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Hostage Crisis at Cancun Climate Talks

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The climate talks here in Cancún aren't a negotiation. They're a hostage crisis. For years, the United States has continued to use its outsized influence (and emissions) to hold back progress on an international treaty. While the US is not the only roadblock to overcome -- many other nations are none to happy to take on legally binding emissions reductions either -- it's the wall of inaction that other big polluters can indefinitely hide behind.

Indeed, after years of carbon captivity, Stockholm Syndrome seems to be setting in on some of the prisoners. Last week, Japan, once seen as a center of innovation and forward thinking, announced that it would refuse to commit to a renewed round of emissions reductions under the Kyoto Protocol, the legally binding climate agreement whose first commitment period is set to expire at the end of next year. Yesterday, Russia followed suit. Stopping the methane belching out of its permafrost is clearly far less of a concern than keeping the carbon belching out of its smokestacks. Even Canada, a country that has repeatedly tarnished its once green laurels at these negotiations, began to waver on its commitments.

Just as the Republican's "just say no" strategy has forced the Obama administration to capitulate on issues like tax breaks, the US negotiating stance here in Cancún is beginning to cause fractures among the once unified blocks of developing countries calling for strong climate action. How deep those fissures run is yet to be seen, but their presence, like it or not, is undeniable.

Take the BASIC block, the grouping that includes major developing nations Brazil, South Africa, India and China. Here in Cancún, Brazil and South Africa have offered signs that they would be willing to accept a new legally binding treaty, rather than stick with a new period of the Kyoto Protocol which does not obligate them to cut emissions. China, on the other hand, despite a few confusing statements last week, still remains firm in its commitment to not take on legal obligations, although it may accept more of a monitoring system of its voluntary pledges to cut emissions. India, meanwhile, seems to be trying to play both sides. Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh went off prepared remarks in a speech earlier this week and said that India would be open to a legally binding agreement, only to backtrack hours later. He was just "adding nuance" to India's position, he explained.

And we haven't even gotten into the way that the European Union may be using fast-start finance pledges to try and manipulate vulnerable countries into pushing the G77 to adopt a new legal form...

For close observers of the process, this 3-dimensional chess is fascinating political intrigue. For me, it feels like watching the same movie on repeat in a burning theater.

After all, we've seen this film before. Negotiations between the powerful and weak have played out this way since time immemorial. The weak present a unified front, the powerful offer slight concessions, the weak fracture into disagreement over when to compromise, and the powerful take advantage of those divisions to force the weak to accept slight concessions instead of more fundamental change.

That's how this story goes. Accept when its not.

Throughout history, we've seen outside events flip the script on even the most intractable problems. And as we enter into the second decade of the 21st century, it seems that the regularity of breakthrough moments may be increasing. Take the election of Barack Obama or the subsequent rise of the Tea Party. Or look at what's happening now with the WikiLeaks revelations and the spiral of government crackdowns, corporate conspiracies, and anonymous hackings that have sprung up in the wake. Our next decade will not be defined by the steady, plodding negotiations of nation states in a vacuum, but by a new messy and dynamic world where power plays out along much more complicated lines.

As the world tries to rise the challenge of climate change, it finds itself caught between the centralized institutions of the past and the distributed networks of the future. That's true in terms of energy, where mega dirty power plants must be replaced with distributed clean energy. And it's true in terms of politics. For now, we need the United Nations because one of our best tools to solve climate change remains the ability of nation states to set prices on carbon, pass laws to prevent environmental destruction, and invest in clean energy.

But we also need a much more distributed response. There's no need to wait for a global treaty to get started installing solar at the local level, transitioning companies to green policies, or getting towns or cities to commit to long term climate action plans. Just look at some of the thousands of photos from this year's 10/10/10 Global Work Party, when over 7,200 communities in 188 countries got to work building local climate solutions. And there's no need to wait for a political breakthrough at the UN to create the movement that can force a cascade of political breakthroughs from the ground up.

In fact, accelerating this distributed response seems to me our best bet to finally unlock the talks here at the United Nations.

After all, we can't win at the UN without winning in the capitol cities of the key countries first. And we can't win in those capitols without building movements across each nation.

We're already seeing sparks of this new movement around the world. Long term environmental campaigners like Greenpeace are unrolling ambitious plans to take on coal from the ground up. New kids on the block are making waves: could reach 7 million members before the year is out. Movements of front-line communities, from the international Via Campesina to the myriad local environmental justice campaigns around the world, continue to grow and exert stronger political influence. Yesterday, sent out an email asking people to send in statements of support for the countries pushing for strong climate targets and the comments have been coming in by the thousands. The more we can push this outside energy into the staid world of the UN, the better chance we have to force progress.

The Internet hasn't created social movements (as Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in a piece earlier this fall) but it's accelerated the pace and breadth at which they can work. As today's climate talks plod forward late into the night, let's hope that outside the conference, in cities and towns and villages around the world, the movement for climate solutions continues to run faster towards the dawn.

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