoto Protocol. Significantly, the reduction of GHGs associated with progress toward these goals is to a large extent achieved through reliance on market mechanisms, such as the Clean Development Mechanism, which allow “developed countries” to meet their reduction targets without curbing emissions at their source or fundamentally disturbing the status quo.

Those attending the People’s Summit had nothing against the idea of negotiating a new climate treaty or doing more to rein in climate change, but they differed from the governments attending COP20 in that they didn’t want to adopt climate change solutions which preserved the prevailing system. Instead, they wanted to supplant both the neoliberal economic system and the extractivist development model and seriously consider new forms of production, consumption, and organization. For that reason, the dominant slogan at the Summit was “Cambiemos el sistema, No el Clima” (change the system, not the climate).

While this call for systemic change remained purposefully broad, plenty of people and organizations explained what it meant to them. The definitions put forth covered the spectrum from specific policy recommendations, such as a series of steps countries could take toward the goal of creating a zero waste society, all the way to vague suggestions. A representative article circulated by the Bolivia based NGO Fundación Solón and signed by 13 other international organizations explained that, among other measures, ‘system change’ meant ending the dominance of export-based industrial forms of food production, supporting the development of local sustainable economies, leaving most fossil fuel reserves in the ground, dismantling the war industry and military infrastructure, and halting and reversing corporate driven trade and investment agreements.

Although those at the Summit called for many forms of change, the dominant neoliberal economic model stood out as a favorite target for criticism. Not only because many of the participants viewed this economic model as being at the crux of many of the world’s most serious problems, but also because they understood that mainstream climate solutions usually reinforce it. “Lots of people and organizations want to avoid associating themselves with the call for system change, because it signifies a change in the capitalist model,” said Juan Carlos Soriana, the Latin America Coordinator for, a grassroots organization working to build a global climate movement. He believes the UNFCCC negotiation process provides a good example of this: the interests of the developed countries and the influence of the fossil companies ensure that the solutions that emerge in these meetings rarely challenge the logic of the market. One of the unfortunate results of this, he said, is that “many countries are now inclined to utilize that which caused the problem [the market] as the solution.” What they should do instead, he said, is acknowledge that “when we’re talking about just solutions to climate change, we’re talking about changing the system.”

The second major area of disagreement involves who is responsible for climate change and how they should be held accountable. Within the UNFCCC, the world is largely viewed as being composed of “developed” countries, who are primarily responsible for the climate crisis, and “developing” countries, who are entitled to financial compensation and should have much more minimal, if any, binding obligations. As a result of the U.S. and others successfully pushing “developing” countries like China to accept greater treaty obligations, these lines are slowly blurring, but still remain relevant.

While most of those who participated in the People’s Summit would agree that historical emissions should be taken into consideration when assessing climate responsibility, they tend to view the world in far less dichotomous terms. For them, it’s important to recognize that just as poverty and discrimination exist in “developed” countries, powerful private companies and wealthy people with huge carbon footprints exist in poor “developing” countries. “The responsibility lies on the individuals, and companies, and countries that are actually polluting the world,” said Joycia Thorat, an activist from India with the Church’s Auxiliary for Social Action. As a result, the responsibility for causing climate change can’t just be divided based on whether a country is “developed” or not.

Although those at the People’s Summit viewed financial compensation from “developed countries” to “developing countries” as a step in the right direction, they also considered it inadequate. From their perspective, this kind of accountability fails to undermine the current system, which tolerates the coexistence of a global poor that barely has access to resources, and a rich and powerful global elite whose lifestyles and business practices are responsible for much of the world’s emissions. “Those who are contributing [to climate change] the most are a small nucleus of the richest. And then there are the great number of people that aren’t contributing practically anything,” said Aroa de la Fuente López, a researcher for Fundar and a representative of the Mexican Alliance Against Fracking. For her and many others at the Summit, “climate justice also needs to be a fight against inequality and the model of consumption.”

The widespread view at the Summit that most governments are a large part of the problem and that climate solutions should come from the grassroots level—not a meeting like the COP20—provided the third major area of disagreement. Some at the Summit held this point of view because they were actually in the midst of serious conflict with their governments, but others reached the same conclusion because they believed systemic change was so drastic that it wouldn’t happen without overwhelming grassroots pressure from below. “We don’t have any faith in the Summit that’s going to be carried out,” said Jorge Herrera, the president of the large Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), referring to the official negotiations. He had come “to denounce the systemic abuses and constant violations resulting from the policies of governments, particularly in Ecuador.” He believes that climate justice is obtainable, but only if people organize themselves and fight against the policies promulgated by their governments that run counter to this goal. “If the people and nationalities of the world unite, we can put an end to these policies which only guarantee continuation of the capitalist system and put the lives of the most vulnerable in danger,” he said.

The March for the Climate held during the People's Summit (Orion Cruz)

The dominant view at the Summit—that climate justice will require systemic change—brought together an extremely diverse array of people from different ethnic/racial groups, organizations, and social movements. Among those participating were women’s groups, unions from around the world, religious organizations, indigenous peoples (particularly from Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia), activists from Africa to Asia, and regional as well as international environmental and human rights organizations. Climate justice’s ability to unify people is rooted in climate change’s dramatic global effects, and has the predictable consequence of creating a plethora of resistance groups that would like to see the status quo replaced by something more sustainable and just.

One activist drawn to the Summit was Victoria Gomez, a Uruguayan anti-mining activist. When asked about the connection between climate change and mining in Uruguay, she quickly replied that “Mining is part of the same extractivist capitalist system that’s causing climate change.” For her, the link is obvious. “In Uruguay, we would say, it’s the same dog with a different collar,” she said. Climate change is just “a new name for the same exploitation that Latin America has been suffering for centuries, but that has much more visible and clear consequences.” The attendance of people like Gomez illustrated how effective the Summit’s vision of climate justice could be at unifying disparate struggles into a single movement.

As the next UNFCCC meeting (COP21) in Paris approaches, gaining a better understanding of the diversity of opinions that exist about how best to combat climate change is valuable. The next meeting is going to produce a global framework for mitigating and adapting to climate change that will be influential for many years, even though a lot of fundamental disagreement exists about how we should go about stabilizing the earth’s climate. In this context, the dominant views expressed at the People’s Summit are worth understanding, because they represent the voices of those who lack power and influence, contrast with the UNFCCC’s approach to addressing climate change, and shed light on the concept of climate justice. The Summit’s ability to unify people from across the activist spectrum also suggests that the climate movement could become stronger and more diverse if it embraces a similarly radical vision of climate justice.

Orion Cruz is a lawyer who focuses on environmental law and policy, human rights, climate change, and Latin American affairs. He attended Lewis & Clark Law School and has a master's degree in environmental policy from Vermont Law School.

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