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Eye Witness Report-Back from Cancun

Last night I joined a panel in Toronto. I spoke alongside John Dillon of KAIROS and Adriana Mugnatto-Hamu of JustEarth and the Toronto Climate Campaign. There were video statements from Bolivia’s Ambassador to the UN Pablo Solòn, Gerry LeBlanc, USW Injured Workers program based in Toronto and Daniel T’seleie of the Canadian Youth Delegation joined via skype.

Following the presentations people submitted written questions to the event moderator, Dorothy McDougall of KAIROS and a lively discussion ensued.

I kicked off the evening with an overview of the Council’s experiences in Cancun – the subject of a forthcoming blog, as long as the wifi connection on my via rail trip back to Ottawa stays strong.

The science:

Adriana focused on two key areas of emerging climate change science, different emission scenarios and ocean acidification. Ocean acidification is a chemical process where increased levels of CO2 in the ocean creating higher levels of acidity, in fact, oceans are already 30% more acidic then they used to be. While the impacts of this change are still being researched and there is far more to learn, the impacts on crustaceans and coral reef are well known, with predictions of massive die-off and erosion if acidification continues.    

Adriana pulled no punches, laying bare the terrifying scenarios of current business as usual emissions and what is required to stabilize temperatures to 2 degrees. Given how far we have already progressed in terms of emissions and how tied our economies are to fossil fuels, Adriana argued that stabilizing to 1.5 degree target, or to 350PPM (parts per million – referring to CO2 concentration in our atmosphere, we are already at 390PPM) would require massive change. The studies and modelling she referred to indicates that fossil fuels would need to be phased out in about a decade. Given that fossil fuels is the lifeblood of our economy – they heat our homes, fuel our cars and are in about everything we consume – this is no short order.

She warned that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the recent United Nations Environment Programme’s Emissions Gap report suggest that negative emissions – technology that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere including examples such as carbon capture and storage and geo-engineering which the Council opposes as a false solution to the climate crisis – may be needed.

Add to this the scenario that John Dillon described of the impacts of melting Arctic ice. This is revealing darker sea waters that are retaining more heat from the sun which is helping to accelerate warming, including the melting of permafrost which is storing massive amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas emission. If these stores of methane are released, and there is evidence that it is already beginning to escape in the atmosphere (James Hansen frequently writes about this), it will turn predictions of a half a metre rise of waters closer to a disastrous seven metre rise. You can find out more about this science in John’s policy brief for the UN climate talks.

While Adrianna and John, appropriately, captured the urgency of the situation – 300,000 people already die per year because of climate change and it’s looking more and more like the existence of small island states is unlikely – there are reasons for, and pockets of hope.

There are examples such as the Friends of the Earth Europe’s (FoEE) Big Ask Study that outlines how the European Union could achieve 40% emission reductions by 2020 without offsets or carbon trading – a key an important caveat missing from many climate change plans proposed in Canada and the U.S. I also take hope in initiatives such as the Transition Town movement that are creating sustainable and equitable communities. You can watch a video presentation of Rob Hopkins, the Founder of Transition Towns, on our climate justice webpage. There are also campaigns challenging projects that are going in the wrong direction, like the campaign to stop the BC government plans to build freeways like the South Fraser Perimetre Road that BC Council chapters are engaged in. With 14 People’s Assemblies on Climate Justice held across Canada during the climate talks, there is a growing movement connecting local actions to the global need to advance climate justice.

The talks:

John, Pablo, Daniel and I all painted a picture of the talks, mostly framing it as a step backwards. John spoke about the Cancun agreement as adopting much of the problematic aspects of the Copenhagen Accord (or discord) while maintaining the good aspects of the Kyoto Protocol –the binding emission reduction targets – on life support. Daniel described the Canadian Youth Delegations reaction to the talks as mixed, some seeing the climate talks as imperative to addressing the crisis we face and seeing the existence of an agreement as important. Others feel the talks fall woefully far behind the type of targets and commitments necessary to ensure a safe future for generations to come. He also described the failure to meaningfully recognize indigenous rights into the agreement and the threat that the ongoing emphasis on carbon trading and offsets have on indigenous rights – a key focus of ‘outside’ actions.

Pablo Salon explained that Bolivia rejects the Cancun agreement because it spells disaster for the world.  The Cancun agreement lays the groundwork to shift away from binding targets under Kyoto (although we know countries like Canada have shown complete disregard for their binding legal obligations under Kyoto and that these targets aren’t strong enough) to a voluntary pledge and review system. Pablo used a useful analogy to describe this shift.

Picture a town that needs to build a dam to protect itself from flood waters. Based on the best knowledge available, they need to build a 25 metre high dam so they get every resident to bring a certain number of rocks that will create a dam of this proportion. The 25 metre high goal is like the aggregate target set under a second commitment period of Kyoto that developed countries commitments need to amount to. A pledge and review system is more like encouraging people to bring to the dam what they can, whether or not it will meet the required needs – it will not stop the flood waters.

Everyone present in the room recognized the serious crises we are facing, and the particular responsibility we have in Canada, a petro-state, to hold our government accountable and demand change. There was a lot of discussion about the need for ‘system change’ – thinking not only about reducing emissions, but questioning what is causing this in terms of over production, consumption and the role of a dominant growth driven economic model, and the need for solutions that move us beyond this.

Social movement organizing was held up as key to mobilizing the kind of public opinion we need to pressure our governments for change and also key to generating positive changes in communities across our country. A number of people spoke to initiatives in Toronto aiming to build the movement for climate justice including the People’s Assemblies organizing, Just Earth, Toronto Climate Campaign, actions planned by Toronto Council of Canadians chapter, and more.

Without a doubt, we need to step up our mobilizing efforts in the lead up to the next round of talks in Durban, South Africa (Late November, 2011). The Council of Canadians is more committed than ever to moving forward our campaign for climate justice, currently planning our next steps.