Cancun: The Next Chance for Democratic Solutions to the Climate Crisis

Janet Redman Nov 23, 2010

This article was originally posted on from the Miami Herald.

When I lived in Bar Harbor, Maine, the story leaked that plans were in the works to sell our water company to a new private operator. Tired of broken pipes, lead contamination and inefficiency, residents and local business owners in the town objected, arguing that it was time for the local government to take water management into its own hands.

At a packed townhall meeting in the middle school gym, fishermen, the owner of the local grocery store, high school teachers, staff and students from the island’s small college, the couple that owned the bed & breakfast – just about everyone I knew – stepped up to the microphone. After hours of testimony, the proposal for public management was put to a vote – and passed.

U.S. officials should heed such experiences with American homegrown democracy and bring them to the international policy arena. When everyone is affected by a problem, we should all have a voice in the solution. And when we all have a voice, odds are higher that we’ll take the responsibility to make sure the solution works.

U.S. climate negotiators, who will engage in the global talks in Cancun that begin at the end of this month, need to understand this important lesson.

Just as poor management of the local water utility hurt everyone in Bar Harbor, everyone on the planet will be affected by the way our leaders respond to climate change. Thus, everyone has the right and responsibility to be represented at the table.

The United Nations is the only table large enough for the job. And, unlike many other global institutions, it operates democratically, with each country given an equal voice.

However, critics, largely from the world’s wealthiest nations, cite the failure to reach a climate deal at the last big U.N.-hosted climate summit in Copenhagen as proof that 192 countries will never agree on anything of substance. Instead, they’re pushing for smaller, more elite clubs to make decisions for the entire planet.

The problem with the global climate talks thus far isn’t that the United Nations has failed. The problem has been that powerful nations haven’t been able to get what they want – a deal that protects the short-term interests of their own corporations at the expense of the most vulnerable countries.

In Copenhagen, the United States pulled a group of 26 countries into a backroom meeting to draft a deal. The resulting agreement set no global target for reducing greenhouse gases, left rich countries with no obligation to cut their emissions – but held financial support for adaptation and a low-carbon transition hostage to developing countries commitments.

Scientists said this would spark more climate change, endangering island nations’ chances for survival while other poor nations would face heightened risks, such as increasingly frequent floods and droughts, water scarcity, and insecurity. When developing countries blocked passage of the accord, industrialized governments blamed U.N. inertia.

The Obama administration has favored smaller decision-making bodies like the G-20, comprising the world’s 20 largest economies, or the Major Economies Forum, a holdover from the Bush era that brings together 17 of the biggest greenhouse gas polluting countries.

The inability of leaders at the G-20 to reach any semblance of a meaningful plan for economic stability, again, in November doesn’t exactly instill confidence that this is the right gang to solve the climate crisis. And while the Major Economies Forum has generated some interesting proposals on low-carbon technology, it hasn’t gotten countries to commit to reducing their emissions.

More important, the countries that already bear the heaviest burden in lives lost and financial damages – and are least responsible for climate change – aren’t even invited in any official capacity to those smaller tables.

Shutting the most affected countries out of climate talks would be like trying to solve the water problems in Bar Harbor by consulting only the company that let the infrastructure crumble.

President Barack Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize last year in large part because of his commitment to bring the United States back into good standing with the global community and usher in a new age of multilateralism. It’s time for Obama and the U.S. negotiating team to walk the talk in Cancun.

Back in Bar Harbor, the locals are getting a say in approving the annual budget for their public water works. Complaints are down since the town improved responsiveness to service questions, invested in main and meter replacement, and integrated water into broader town planning.

Now is the perfect time to apply the homegrown American tradition of democracy at the global level.

Janet Redman is co-director of the Sustainable Energy & Economy Network (SEEN) project at the Institute for Policy Studies. IPS is a community of scholars and organizers linking peace, justice, and the environment in the U.S. and globally. 

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