Post-carbon future

01 December 2007
Jutta Kill talks to R.B. Bhattacharjee about the power imbalances hampering meaningful progress in climate negotiations, and sets out three key steps to a more progressive global response.
theSun: If you could decide on the global response to climate change, what three things would you do? Jutta Kill: Cancel all debts, especially the odious ones of the Southern countries which stifle their economies, making them focus on exports, which are not in their best interests. To prepare for climate change they need to be free of that burden in order to take responsibility for their actions. Secondly, I would like to see a fundamental shift among the set of people directing the negotiations and who are speaking about the effects of climate change on people. They should be local community leaders who have a deeper and better understanding of the actual situation and are best qualified to suggest what can work for their people. We must move away from the top-down approach and special interests that dominate the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) towards real solutions. And governments need to show signs of the political will that is necessary to tackle the problem. Thirdly, an honest recognition that deforestation is not a technical problem but a political one that needs not a technological solution but a political one too. What drives deforestation, for example, in Malaysia, where violation of indigenous people’s land rights and incoherent policies frustrate forest conservation. What is going on is not what the people need, but what export markets dictate. In Brazil, it is the indigenous peoples and local communities who are pushed aside and land rights that are being violated. If you look at the map of the Brazilian Amazon you see where land rights have been recognised deforestation rates are lowest. From the Northern perspective, it is the high consumption patterns and from the Southern perspective, it is the recognition of land rights that will be crucial to reducing deforestation. We need to question whether there are any benefits from World Bank-backed logging concessions. Forest communities and society must have a say on how forests are used. Given the current power structures in the UN, the state of US geopolitics and Third World governance issues, how can the response to climate change be influenced? One of the most powerful ways to expose the fact that the UN needs capacity building – that it needs to understand the real problems and issues – is to document and publicise the ways local communities have responded to climate change, while the UN is clinging on to responses that are clearly misdirected. There is a pressing need for sincere discussions here, because there is a real knowledge gap about what is going to work. There is a need for capacity building and for bridging that knowledge gap. Right now, they are transferring knowledge the wrong way – they must listen to the communities and understand. We don’t have endless time to avoid the chaos that will result from more than two degrees of warming. Communities don’t have the time to listen to the jargon around the climate change issue. Could you give us some examples of the imbalances in First and Third World relationships and how these have affected the climate? The imbalances are on many levels, and you could write many books on them, and in fact, many have been written. Among UNFCCC participants, a large number of delegates from Southern countries are unable to meaningfully follow discussions, let alone participate in them because the national team consists of two, three or four delegates. They are hugely outnumbered by developed country delegations, so there is a domino effect: they can’t follow discussions, can’t go for parallel sessions, can’t follow those discussions, don’t have resources … so your country’s priorities could be sidelined. That imbalance symbolises others, in trade, aid, etc. Then, what is the technology transfer? It is the assumption that the South needs the technology that the North has. My impression is that Southern communities have their own technology in a particular context. They need support to keep them going. This has to be seen in a political context – there are South and North communities in every country as well as internationally. What are your expectations from the Bali conference? I came with low expectations because I fail to see any national government willing to show real leadership and start to show solutions we know can work. Now, we have false solutions we know won’t work. This is a carbon trade fair with a conference stuck to it. I don’t expect much of an outcome, although I should, and should be reminding my government about its responsibilities, and I hope to do that. The leadership needs to come from the local government level, the municipal level, on choices that must be made that help communities prepare for climate change. The conference is functioning very well at what it’s supposed to do – distracting us from the real issues. We’ll still see rising emissions, still subsidies to coal and oil sector, and see the same oil and coal companies going into renewable energy. Can you share examples of positive engagement involving local action and community empowerment in response to climate change? One example from the North is the Transition Town Movement. People in towns, cities and villages get together and talk about what they want to see in transition from the fossil fuel or carbon economy to a post-carbon economy. More people are getting involved in producing food locally instead of having it transported from halfway around the world, deciding what renewable energy would work for the community, what transport system to adopt, and they are getting many engaged. In the South, in Brazil, there is the movement against the Green Desert, which is the name given to eucalyptus plantations, combining landless peasants, social movements and indigenous people’s organisations occupying lands that were given to large landholders under the military dictatorship. This land could provide for the hundreds of thousands of landless peasants and once settled, it provides food in an agricultural production system that doesn’t rely on chemical fertiliser, which is derived from the fossil fuel system. That is a way to reduce poverty by occupying land that belongs to the people of Brazil and as a way to prepare for climate change. What message would you have for the urban middle class on how they can make a difference? One of the big temptations of people in the middle class is thinking always that we can buy our way out of trouble. And the biggest thing we can do is become involved in initiatives or creating those like the Transition Towns, but we need to start talking with our neighbours about how to get ready for climate change. In doing that we will challenge many habits about consumer culture which is defined by how many things I have or own. The middle class in every country find it hardest to understand climate change because everything comes from the supermarket. Working people understand very well that something needs to be done immediately because they are more directly connected to what is happening around them. The middle class in both the North and South are one step removed from the direct experience of how weather changes, and are much more believing that governments will show the way for us. We need to understand and support each other in the way that working people do because they depend on each other for their well-being. What is wrong with the current technological fixes like genetically engineered (GE) foods and agrofuels that are being pushed as solutions to the problem? They assume that climate change is a technological problem that can be fixed with technological solutions. They don’t understand that climate change is a political problem that needs to look at political reasons of the crisis. To quote (British economist) Nicholas Stern, climate change is the biggest market failure. It seems unwise to trust the market to correct the biggest market failure that history has seen. Agrofuels and GE crops are part of this failed market, and that goes back to the failed development model that is being pursued. Do you see hope in the events of 2007, like the message of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, and Australia ratifying the Kyoto Protocol? I believe there is always hope. But whether or not Australia joins the Kyoto Protocol refers to whether it will meet its obligations to act on climate change. Australia does nothing about climate change. Joining Kyoto means it is doing virtually nothing. The IPCC reports raised the level of urgency about the problem, although I’m not very hopeful that government negotiators have understood the message from these reports (both the Stern Review and IPCC reports) because they seem to be totally about wrong things and looking in the wrong places for solutions to climate change, such as proposing technological fixes. This year, it is carbon sequestration rather than getting to a post-carbon economy in a just and rather fast manner. I’m hopeful because I see more and more local communities take action and see our role as civil society organisations to show that the technologies are already there and implemented by local communities, so it becomes harder for governments to ignore looking where the real solutions are. I am struck by the similarities between government behaviour and drug addicts in dealing with the problem – they show the same behaviour. That’s why we see these false solutions, sequestration, dumping carbon on the sea floor, etc. We must not underestimate the creative energy needed to kick this habit. We just have to hope for the sake of our future generations that governments will find the will to kick the addiction before we run out of time.