Is it time to change tactics and focus on big corporate polluters?

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Photo: flickr/Climate March

The United Nations will host dozens of governments, corporations and non-governmental organizations during a one-day Climate Summit 2014 in New York on Sept. 23, but unfortunately, according to scientists and environmentalists, the meeting will deal mainly with only one limited way of fighting climate change: carbon pricing.

In recent years the UN has proven incapable of playing an important role in slowing world climate change in a meaningful way.

"On the climate issue, the world's biggest corporate polluters and pushers of unsustainable rates of consumption are hellbent on maintaining 'business as usual' and are working alone and in groups [and at the UN] to ensure that climate policies will not interfere with the profitability of their operations" says a research paper produced by Canada's highly-respected Polaris Institute.

Because the UN and governments are not making progress, as many as 200,000 environmental supporters from all over North America are expected to take part in four days ofprotest in New York leading up to the UN summit. More than 800 groups are backing the protests, hoping to advance the climate crisis cause in the eyes of the public and with governments.

The expensive, one-day summit will be a self-serving exercise for both the UN and the corporations. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will issue meaningless platitudes. The invited government representatives will denounce global warming in general ways. And as usual, the culprits -- the air-choking corporations -- will not be named.

Corporate participation in the summit is organized by the UN Global Compact, a powerful business lobby group that looks out for the interests of corporations across a number of UN program areas. The Compact is loaded with the most powerful corporations from around the globe, companies such as Coca-Cola and Cisco from the U.S., Siemens from Germany, CEMEX from Mexico, Banco do Brasil, Sinopec from China, etc.

While 125 heads of states are expected to attend, including U.S. President Barack Obama and U.K. Prime Minster David Cameron, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper will skip most of the summit. Harper, who will be in New York that day for another event, will take part in only the luncheon discussion concerning carbon pricing. Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq will attend the entire summit.

One of the few moments of real heart-felt compassion will come when a 25-year-old poet, journalist and climate-change activist from the Marshall Islands delivers the keynote opening address. Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner will say she became inspired to fight climate change when she witnessed the raging ocean destroying her city's main graveyard on her island of 71,000.

"I was inspired by the concept that the ocean is almost eating, or swallowing our dead in a sense," she said in an interview with a U.S. donor. "There is profound sadness and a profound helplessness about that. It is so sad, we have no control over it; it is the ocean that is taking it over. That is what inspired me; that is what moved me deeply."

Poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner will perform the keynote at next week's UN Climate Summit.

Pricing push

The summit will, among other things, hold briefdiscussions on theme areas such as climate, health and jobs, a climate change photo contest run by a newspaper that the UN says may be the largest ever, and a week of fun events around New York.

Corporations and governments will have a brief window to make new suggestions, but what business really wants from a private, exclusive meeting during the summit is to exploit the legitimacy of the UN to increase the corporate-preferred action against climate change: expand carbon pricing systems.

Governments create carbon markets by telling corporations how much carbon they are allowed to produce. If they exceed their limit they are, in effect, fined. But if they are under their limit they can sell their excess credits to another company that hasn't met its limits, often walking away with a big profit.

"Carbon pricing is a critical tool to address climate change, and momentum is building to put in place carbon pricing schemes," says one UN document. "Nearly 40 countries and more than 20 cities, states and provinces use carbon pricing mechanisms such as emissions trading systems and carbon taxes or are preparing to implement them."

But there are two serious problems.

First, most corporations want to implement only carbon pricing mechanisms. But the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) says "a cap-and-trade program alone would not be sufficient to meet the challenge of climate change."

UCS says many other actions are required, such as having utilities generate a higher percentage of their electricity from renewable energy, requiring automakers to increase vehicle fuel economy standards, make stronger energy efficiency policies and make policies encouraging smart growth.

Secondly, critics such as activist Naomi Klein are highly critical of carbon pricing programs because they can be manipulated. Earlier this month Klein told In These Times that such schemes create perverse incentives, allowing manufacturers to produce more harmful greenhouse gases, just to be paid to reduce them. In the process, carbon trading schemes have helped corporations make billions -- allowing them to directly profit off the degradation of the planet.

Summit participation limited

While the UN will welcome powerful corporations in New York, it will strictly control the participation of non-governmental organizations. NGOs were not permitted to decide among themselves who will be allowed into the summit. Instead, the UN selected four civil society speakers and 34 additional civil society attendees from the 544 nominated groups.

Protestors will launch their activities in New York on Friday, Sept. 19 with plenaries, speak-outs and teach-ins. The main march will take place on Sunday several blocks away from the UN, on the other side of Manhattan Island. The march will be closely monitored by New York's police force.

The more radical protestors will target the "climate profiteers" on Wall Street on Tuesday, Sept. 22, the day before the UN summit. Protestors can receive non-violent direct action training, and will hear pep talks from journalists/activists Naomi Klein and Chris Hedges.

According to the organizers, large protests and occupations will take place in financial districts in hundreds of communities around the world. Protests are planned for about 10 Canadian communities.

Will these protests, which will cost many thousands of dollars and use up hundreds-of-thousands of hours of labour, be any more effective than past protests in getting the general public behind climate protection initiatives?

The environmental movement has been trying to shame the UN and national governments to make more progress on slowing climate change for many years. However, earlier this month the World Meteorological Organization voiced concerns over the surge of carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere, which reached a new record high in 2013. It said there are worrying signs that oceans and biosphere seem unable to soak up emissions as quickly as they used to.

It wasn't too many years ago that the once-mighty cigarette industry was forced to greatly curtail its activities in many countries. Perhaps it's time for environmentalists and the general public to change tactics and begin focusing on the big corporate polluters. 

Nick Fillmore is a Toronto freelance journalist and a Tyee National columnist. He was one of the founders of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, the International Freedom of Expression Exchange and the Canadian Association of Journalists. Nick supports media development projects in Caribbean countries by volunteering with the Association of Caribbean Media Workers.

This piece originally appeared on The Tyee and is reprinted with permission from the author.

Photo: flickr/Climate March

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