By Tom B.K. Goldtooth
Indian Country Today
There was no international legally binding agreement. There were no agreements by the U.S. or other developed countries on targets for reducing carbon emissions. Climate negotiations in Copenhagen resulted in a no agreement called the Copenhagen Accord. This accord has no real requirements for any countries to have reduction targets. The failure to achieve a real deal lies on the shoulders of rich countries whose pollution has caused the climate crisis – especially the U.S., European Union, Denmark and other industrialized countries. Rich countries refused to budge from the grossly inadequate emissions reduction proposals they brought to Copenhagen.
One message our delegation took to the international climate meeting called for stringent and binding emission reduction targets.
Let me put some things in focus with a brief background of why there is a need for stringent emission reduction targets and binding agreements of developed countries to make commitments to take action.
A growing body of western scientific evidence suggests what Indigenous Peoples have expressed for a long time: Life, as we know it, is in danger. Western scientists tell us that climate change is accelerating, that changes are happening faster than expected. Western science tells us that global emissions need to peak within the next 10 years.
Parts per million is a way of measuring the concentration of different gases, and means the ratio of the number of carbon dioxide molecules per million other molecules in the atmosphere. For all of human history until about 200 years ago, our atmosphere contained 275 ppm of carbon dioxide. The modern world is taking millions of year’s worth of carbon, stored beneath Mother Earth as fossil fuels, and releasing it into the atmosphere. This has been mainly through the mining and combustion of oil, coal, tar sands crude oil and natural gas. The planet now has 387 ppm CO2 – and this number is rising by about two ppm every year. Scientists are now saying that’s too much – that number is higher than any time seen in the recorded history of our planet – and we’re already beginning to see disastrous impacts on people and places all over the world. These impacts are combining to exacerbate conflicts and security issues in already resource-strapped regions.
The Arctic is sending us perhaps the clearest message that climate change is occurring much more rapidly than scientists previously thought. In the summer of 2007, sea ice was roughly 39 percent below the summer average for 1979-2000, a loss of area nearly equal to the size of five United Kingdoms. Scientists now believe the Arctic will be completely ice free in the summertime between 2011 and 2015, some 80 years ahead of what scientists had predicted just a few years ago. Propelled by the news of these accelerating impacts, including changes in ocean acidification, some of the world’s leading climate scientists have now revised the highest safe level of CO2 to 350 ppm. Objectives must be made to reach stabilization of GHG concentrations at well below 350 ppm and to limit temperature rise to below 1.5 degrees centigrade, based on pre-industrial levels, noting that emissions must peak in 2015.
A growing body of western scientific evidence suggests what Indigenous Peoples have expressed for a long time: Life, as we know it, is in danger.
The view from the ground in Copenhagen
Our delegation participated within the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change that functions as the official indigenous caucus of the UNFCCC. The assembly of 200 indigenous peoples in Copenhagen condemned the last minute decision of the UNFCCC Secretariat to severely restrict the access of indigenous peoples and civil society organizations to the Bella Center, site of the UN climate conference. Of 300 civil society people only 12 indigenous people were allowed in the building the last two days of final negotiations when decisions were made by high-level ministers of government, presidents and prime ministers. The stakes were extremely high. Restricting civil society, including indigenous peoples, was simply unacceptable and resulted in the U.S. negotiating within a secret circle of China, Brazil, India and developed countries at the 11th hour to push a Copenhagen Accord that met protest and resistance from key developing countries.
Another goal of our participation in the climate talks centered on the extreme importance of any negotiated text at Copenhagen to recognize three principles: 1) Recognize and respect the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities, in particular their rights to lands, territories and all resources, in accordance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and other relevant international human rights instruments and obligations; 2) Ensure the full and effective participation of indigenous peoples and local communities, in accordance with the right to free prior and informed consent; and 3) Recognize the fundamental role and contribution of indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge, innovations and practices.
The Copenhagen Accord as a high-stakes dealmaker was really a Copenhagen Steal. Maintaining indigenous peoples’ participation inside the Bella Center was very important during the waning hours of the conference to ensure the rights of indigenous peoples would be recognized in the Accord. This did not happen. Neither human rights language nor the rights of indigenous peoples were recognized in the Accord. This will lead to further human rights violations, climate destruction, loss of land and disruption of the livelihood and well-being of indigenous communities from the Arctic to the global south. The final Copenhagen Accord could enshrine scientifically unsound and dangerously low emission reduction targets that could represent a death sentence for indigenous peoples and small island states.
While the Copenhagen Accord is far from perfect, it reflects the challenges that lay ahead.
We are highly suspicious of the tactics of the U.S. obstructing a Kyoto Protocol agreement, while at the same time aggressively pushing a forest carbon offset agreement called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation. REDD and other carbon market initiatives are the main ingredients of climate mitigation. These forest carbon offset regimes have no safeguards to protect the land and forest rights of Indigenous peoples and forest dependent communities within developing countries. If implemented these initiatives could result in land grabs and exploitation of the forest rights of local communities.
The world has called the Accord a failure, saying the deal is too weak and doesn’t have any legally binding requirements for emission reductions. President Barack Obama stated, “This progress is not enough. We have come a long way, but we have much further to go.” While the Copenhagen Accord is far from perfect, it reflects the challenges that lay ahead. Here in the U.S., our Native Nations, as sovereigns, working with their Native grassroots members have work to do. We must look towards the next steps at home, within our Native Nations and within the U.S. Senate. Copenhagen is over, yet we are far from done. We need to get informed on climate policy and its link to energy, green jobs, and water and food policy. We need your support to encourage the U.S. Senate to pass a strong climate bill – one with real solutions, not false solutions.
Indigenous peoples in Copenhagen were demanding action – not false hopes and empty promises – and these delays and bullying tactics of the U.S. amounted to continued carbon colonialism. As indigenous peoples, we must raise the bar. We must demand the most stringent emission target reductions. As indigenous peoples, we are the guardians of Mother Earth, and must make principled stands for the global well-being of all people and all life.
Tom B.K. Goldtooth, of the Diné (Navajo) Nation, is an activist leader within the Indigenous environmental justice movement based in the United States. He is the executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, an international organization working on climate, energy, environmental and health issues impacting Indigenous Peoples worldwide. Web site: http://www.ienearth.org/.