Paris Climate Forum: Silenced voices and global policy-making

Universal Dialogues? Silenced voices and global environmental policy-making in the aftermath of the Paris Climate Forum

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a major leap for mankind – François Hollande, President of France

The long-awaited 21st United Nations Conference on Climate Change has recently taken place in Paris (30th November–11th December). Delegates and representatives of 195 countries met with the aim of reassessing the international engagement with the principles of the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit. As expected, the negotiations reflected the relative position of individual nation-states and communities within the international political order, particularly in relation to restrictions of carbon emissions. The outcome was the first ‘universal’ agreement on global climate policy. This agreement recognises the immediate need to “peak greenhouse gas emissions”, in order to start reducing the anthropogenic carbon footprint and to control global temperature increase below 2ºC, aiming for a 1.5ºC limit. The implementation of measures and the progress towards the achievement of objectives will be reviewed every 5 years.

We’ve secured our planet for many, many generations to come – David Cameron, UK Prime Minister

Nevertheless, I argue that this agreement and its accompanying political propaganda should be met with a certain degree of scepticism. It does not centrally establish emission targets, which are instead set voluntarily by each country, and will not be binding. Moreover, although the agreement promises the creation of an international fund of $100bn a year to finance the transition to renewable sources of energy in developing countries by 2020, this promise will not be legally binding and signatures will only open on the 22nd April 2016 (Mother Earth Day). Some countries may face political limitations which could effectively prevent them signing the Agreement. Obama, for example, will need to convince the US Senate to authorise it. Furthermore, the Agreement will become fully effective only if 55 countries which produce at least 55% of the world’s greenhouse-effect gas emissions ratify it within one year. Thus, Kumi Naidoo, Greenpeace International executive director claims that the nations which have been primarily involved in the industrial process responsible for climate change “have promised too little help to those people already losing their lives and livelihoods”. As James Hansen, former NASA scientist and first proponent of the notion of ‘Greenhouse Effect’ notes, there is no real compromise for action. It seems that fossil fuels will continue to be burned for as long as they remain cheaper. And the controlled decrease in global oil prices is certainly not contributing to worldwide inversions in alternative sources of energy.

This historical agreement is a tribute to American leadership – Barack Obama, US President

Therefore, the quote by the US President sums up the nature of the agreement. Despite its apparent universality, it has been in fact designed and tailored to the requirements and the exigencies of developed countries. Additionally, it is important not to forget the involvement of for-profit companies in terms of lobbying, including the efforts of the fossil fuel industry to reduce the effectiveness of the agreement. Corporate sponsorship also influences whose interests were represented in the talks addressed at the conference. Nearly 62% (44 out of 71) of the presentations at the Forum were made by representatives of private firms and businesses; Politicians, members of different UN Boards and representatives of international organisations conformed the rest of the speakers. Presentations also showed a considerable gender bias: 50 out of 71 (70.42%) were made by male speakers. In contrast, there were two distinct groups whose voices were comparatively silenced: there were three representatives of the youth, including the UN’s Envoy on Youth and the Chair of the World Energy Council Future Energy Leaders, who only engaged formally in a session –arguably having less exposure and coverage than keynote addresses–. Just one representative of Indigenous Communities, the Chief Oren Lyons, Native American Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Seneca Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, was given the opportunity to deliver a 10-minute speech to the Forum, on the importance to consider and include the rights of indigenous people in the Agreement.

Despite this token keynote address, the feeling is that the talks have been “a failure, our voices are not being heard”, in the words of Jorge Furagaro Kuetgaje, climate coordinator for Coica, the Indigenous People of the Amazon Basin. Petitions from indigenous people have been disregarded, for the operative text of the Paris Accord has had the rights of Indigenous Peoples removed, particularly by a bloc of countries, including the US, the UK & Norway. Even references derived from the Human Rights’ Declaration have been omitted in the final draft, despite the objections and protests led by youth and subsistence farmers’ activists, and representatives of NGOs and ecological organisations. Let’s not forget that, according to the Guardian, 16 environmental activists were murdered in 2014, and 40% of the victims were indigenous representatives. Therefore, it could be argued that these collectives are not simply muted, but effectively silenced by those setting the agenda of the negotiations, i.e. those invited to deliver the majority of the keynote speeches at the Forum.

It’s outrageous that the deal is being spun as a success when it undermines the rights of the world’s most vulnerable communities and has almost nothing binding to ensure a safe and liveable climate for future generations.

– Nick Dearden, Director of Global Justice Now.

The increasing global need for energy sources is having a direct and significant impact in indigenous communities throughout the world. For example, the Dayak (Indonesia) are seeing how the rainforests they inhabit are being deforested for mining purposes. Sioux Indians are being stripped off their lands for the exploitation of tar sands in Alberta, Canada. It is worth reminding that some infrastructure for the obtainment of renewable energy, such as projected hydropower dams in the Brazilian Amazon, are also threatening indigenous communities. These projects destroy sustainably-managed indigenous landscapes full of cultural symbolism, associated to the inhabitants and their ancestors. Forced resettlement does not only place them in alienating environments, but could also render obsolete their ancestral knowledge, so intrinsically associated with their ecosystems. Even more dramatically, I would argue that a failure to revert the global warming process will likely cause a pan-humanitarian crisis: many people will lose their homes and land-based sources of income, potentially generating millions of climate refugees worldwide. Citizens of island nation-states, or inhabitants of densely-populated coastal regions and valleys in countries such as China, India, Indonesia or Pakistan, among many others, will be particularly affected.

Paradoxically, those who have contributed the least to climate change are suffering the consequences the most. Besides, they are neither even given the opportunity to present in global forums the issues they are facing, nor their alternative perspectives on potential solutions are considered. If national and international policy-making in relation to nation-states in which indigenous communities inhabit continues to be passed without consulting indigenous people first, these communities will gradually lose their autonomous existence in the process. A more collaborative and respectful approach to global policy-making is required, with the direct participation of silenced collectives and minorities. Their diverse needs, and those of future generations, must be listened and prioritised over the interests of particular nations and multinational corporations, in spaces fostering mutual commitment, viable solutions and effective action, rather than just empty promises.


About Gonzalo Linares

I read the BA Archaeology & Anthropology at the University of Oxford. I am the 2016 Environment and Ethics Representative in St. Hugh's College JCR. Executive Editor of the International Journal of Student Research in Archaeology.