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What Happened in Bolivia This Week Could Save Our Failing Democracies

When Morales invited "social movements and Mother Earth's defenders" to a new kind of climate summit, it was an attempt to build a base of power behind the right to survive.
 
 
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It was 11 am and Evo Morales had turned a football stadium into a giant classroom, marshaling an array of props: paper plates, plastic cups, disposable raincoats, handcrafted gourds, wooden plates and multicolored ponchos. All came into play to make his main point: to fight climate change, "we need to recover the values of the indigenous people."

Yet wealthy countries have little interest in learning these lessons and are instead pushing through a plan that at its best would raise average global temperatures 2 degrees Celsius. "That would mean the melting of the Andean and Himalayan glaciers," Morales told the thousands gathered in the stadium, part of the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. What he didn't have to say is that the Bolivian people, no matter how sustainably they choose to live, have no power to save their glaciers.

Bolivia's climate summit has had moments of joy, levity and absurdity. Yet underneath it all, you can feel the emotion that provoked this gathering: rage against helplessness.

It's little wonder. Bolivia is in the midst of a dramatic political transformation, one that has nationalized key industries and elevated the voices of indigenous peoples as never before. But when it comes to Bolivia's most pressing, existential crisis -- the fact that its glaciers are melting at an alarming rate, threatening the water supply in two major cities -- Bolivians are powerless to do anything to change their fate on their own.

That's because the actions causing the melting are taking place not in Bolivia but on the highways and in the industrial zones of heavily industrialized countries. In Copenhagen, leaders of endangered nations like Bolivia and Tuvalu argued passionately for the kind of deep emissions cuts that could avert catastrophe. They were politely told that the political will in the North just wasn't there. More than that, the United States made clear that it didn't need small countries like Bolivia to be part of a climate solution. It would negotiate a deal with other heavy emitters behind closed doors, and the rest of the world would be informed of the results and invited to sign on, which is precisely what happened with the Copenhagen Accord. When Bolivia and Ecuador refused to rubber-stamp the accord, the U.S. government cut their climate aid by $3 million and $2.5 million, respectively. "It's not a free-rider process," explained U.S. climate negotiator Jonathan Pershing. (Anyone wondering why activists from the global South reject the idea of "climate aid" and are instead demanding repayment of "climate debts" has their answer here.) Pershing's message was chilling: if you are poor, you don't have the right to prioritize your own survival.

When Morales invited "social movements and Mother Earth's defenders ... scientists, academics, lawyers and governments" to come to Cochabamba for a new kind of climate summit, it was a revolt against this experience of helplessness, an attempt to build a base of power behind the right to survive.

The Bolivian government got the ball rolling by proposing four big ideas: that nature should be granted rights that protect ecosystems from annihilation (a "Universal Declaration of Mother Earth Rights"); that those who violate those rights and other international environmental agreements should face legal consequences (a "Climate Justice Tribunal"); that poor countries should receive various forms of compensation for a crisis they are facing but had little role in creating ("Climate Debt"); and that there should be a mechanism for people around the world to express their views on these topics ("World People's Referendum on Climate Change").

 
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