Roman Krznaric is amazed that political activists are ignoring the world’s greatest social justice issue.
In the lobby of Congress House, home of Britain’s Trades Union Congress, there was a banner from the Cuba Solidarity Campaign with Che Guevara t-shirts for sale. A couple of Labour Members of Parliament, drinking tea out of plastic cups, were talking in loud voices about the great strides in social justice being made by President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. Where was I? At ‘Latin America 2007’, an annual gathering in London of activists, researchers, politicians and thinkers from the Progressive Left.
The first extraordinary thing I noticed about the conference, held in December, was the number of people. Hundreds and hundreds had come to hear speeches and take part in workshops with regional experts and visiting political and community leaders from Latin America. I hadn’t seen such a big turnout at a Latin America event in Britain since the mid-1990s, when IMF-imposed neoliberal economic policies were wreaking havoc, and peace processes were being negotiated to end civil wars in Central America.
The second extraordinary thing I noticed was this: NOBODY MENTIONED CLIMATE CHANGE. Looking through the list of workshops, there were sessions on anti-poverty programmes in Venezuela, land reform in Bolivia, violence against trade unionists in Guatemala and the legacy of Che and the Cuban Revolution. But on climate change there was a deafening silence.
Clearly the organisers did not believe climate change warranted special attention, despite the mountain of evidence that it is having major effects on the region, and threatens to reverse the human development gains of the past three decades. Many of these effects and threats have recently been documented in the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Report 2007/8. Link…
With respect to water scarcity, the report points out that the ‘accelerated melting of tropical glaciers will threaten water supplies for urban populations, agriculture and hydroelectricity, especially in the Andean region’. Peru and Bolivia, two of the poorest countries in the region, face the prospect of a dramatic decline in water availability, especially in the dry season. Climate change is also likely to have major effects on food security across Latin America. The report states that: ‘In Latin America, smallholder agriculture is particularly vulnerable, partly because of limited access to irrigation and partly because maize, a staple across much of the region, is highly sensitive to climate.’ The latest models predict smallholder losses for maize yields averaging around 10 percent across the region, but rising to 25 percent for Brazil.
The most disheartening moment for me was when watching a documentary about Hugo Chavez made by Che Guevera’s daughter, Aleida. Chavez was boasting about how he was using oil revenues to finance the fight against poverty in Venezuela. And then he pointed out that the future looked bright, since the state oil company had the potential to increase oil production through its access to the Orinoco Petroleum Belt, which is estimated to be the world’s largest oil reserve.
I care deeply about wealth inequality in Latin America, and understand the argument that since rich Northern countries have had the privilege of fossil fuel-based development, then developing countries should not be denied the same privilege. But shouldn’t we be at least discussing the impacts of climate change and the alternatives to fossil fuel-based economic and social development at a conference with the professed aim of helping the struggle for social justice? I can’t help concluding that the Progressive Left doesn’t yet really believe in climate change.
What explains the absence of climate change on the agenda?
One factor concerns hope. For the first time in years there is a sense of hope about Latin America amongst the Progressive Left. Neoliberalism is in retreat and left-leaning governments are being elected throughout the region. Chavez is challenging the US and the multinationals, and having an impact on poverty reduction. Bolivia has its first indigenous President. But none of this, I believe, is an excuse for ignoring climate change.
A second factor is that many activists and policy-makers continue to keep human development issues separate from what they think of as ‘environmental’ issues. If you are interested in tackling poverty in the favelas of Rio, it is quite normal not even to consider that climate change is a related issue. I think there is a real need for development agencies and activists on the one hand, and environmentally-oriented organisations and campaigners on the other, to merge their thinking to create a new Ecological Humanism, so that climate change and social justice are considered interdependent issues.
A third, possibly deeper factor, is psychological denial. As individuals, we have an extraordinary capacity to shut our minds to the realities of issues that we think are frightening or insurmountable. Climate change is one of them. The good news is that people in rich countries are starting to overcome their denial and accept that climate change is not only happening, but will change their own lives, and that they have to adapt to and embrace the changes. The bad news is that most of them remain in denial when it comes to the world’s poorest countries. As a recent Oxfam report points out, the rich world is sorely lagging behind in its response to the need for developing countries to adapt to the impacts of climate change link..
The time has come for us to take our struggle against denial a stage further, and recognise that climate change is a reality not only for ourselves, but for the world’s poorest people in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa and other developing regions.
Go to Roman’s website, www.romankrznaric.com, for his latest reports on climate change written for the United Nations Development Programme’s ‘Human Development Report 2007/8’, and for his essays on the Art of Living.