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The Climate Divide: Dispute Between Rich and Poor Nations Widens at UN Copenhagen Summit

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Negotiations are back on track at the UN climate summit after a walkout yesterday by developing countries highlighted the growing divide between rich and poor nations. African delegates led the walkout, accusing the UN chair of the conference of trying to “kill” the Kyoto Protocol. Meanwhile, outside the Bella Center, Danish police are intensifying their crackdown on climate justice activists. We speak with Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, and Wahu Kaara, a longtime social justice and democracy activist in Kenya. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Climate Countdown.

    PROTESTERS: We are watching you! You know what to do! The number has been set! Pay your climate debt!

    NAOMI KLEIN: We are seeing a redefinition of “environmentalism.”

    NNIMMO BASSEY: Resist, mobilize, transform!

    YVO DE BOER: Well, I think the fact that we’re talking here about very significant money…

    SABER HOSSAIN CHOWDHURY: We are suffering the most, but we have not caused the problem in the least. So, for us, it’s a justice issue. It is also a human rights issue.

    PROTESTERS: We are watching you! You know what to do! The number has been set!

    CONNIE HEDEGAARD: Most speakers who took part in the discussion today emphasized the importance of the Kyoto Protocol.

    ASHWINI PRABHA: One-point-five degrees, that’s enough for our little islands in the Pacific to drown. So, people, wake up! Climate change is real!

AMY GOODMAN: This is Climate Countdown. Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” is the unofficial anthem of the COP15 conference here in Copenhagen. Yes, this is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. And we’re broadcasting from inside the Bella Center, what some might call the Bella of the beast, in this exclusive two-week series on the climate summit.

Negotiations are back on track here at the summit after a walkout yesterday by developing countries highlighted the growing divide between rich and poor nations. African delegates led the walkout, accusing the UN chair of the conference of trying to “kill” the Kyoto Protocol by merging it with a separate negotiating track on a new agreement. Kyoto is the only legal treaty that requires rich nations to slash their greenhouse gas emissions. In a victory for developing nations, it was agreed after several hours that informal talks would proceed along two parallel tracks.

Meanwhile, a group of more than fifty non-governmental organizations are accusing the UN of “undemocratic behavior” for not letting in thousands of NGO representatives into the Bella Center to attend the summit. On Monday, thousands of people already registered to attend waited in line for hours before being turned away. The number of NGO representatives allowed in will be limited to 7,000 on Tuesday and Wednesday, falling to 1,000 on Thursday and just ninety on Friday, as more than 110 heads of state arrive for the talks.

Meanwhile, outside the Bella Center, Danish police are intensifying their crackdown on climate justice activists. Late last night riot police raided Copenhagen’s autonomous community of Christiania as it played host to a party organized by protest groups. More than 200 people were reportedly arrested. This follows the arrest of some 1,200 people over the weekend. That was amidst a march of 100,000 people in Copenhagen.

Bill McKibben was among those marching at the mass protest on Saturday. He is the co-founder and director of 350.org. Twenty years ago, he published The End of Nature, the first general audience book about global warming.

We’re also joined by the Kenyan global justice activist Wahu Kaara.

And we welcome you both to Democracy Now!

Bill, talk about what’s happening inside, before we talk about major protests planned for tomorrow once again.

BILL McKIBBEN: Most of what’s happening inside, we could have predicted. There is no agreement in sight. Everything’s up in the air. Everybody’s waiting for heads of state to arrive and cut a deal.

The one thing we couldn’t have predicted a few months ago was just how strong and how courageous poor nations, small nations, vulnerable nations are being here. They’re under intense pressure, and yet they’re standing up to it, so far, with great courage.

The flashpoint, really, has been this number 350. People — about a hundred delegations now have endorsed that target and are trying very hard to get it put back into the main text where it was taken out.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what 350 means, what’s written down your tie right now.

BILL McKIBBEN: Three-fifty is the most important number in the world, though we didn’t know it two years ago. It’s what scientists tell us is the most carbon we can have in the atmosphere, if we want a world that works. We’re already at 390 parts per million CO2. That’s why the Arctic is melting. It’s why Africa is drying up. And it’s why we need this conference to be treating this not as another problem to be dealt with in some incremental, easy fashion, but as the emergency that it is.

AMY GOODMAN: And do you have that sense? You’re from the United States. Do you have that sense among the US delegation, which is being called the key obstructionist country here?

BILL McKIBBEN: No. The US is — I mean, the Obama administration has committed very little political capital to this. The offer that they’ve put on the table, four percent reductions from 1990 levels of carbon by 2020, is less than the agreement — less than the amount we agreed to cut in Kyoto a dozen years ago. It’s a pathetic offer, but it reflects just how little political attention the administration has been willing to pay for it. They’re hiding behind the skirts of the Senate, saying, “Oh, we couldn’t get anything more ambitious through the Senate,” but they haven’t made any effort to do it.

AMY GOODMAN: The Senate, there are several bills now. Explain the difference from “cap and trade” to “cap and dividend.” I think it makes people’s eyes glaze over. Already, global warming presented in the United States is still a debate, whether it is human-made.

BILL McKIBBEN: So, we’re going to have to cap carbon, if we’re ever going to deal with this climate crisis. We’re going to have to cap carbon and bring down the amount we produce. That’s going to make carbon more valuable. It’s going to make fossil fuel more expensive. There are many ways that you could go about doing this. The way that the main bill — the Waxman-Markey, Kerry-Boxer, Lieberman-Graham bill, whatever —- does it -—

AMY GOODMAN: And I should say, in one hour after this broadcast, Senator Kerry is going to be speaking right here. In fact, for the Democracy Now! viewers who watch on television, right through this glass, in a few minutes, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Governor of California, is going to be speaking here. But, yes, the Kerry-Boxer-etc. bill?

BILL McKIBBEN: That’s the effort to, in essence, cap carbon and round up sixty votes by giving everybody a little piece of the action, every interest group a little piece of the action. Some serious money for nukes, for clean coal, for — we’re kind of buying votes one at a time. It’s one tactic, and — but it’s a pretty messy and ugly process. And it’s not at all clear, with the number of loopholes in that bill, how much it would accomplish.

This other bill introduced last week by Senator Cantwell and Senator Collins is, in its architecture, more interesting. It would take the fees to put carbon in the atmosphere directly from, say, Exxon Mobil, at the very top of the stream, and return them every month via a check to every person in the US. Your price at the pump would go up, as Exxon paid off the cost of this permit to produce carbon, but you’d be getting the check to make you whole every month. It’s a kind of interesting architecture. And there’s, I think, some hope that if it had strong targets attached to it, it could do pretty interesting things.

AMY GOODMAN: Wahu Kaara, as you listen to what’s going on in the United States, from where you live, in Kenya, why are you here, and what are you hoping will be accomplished this week?

WAHU KAARA: I am here because it’s important for the kind of work I work, in organizing and mobilizing social movements for social agency in transformation, to come here and link up with others. And that’s why much of my work has been at Klimaforum. However, I’m also here at Bella Center, because it’s also important to follow up what is happening, even if I find that not much — not so much will be done, like the African people expressed yesterday.

But we have to be here, because the world belongs to us, and we are the people who have alternatives. We are the people to continue reminding the policymakers that we do not have any more time for negotiations, and in particular us from the South, because the more they negotiate, the more we die. And every life is valuable. So, for us who are very much interested in the question of the dignity of human life and human dignity and self-determination and human progress and prosperity, where we are convinced each and every global citizen has a right to participate in making that human prosperity, that’s why I’m here.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. And I want to ask you how you move from working on debt issues around poverty to climate debt, and how they’re connected. Our guests are Wahu Kaara — she is a Kenyan global justice activist. She’ll be one of those on the outside tomorrow in a major Reclaim Power protest. Bill McKibben is with us. He’s inside and outside the Bella Center, as well, co-founder and director of 350.org. After we speak with them, we’re going to go to the tar sands in Alberta and learn about where the United States gets most of its oil and, finally, a debate on cap and trade. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Climate Countdown. We’re broadcasting live from Copenhagen, exclusively, the two weeks, the only daily global TV, radio, internet broadcast that is coming out of, well, the Bella Center, right here where the climate talks are taking place.

Our guests right now are Wahu Kaara — she is a Kenyan global justice activist — and Bill McKibben, co-founder and director of 350.org. But I want to return to a minute — walking in the hall yesterday, I had a chance to speak with Dessima Williams from Grenada. She’s the chair of the Alliance of Small Island Nations. She’s the Grenadian ambassador.

    DESSIMA WILLIAMS: What Grenada needs and what the forty members of the small island states that are in the AOSIS alliance — what we need is the re-commitments under the Kyoto Protocol, the second commitment period, because, in that, we will be given the commitments on targets to reduce global warming and targets to fund it that — to correct the damage and to preempt further damage. We need a legally binding outcome that holds these countries in the Annex I, the major industrial economies who have been principally responsible for this damage to the atmosphere and to the planet — we need them to continue to take their responsibility for another period after 2012.

AMY GOODMAN: That is Dessima Williams. She is the spokesperson here for the Alliance of Small Island Nations. She’s the chair of that group. You also spoke along with them at a news conference, Bill McKibben. Why is this group so important?

BILL McKIBBEN: Look, Amy, the last time we talked was right before this big day of action we had in October, which turned out to be, as CNN said, the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history: 5,200 demonstrations in 181 nations. That’s what allows, to a large degree, people like Dessima Williams to have a platform now. There’s finally a global movement around this world behind climate change in every country. And so, they’re able to stand up, and stand up for the science.

I mean, in this hall, it’s people from Africa and from the small island nations that are the ones standing up for what we know the science is. It’s the Americans, to a large degree, most of the other developed nations, trying to duck what we know the science says. That’s why she’s so important, and it’s why this mix of inside and outside is so important.

AMY GOODMAN: Wahu Kaara, can you talk about how you went from working on issues of debt in a developing country, in Kenya, to — where Obama’s father comes from, President Obama’s father — to climate debt, and what that means?

WAHU KAARA: Both economic debts and climate debts, which is ecological debt, is very, very connected, because as we got into indebtedness of financial or economic debt, it is also reflected on how the environment was also plundered. And like in Kenya, for example, many of the many projects, like the World Bank funded and created debts in making big dams, those dams compounded the problem of the climate.

And in order to engage for justice, and justice in a comprehensive mindset, we must see both economic and ecological debt on where they interface and how they’re related, so that when we are addressing the issue, we are able to address the issue with a very concrete manifestation in really stating what the problem is. And that’s why debt and climate are one and the same question as far as justice is concerned.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain how you experience climate change in Kenya.

WAHU KAARA: Well, even before the debates of climate justice started, many of the Kenyan people began to witness and to recognize and to state how seasons are changing, how they cannot follow the pattern that they had been used as far as when to plant and how to plant, which is a very, very important aspect of our lives, because we are predominantly agricultural people. And ordinary people would say, “Well, we don’t know what is happening.” And I would really want to quote one mother who said, “I think there is something that the North are doing, because the sun no longer behaves the same way.” So, if an ordinary mother can say so, she’s expressing issues that the scientists also write so intensely and in a very mystified manner.

So, the whole question of climate is real. The droughts, which have also the effect on our food, and therefore people are dying. And in particular, this year, Kenya has experienced a very, very drastic drought, and people, animals have died. Lakes are drying up. We have a whole lake, a fresh lake, Lake Elmenteita, which has totally dried out, which has affected the ecosystem of nature, like the birds, the flamingos, birds. So, the whole question of climate change is connected to the source of livelihood.

AMY GOODMAN: What about snow on Kilimanjaro?

WAHU KAARA: It’s already melted. So, on even Mount Kenya, the snow is melted. And people observe these things and express. And what is so important is that ordinary people do discuss and talk of how nature has changed. And they are looking as to why has nature changed. So, it is very easy to introduce climate justice debate to the ordinary people, because they already have the agenda as a debate. They only need to understand what are the scientific argument that is already given in matters of how we have utilized our own environment, especially in relation to the fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions.

And as I speak, even now, the greatest concern for people is how they can reclaim the traditional knowledge that they know in matters of how they guarantee their life — livelihoods, as far as seeds and management of the soils is concerned. And they’re saying, “We want the soil, not the fertilizers.” I’ve heard many of them saying so, meaning they don’t want the intensive agricultural way of growing crops. They want subsistence, which is connected to them.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, interestingly, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger just held a news conference right outside our window, and he said that this summit is as a result of grassroots movements. And Bill McKibben, I wanted to go there for one minute, before we move to Alberta, to the tar sands. The issue of “1.5 to survive,” it’s a mantra around here, what people are saying — 1.5 degrees Celsius. Explain that, what the limits are.

BILL McKIBBEN: Three-fifty and 1.5 have become the two numbers that define this conference, and they’re always linked. We need 350 parts per million CO2. If we start moving in that direction, there’s some chance we’ll be able to limit temperature increases to 1.5 degrees. That’s not good news. We’ve raised temperature one degree already, and that’s melted the Arctic. We don’t want to go any further, but there’s enough momentum to take us there.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking Celsius.

BILL McKIBBEN: That’s right. This is desperation time, and it’s not being treated that way by the United States and the other big powers. It’s being treated precisely that way by the most vulnerable countries. And they are finally pointing out that they’re in a fight for nothing short of survival. When Mohamed Nasheed, the president of the Maldives, addressed this big roaring audience yesterday at the big 350 rally, he kept saying, “These are the three most important words you will ever hear — three, five, oh — because for us that means survival.” That’s what people in every corner of the world, in October and then last weekend — and we had 3,000 vigils around the world with people spelling out those numbers in candles all over the planet. That’s the point that people are trying to get across.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. I want to thank Bill McKibben, co-founder and director of 350.org, and Wahu Kaara. She is a Kenyan global justice activist. Your groups, People’s Movement [on] Climate Change, why you’re here right now. And back in Kenya, it is…? Your organization is…?

WAHU KAARA: Kenya Debt Relief Network.

AMY GOODMAN: The Kenya Debt Relief Network.

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