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U.S. Chief Negotiator Pleads Insanity on Past Emissions

December 11, 2009

In his first press briefing at the COP-15, Todd Stern, the U.S. Special Envoy on Climate Change, flatly rejected the notion of a “climate debt” that the United States owes to countries damaged by climate disruption. By rejecting “climate debt,” he nearly dismissed the entire climate justice perspective.

It’s as if Stern tried to plead insanity in front of an international, intergenerational jury. How would you vote on that jury? He argued the U.S. isn’t responsible for past emissions because we didn’t know what we were doing. We were ignorant at first, but we’ve been learning for several decades now (even though the EPA only announced its final endangerment finding earlier this week). We kept emitting as we learned. We’re still emitting.

The country with the far-and-away highest GDP in the world gained its wealth by burning enormous volumes of fossil fuels, leading to an unprecedented, global ecological crisis. Now, that country–the U.S.–appears willing to fix the climate and help others adapt to inevitable damages only as far as these actions are necessary to promote American security and global influence. For most activists here, this injustice is the motivating factor for their protest.

Todd Stern recognized the “need” for assistance to other countries, but the U.S. climate package for foreign assistance did not approach the levels justified by its world-record-holder status for cumulative greenhouse gas emissions. That’s because the delegation refuses to consider moral responsibility for damages caused to other countries. For instance, what will the U.S. owe when island nations are displaced from their land due to rising seas?  Or when the next tsunami hits the coasts on the Indian Ocean? The United States isn’t alone in denying these responsibilities, but it is the most egregious offender.

Sylvia Wachira of the African Youth Initiative on Climate Change (AYICC) delivered a moving speech today on climate injustice in the CMP plenary session. She was one of the only non-governmental speakers allowed to speak in front of all the assembled delegates. I encourage you to watch the webcast [skip to 1:42:00] or read the transcript below.

Thank you Mr. Chairman.

I am speaking as a member of the Pan-African Climate Justice Alliance and Climate Justice Now!

Africa stands on the frontline of climate change. It is a cruel irony indeed that a people who have lived for so long in harmony with nature are now suffering the disastrous effects of greenhouse gases emitted by developed countries.

For over two centuries the industrialized world became wealthy by drenching the atmosphere in carbon and plundering resources from every region of the world.

The current proposal and pledges by Annex I Parties are supposedly aimed at limiting global warming to 2 degrees. They will not, and 2 degrees is a death sentence for Africa.  According to the IPCC, Africa will warm by more than the average global level. 2 degrees globally means 3 or more degrees for my continent.

Such an increase in temperature would lead to widespread devastation.

It will lead to massive reduction in crop yields in some areas, cutting food outputs in half. More than 600 million people left without adequate water supplies. Our coastlines, villages and cattle will be ravaged. Literally millions of people will die.

The injustice does not stop here. Based on Annex I Parties current proposals and pledges, the 20% of people living in developed countries would consume over 60% of the Earth’s atmospheric space while the 80% who are poor will be consigned to live within the remaining 40%.  You are literally stealing from us the very sky over our heads.

A mere $10 billion is proposed under the Convention negotiations in so-called short-term financing, while the rich countries seek to appropriate from poor countries an atmospheric resource worth trillions. Your 10 billion will not be enough to buy our coffins.

We are expected to accept this deal. Worse still we are expected to celebrate this as success.

We will not.

This grab of our shared atmospheric resource is nothing less than climate colonialism.

Yesterday, African civil society marched alongside Parliamentarians from across the continent chanting: “Two degrees is suicide” and “One Africa, One Degree”.  You must all be absolutely clear: we will not die in silence.

[Watch for the second U.S. press briefing this afternoon at 2:30pm GMT+1. See the UNFCCC Webcast page.]

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