Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

UN Failures and Local Hope
distributed 11/22/13 - ©2013

If the United Nations provided the only setting for dealing with the crisis of climate change, I'd be despairing. Fortunately, the UN is just one arena where governments and powerful institutions are working to minimize climate disruption.

The COP19 talks in Warsaw this month, which started with low expectations, have failed to achieve anything. The most interesting and significant news has told us of protests and conflicts about the lack of action.

Thankfully, more hopeful signs of climate action are found around the planet. The one that I find most encouraging is very close to home, with astonishing new rules for oil and gas drilling in Colorado that will bring important changes.

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It is important to note that the delegates who have gathered in Warsaw are not fighting about the reality of climate change. The science that motivates the conference is well established. The big fights are about money.

How much will the rich countries -- the "developed" nations whose wealth and power have come from burning vast quantities of fossil fuels -- chip in to help poor nations act? How will that money be allocated, and when will it be available? Will the wealthy, long-term polluters have to admit to their "sins" with a form of payments addressing the "loss and damage" inflicted on the poor, or will the money for climate mitigation and adaptation flow without any sense of blame?

These conflicts seem close to insurmountable in a UN setting that requires decisions by consensus. Many of those who went to Warsaw are fed up with the delays and stalemates.

This week, delegates from the G77+China (a coalition of 133 developing countries) staged a three-hour walk out from the negotiation table to protest developed countries' reluctance to commit to loss and damage.

The next day, hundreds of people representing civil society groups from across the world walked out of the summit, amid accusations the UN negotiations have been hijacked by lobbyists from the fossil fuel industry seeking to water down carbon reduction targets. In a joint statement, group leaders (which include big-name groups like WWF, Friends of the Earth, and Oxfam) offered that "the best use of their time" was to now focus "on mobilizing people to push our governments to take leadership for serious climate action."

The UN is important in maintaining conversation among all nations. The annual "Conference of the Parties" negotiations make sure that a diversity of voices are heard, and enforce a timeline for wrestling with contentious decisions. If it were not for the annual COP meetings, the G77 would have no realistic voice at all. But we'll be disappointed if we expect bold new initiatives to come out of this sort of forum.

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The real action is taking place in more localized settings -- at a national level on specific policies, and in states and cities. There are a wide range of intentional, important, strategic things being done.

A forum organized by The Guardian prior to COP19 has one participant saying "I was listening last week to the governor of the Bank of Bangladesh, and they have installed solar panels in a million homes already. They are installing at a rate of 1,000 a day. And they are dealing with the impacts of climate change."

An article from reports that "China announced that it would no longer build coal-fired power plants in the regions surrounding Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou. The air pollution has just gotten out of control with residents from all walks of life feeling the impacts. Further, China has a goal of reducing its power generation from coal to below 65% by 2017, as well as getting wind and solar production up to 13% of the total energy pie. ... these are steps in the right direction."

In the US, the Obama administration's proposed rules on CO2 emissions from new power plants are a good first step toward reducing emissions in all forms of electric generation.

And then there are those surprising new air quality rules in Colorado. Oil and gas drilling has been booming in my home state, with 2,000 new wells being drilled each year. A county just north of Denver is the most actively drilled county in the US, and air quality problems from those operations spread across the region.

In a first draft, the state had proposed some weak new rules that clearly were not adequate. The radically different standards that were announced last Monday do merit their description as "landmark" -- and they provide a model that hopefully will be used in many other states.

The rules are the first in the nation to control methane emissions (a very powerful greenhouse gas), and they bring huge cuts in other pollution. New wells will have to have "green completions" that don't vent methane. Tighter controls on drilling, storage and pipelines will bring a reduction of 92,000 ton per year of air pollution -- "roughly equivalent to taking every car in the state off the road for a year." The major drilling companies are supporting the new rules, so it appears likely that these stringent new requirements will be implemented.

I was fortunate to be in an intimate meeting a week ago with the directors of the two state agencies that have developed the rules. They are justifiably proud of these "state of the art" regulations -- and they would love to see conversation and support in religious communities about these matters of public health and the environment.

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The UN COP meetings generate international attention, and provide an opportunity for coordinated advocacy efforts., for example, is coordinating a series of vigils to stand with the people of the Philippines as they name the climate links to their recent typhoon devastation. (I'll be speaking briefly at this evening's vigil in Denver.)

But the actual progress in addressing climate change often happens locally, not in huge international conferences. While far more needs to be done, let's find hope and encouragement in truly significant actions that are taking place all around us.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

PS - Next Thursday is Thanksgiving Day in the United States. As is our tradition, the entire staff of Eco-Justice Ministries takes the holiday weekend off. (I promise that I'm not going to be joining the Black Friday shopping throngs!) The next Eco-Justice Notes will be sent on Friday, December 6.

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