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From Cochabamba to Cancun

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It was clear from the opening moments of the People's World Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, which took place in Tiquipaya, Bolivia, a small agricultural village just outside of Cochabamba, April 19-22, who and what the estimated 30,000 participants held to blame for the warming of the planet and for the failure of U.N. climate talks to yield a comprehensive treaty.

When UN representative Alicia Barcena took the podium during the conference's opening plenary on Tuesday morning, she was met with a chorus of hisses and boos. This crowd response stood in sharp contrast to the spirited chants and waves of applause offered to representatives from Africa, North and South America, and Asia, who criticized the rich nations that upended the Copenhagen climate talks last December. And it was a far cry from the near euphoria brought about by Bolivian President Evo Morales' denunciation of capitalism and call for a "communalistic socialism" that, he argued, offered the sole solution both for addressing climate change and for meeting the material needs of the world's poor.

With the close of the conference last Thursday, many attendees are heading home feeling the warm glow of climate justice righteousness. Others, though, are departing with lingering concerns about the quotidian tasks of building an international climate justice movement. While the Bolivian climate confernce brought thousands of climate activists from around the world into close proximity with one another, buoying the movement's sense of urgency and strength, the particulars of how it will seek to achieve both short- and long-term gains remains difficult to discern.

There are ample reasons to celebrate the outcome of the Bolivian conference, though. Most concretely, several international organizations, including Climate Justice Action, 350.org, Jubilee South, and Via Campesina have begun to plan for a week of coordinated climate justice protests in October. Tadzio Mueller of the direct action network Climate Justice Action says: "If we have something of a show of unity from the more liberal wing of the movement - 350.org - to the more radical wing - Via Campesina, Climate Justice Action, I think that will be very positive outcome of the climate conference."

Groups fighting deforestation, which accounts for roughly 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions, issued a strong statement against U.N.- and World Bank-funded carbon offset programs. Jihan Gearon of the Indigenous Environmental Network says: "For indigenous people globally, forest offset programs, such as REDD, are a key issue. REDD is meant to save forests but is actually threatening indigenous communities with displacement. We're really happy about the language of the final conference declaration, which gives us a lot of leverage in future negotiations on the international level, and it was encouraging to hear President Morales describe the declaration as a mandate from the people that he would take to climate negotiations in Cancun."

But not all is well in climate justice land. A caucus of North American activists spent nearly its entire meeting time on introductions and ceremonial invocations, leaving little time for discussion on how residents of two leading contributors of global greenhouse gas emissions would confront their governments or build crucial networks for further action. Several attendees expressed embarrassment or disgust that Americans and Canadians would engage in such a navel-gazing discussion of who they are as individuals rather than strategizing on what organizing work they could do together in order to confront their governments or the corporations operating in their respective countries. "It was all me, me, me, this is who I am and what my place is in the world rather than a real strategy discussion," one attendee told me.

"Just as we need real, not pretend, action on climate change from wealthy countries," says Jim Shultz of the Democracy Center, "we need real, not vague, strategies in the climate change movement. Cochabamba was a useful start, but we have precious little time to save the planet and everyone needs to get a lot more serious, and soon."

Other working groups took up ambitious plans for an international referendum on climate change and the establishment of an international climate justice court - two central proposals of the Bolivian government - that seem implausible given the resources of the climate movement and a government that has - to put it bluntly - few allies within the UNFCCC process. These proposals go a long way in re-framing the climate justice debate and encouraging the movement to be imaginative but seem logistically far-fetched. Given the pace of global warming calls for a new, international juridical institution seem incongruous with the imperatives of approaching, run-away climate change. Government representatives from only Cuba, Ecuador, and Nicaragua joined the Bolivian government, which offers the most imaginative and progressive platform for confronting capitalism and climate change, at the climate conference. Venezuela's Hugo Chavez was the only visiting head of state. What was hoped to showcase broad nation-state opposition to the Copenhagen Accord and rich nation's bullying during climate negotiations more resembled an assembly of left wing Latin American nations. Bolivia is one of only several nations that have explicitly opposed the Copenhagen Accord.

At the heart of these tensions is the new-fangled relationship between the climate justice movement and the Bolivian government. The post-1960s New Left and, more recently, the anti-capitalist globalization movement shunned the nation-state as a strategic ally, arguing that it stood diametrically opposed to the interests of social change. With the climate justice movement, however, governments, indigenous rights organizations, and environmental groups are cooperating to an extent unseen in several decades on the political left. CJA's Mueller says: "While ten years ago the alter-globalization movement had a very strong critique of institutions such as NGOs and governments, now that context has changed: not all institutions are colonized by neo-liberalism. We definitely can't say that the Bolivian government is a neo-liberal one. There are problems with its continued economic reliance on extractive industries, but this is definitely an actor we have to work with."

The climate justice movement may still be finding its legs, particularly on how various international indigenous rights and environmental networks work with one another and with sympathetic national governments, but its opponent - the block of rich nations that crafted the Copenhagen Accord - is suffering from a bought of incoherency as well.

The U.S. State Department convened last weekend a two-day meeting of the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate, a group comprised of the 17 leading global economies. Since Copenhagen, the U.S. has been seeking to marginalize the UNFCCC, calling its consensus-based decision-making process unwieldy, and increasingly shifting climate negotiations to groups such as the MEF or the G20. Following the MEF meeting, Todd Stern, lead climate negotiator for the U.S., downplayed not just hopes for the upcoming U.N. talks in Cancun but also for progress on climate negotiations among rich nations and emerging economies such as Brazil, India, and China. For these reasons, the U.S., despite its pronouncements to the contrary, is having a difficult time building a strong consensus around the Copenhagen Accord.

If the climate justice movement can work through some of its kinks - continue to foster relationships with left-leaning governments and develop more coherent strategies for achieving short- and long-term goals - it might just be able to wield enough oppositional power to force developing countries such as Brazil or India to back away from the Copenhagen Accord. But there's not much time between now and the next round of UN talks in Cancun in late 2010 - and certainly very little time given the pace of global warming.

This scenario calls to mind what occurred less than a decade ago during the height of protests against international trade liberalization. After several years of trade summit protests and dogged activism on local and national levels, the anti-capitalist globalization movement was able to force many of the same developing economies that are now key players in climate talks to pull out of World Trade Organization negotiations. Trade negotiators from the least developed countries and from emerging economies couldn't possibly sign on to trade deals that would open up their economies to, say, U.S. or European agriculture imports or allow for the corporate patenting of agriculture products, because they knew that if they agreed to such type of deals they would face fierce protests at home. The anti-capitalist globalization movement made trade liberalization deals anathema and brought international trade negotiations to a grinding halt. And where did this all come to a head in 2003?

Cancun, Mexico.