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Inside the Lima Climate Change Conference

As one climate justice activist from a low lying island state put it: “They are talking about adapting to a world that is 4 degrees Celsius warmer, but we don’t exist in that world.”

The Lima Talks: The inside and the outside
Photo courtesy of Sustainability Solutions Group

This week Environment Minister Mary Polak is joining provincial and federal colleagues as well as thousands of other participants at the UN climate change negotiations in Lima, Peru. 

She will likely board one of hundreds of double-decker luxury buses that collect delegates from hotels in the upscale neighbourhoods of Lima and deliver them, following an hour long ride through traffic gridlock, to the country’s army headquarters, which has been transformed into a mini-United Nations.  

After passing through airport-like security and by the UN police in their iconic blue uniforms, delegates enter into an extensive compound.  In white portable tents, wording on a climate change agreement is projected on screens and debated.

Smaller meeting spaces host discussions and hundreds of booths from UN organisations, international non-profits and other organisations working on climate change. Side events to main negotiations delve into issues such as low carbon transport, climate financing, climate strategies by particular countries and more.  Everywhere there are small clusters of people around tables discussing, talking on their phones and working on computers. They are dressed for a financial district in a major city, with beautiful suits and high heels, in stark contrast to the bustle of Lima outside of the compound walls.  

Unlike the last meetings in Warsaw, which were broadly criticised for the extent of corporate sponsorship, particularly by coal companies, there is no corporate financing of this event according to the meeting’s President and Peru’s Minister of the Environment, Manuel Pulgar-Vidal. The only corporate brands in evidence are the coolers of soft drinks and the Nescafe coffee machines at the ubiquitous food counters constructed of pallets.

From early in the morning until late at night, the large tents fill up with country representatives who debate and discuss what began as a 17 page text, line by line.  Following the first week of deliberations, the key text that will outline what is expected from countries in terms of national greenhouse gas emission targets, and the elements of the agreement that will be launched next year in Paris, is in the hands of the Chair to revise and compile. This new text, expected to be released on Monday morning, will form the basis for the discussions in week 2, when ministers arrive from various countries and replace civil servants in the negotiations.

There is a general sentiment of optimism, that the talks are on track with demonstrable progress, in contrast to the hectic desperation that characterized the last major attempt to achieve an agreement in Copenhagen in 2009.  Underpinning this progress and optimism is the momentum derived from the US-China statement, the fact that countries have nearly achieved their goal of $10 billion for climate financing, the massive climate march in New York and the UN Climate Summit it accompanied.

The outside

Outside of the compound walls, climate justice groups have little faith that whatever agreement is reached will achieve the need for deep emissions cuts. As one climate justice activist from a low lying island state put it: “They are talking about adapting to a world that is 4 degrees Celsius warmer, but we don’t exist in that world.” Two degrees Celsius warming is generally seen as the upper limit to avoiding catastrophic climate change. However, even at the 2 degree line, the impacts on infrastructure, health and ecosystems, not to mention disappearing island states, will be far from insignificant.

Rather than wait and watch, the sidelines are buzzing with activity and the slogan “Change the system, not the climate!” The global south brings a variety of enriching perspectives on alternative forms of development. These solutions empower local communities and respect traditional beliefs that see Earth as sacred, as opposed to a marketable commodity.

Consensus and collaboration amongst groups has given birth to elements such as CasActiva, a convergence centre for activists filled with art, food, workshops and radio. After two decades of climate negotiations that has largely failed the most vulnerable populations of the world, CasActiva is echoing with music and discussion. The house’s theme is “from a seed is born a forest.” Talk is of actions, strategy and success stories where people lead by example. “We have the solutions” is repeatedly heard in the house as people share consciously prepared food and fill the house with art.

Much of this art will be used during the march for the rights of Mother Earth on December 10th. Social movements in Latin America are pushing the envelope on giving rights to the planet and indigenous peoples. Many are taking a lead from Bolivian President Evo Morales who is scheduled to speak at the march on the rights of nature.

The creative energy in CasActiva is building up to the Cumbre de los Pueblos, the people’s gathering. This open space will feature more than 160 workshops, art shows and facilitated discussions in a variety of languages. The people’s summit begins on Monday.


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