This morning my email inbox was full of advocacy groups commemorating the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. As the ecological systems that support life are reaching their brink, there is certainly a good reason to use this opportunity to shine a spotlight on a range of issues and challenges. But activist organizations aren’t alone in commemorating today.

Today I was struck even more by corporations trying to capitalize on Earth Day to green their images. As Becky Tarbotton observed in the Huffington Post, the New York Times summarized the situation well: “So strong was the antibusiness sentiment for the first Earth Day in 1970 that organizers took no money from corporations and held teach-ins ‘to challenge corporate and government leaders’… Forty years later, the day has turned into a premier marketing platform for selling a variety of goods and services, like office products, Greek yogurt and eco-dentistry.”

[Photo: Diana Pei Wu]

Against this backdrop, World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba today is a breath of fresh air.

The Indigenous Environmental Network celebrated today by explaining that “this morning Bolivian President Evo Morales was joined by representatives of 90 governments and several Heads of State to receive the findings of the conference on topics such as a Climate Tribunal, Climate Debt, just finance for mitigation and adaptation, agriculture, and forests. The working group on forests held one of the more hotly contested negotiations of the summit, but with the leadership of Indigenous Peoples, a consensus was reached to reject REDD and call for wide-scale grassroots reforestation programs.”

Jason Negrón-Gonzales of Movement Generation elaborated on how they do Earth Day in Cochabamba: “…from now I’ll be talking to my children and 2010 will be remembered as the year that Earth Day took on new meaning. It will be the year that humanity turned a corner in our relationship to Mother Earth and began struggling along a new course…more than politics, the conference in Cochabamba brought to the table humanity’s relationship with Pachamama. This question, raised most pointedly by the Indigenous communities present, was reflected in the project of creating a declaration of Mother Earth Rights, but also went way beyond it. Can we really reach a sustainable relationship with the Earth unless we stop looking at it as something to be conquered or fixed that is outside of us? How would it change our lives and our struggles if we thought, as Leonardo Boff of Brazil said, ‘Todo lo que existe merece existir, y todo lo que vive merece vivir (Everything that exists deserves to exist, and everything that lives deserves to live)’? Or if we understood the Earth as a living thing that we are a part of and that, ‘La vida es un momento de la tierra, y la vida humana un momento de la vida (Life is a moment of the earth, and the human life is a moment of life)’?”

[photo: Diana Pei Wu]

And the politics do matter. The cross-pollination of grassroots social movements in Bolivia are charting a course and global program that articulates both an analysis of the state of play of the United Nations negotiations as well as a set of solutions moving forward. Jason helped outline the core points of the ABC’s of the Climate Negotiations distilled from analysis coming out of the Cochabamba conference:

1. The key question (aside from decreasing emissions) in negotiations is how to divide up the atmospheric space left for emissions given that the US and other developed countries already used up most of the space that there was for greenhouse gas emissions. This then leads to the obvious follow-up question of whether or not the same countries that overused already should get the overwhelming share of what’s left. The obvious answer that most children would tell you is that no – that isn’t fair, or for that matter, just or equitable. Yet when a country like the US says it can’t or won’t cut emissions to the level it demands of others, that’s what happens.

2. Many countries in the Global South, and certainly the Bolivian government, believe that when developed countries like the US need to decrease their emissions that we should do it domestically, in US industries and the US economy, instead of creating carbon markets that let the US pollute away while paying someone else to decrease for them. This makes sense because history has shown that the projects that are supposed to “offset” emissions in the US or EU are often dubious, or might have happened anyway, or cause other problems for the people who live where they are happening (like with dams).

3. Regardless of the above points, the rich nations pushing the current arena of international negotiations are not seeking to get industrialized countries to decrease their own emissions by their fare share. Right now there are two competing options for a global framework to address climate change– a backroom deal the US is trying to move called the Copenhagen Accord, and the continuation of the international negotiations that have been happening according to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process since the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997. You read that right. The US-backed “Copenhagen Accord” has no relationship to the ongoing global negotiations process. As Angelica Navarro, one of the UN climate negotiators from Bolivia told the story, “It (the Copenhagen Accord) was given to us and we were told we had an hour to decide if we would support it enough. How are we supposed to make a decision about the future of the earth in an hour?”

4. The Kyoto Protocol, adopted through the UNFCCC as the global plan to set targets and mechanisms for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in 1997 has lots of well documented problems: a carbon market has allowed developed countries to avoid making real reductions to their emissions, a “clean development mechanism” which has spurred all kinds of destructive projects in the Global South, and the use of offsets which lead to continued pollution in communities of color in industrialized countries while paying projects elsewhere to cut their real or planned emissions. However, on the positive side Kyoto has: shared legal limits on emissions that are (at least prospectively) based on science; the concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities” meaning that those who have pollute
d the most should have a different burden than those who haven’t; exceptions for Global South countries with the intent of not restricting their development; and an enforcement mechanism if targets aren’t met.

5. The Copenhagen Accord, on the other hand, has: voluntary limits set by each country, no process to reconcile or pressure countries that offer less regardless of responsibility, no enforcement, continued carbon markets with offsets, etc., and an overall target set not by what science says in necessary, but only representing the total of what all the countries offer up. A study done by the EU estimated that if the Copenhagen Accord was approved with the existing commitments by countries it would optimistically only decrease emissions by 2%, probably locking us into a 3.9 degree Celsius temperature increase globally (this comes from a recent MIT study) – which would be a serious disaster.

Just as companies are using Earth Day to green their images, the Copenhagen Accord was an attempt to pretend a lot more is being done than it really is. It gets worse. This Earth Day comes on the heels of the leaked U.S. Government document trying to “Reinforce the perception that the US is constructively engaged in UN negotiations in an effort to produce a global regime to combat climate change,” “managing expectations” of the UN Climate talks in order to undercut critics. Though the story has predictably gotten little attention in the U.S., the 40th anniversary of Earth Day is framed by extremes filling my email inbox: the predatory opportunism of corporations and some governments on one side, and real solutions proposed by Indigenous groups and other front-line communities on the other. Today, I’m grateful for the 15,000 people making history down south.

To keep up with the summit:

For photos and video, check out Diana Pei Wu’s site.
Global Justice Ecology Project’s Climate Connections Blog
Evelyn Rangel-Medina of Ella Baker Center
Check the Weather
Grassroots Global Justice Alliance
Indigenous Environmental Network
World People’s Conference on Climate Change
Carwil James’ Blog, Carwil Without Borders
Bolivia Rising Blog
Twitter hashtags to follow: #cochabamba, #wpccc, #cmpcc, #climatejustice, #climate