Last weekend, I attended a panel discussion on a rooftop patio in the city of Cancun Ã close, in distance, to the official governmental climate change (COP 16) discussions, but much farther away in so many ways.
Here, away from the swanky digs of the Zona Hotelera, the people talk about climate change as a human-survival issue.
The panel featured climate expert Bill McKibben from 350.org, so named because 350 parts per million is the general scientific consensus on what is the safe upper limit for CO2 in our atmosphere. We can’t argue with the scientific data, he says.
And the data is in Ã and it is grim.
We are at 388 parts per million.
Without real action, this will continue to rise, the planet will heat up and all sorts of nasty outcomes will be unleashed.
Without decisive action, without major reductions in emissions quickly, we are doomed to an Earth that is far more frightening, unpredictable, chaotic and dangerous.
Decisive action means a fundamental rethink of our existing economic order Ã not just a little tinkering. On climate change, Inuit leader Mary Simon said this: “If you think small, you will act small.”
Here, on the rooftop patio, overlooking the plaza filled with the common, everyday Cancunistas, the discussion is so different than the realpolitik of nations and multinational corporations.
The people assembled talk about multinational corporations treating the atmosphere as an open sewer.
They talk about the need for a “Just Transition” away from the carbon economy and that we must manage the change before it’s not too late. A “Just Transition” is key to climate justice, and within this paradigm the costs of action are not borne by the poor and vulnerable, and workers in industries who have outlived their usefulness are not thrown on the scrap heap.
They talk more about climate justice, not climate change. Fair is fair. As it developed, the rich world contributed the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere, therefore the rich world needs to step up to the plate and make big emissions cuts.
They talk about the need to transcend the destructive jobs versus environment debate. They ask: why can’t we have both? The simplest question often reveals the most.
They say that putting a price on carbon and creating market mechanisms like carbon offsets are just more goofy schemes that gives the impression that something is being done. They say these goofy schemes only make it to the cutting floor because the costs will not be borne by the rich, but on the backs of the already poor and vulnerable.
How can a market for carbon be a solution, when it is the market that has gotten us here in the first place?
As the people gather under tents, in gymnasiums and on sidewalks far from the posh hotels, the talk turns to reports in the international press on the Wikileaks revelations, exposing the murky realpolitik that happens in the official talks.
There is much pessimism Ã not that there was abundant optimism. Is the fix in? Who’s bought off whom? Will yet another opportunity for movement on this survival issue be passed by?
Probably. Though the talk of the people is more defensive: better no deal than a bad deal.
Canada, Japan and Russia have emerged as the Three Dirty Amigos. Maude Barlow, of the Council of Canadians, apologized on behalf of Canadians for “holding the knife that killed Kyoto.”
I arrived in Cancun a few days ago by way of a 2,000-kilometre-plus bus caravan, starting in San Luis Potosi, 450 kilometres north of Mexico City. Lots of folks from Mexico and other countries have commented on Canada’s willful intransigence on the climate justice issue. It’s not the Canadian people, I say.
I tell them of a recent Environics poll which found a strong majority of Canadians’ attitudes towards the environment and climate change and the so-called just transition is fundamentally at odds with our political leaders.
The crisis facing our planet means we need to do some serious work, and not cling to the status quo. Our economic system, which is built on the supremacy of growth and profit, has led us to this critical juncture.
Our economic system has created a widening chasm between rich and poor. Under this system, banks get bailouts while the people pay through privatizations, cutbacks in public services and austerity plans.
As he aided and abetted Prime Minister Stephen Harper in killing a Canadian plan to legislate emission cuts, Senator Dan Lang defended his actions as preventing something “injurious” to the Canadian economy.
What does he mean by this? Do the injuries inflicted on the planet and its ecosystems, the people and species of plant and animal life not count for something?
I wish we could legislate that politicians had to spend a week Ã even a weekend Ã living and talking to the people who will be most negatively affected by their inaction or their misguided actions.
In Cancun, the people are leading the debate, and the leaders are clinging to preserving an economic order that imperils us all.
The immensity of the problem can lead to paralysis. But the journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step. In my mind, there is a clear single step Ã to address climate change we need regime change.