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This Will Set Africa on Fire: Nnimmo Bassey of Nigeria Blasts Progress of Talks at U.N. Climate Summit

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Today a draft agreement at COP26 was released, calling on nations to accelerate the phasing out of coal and fossil fuel subsidies and make pledges to cut emissions by the end of 2022. The draft also urges wealthy nations to “urgently scale-up” financial support for developing countries to help them adapt to the climate crisis. This comes as a new report by the group Climate Action Tracker estimates world temperatures are on track to rise by 2.4 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels based on current pledges to cut emissions — far higher than the 1.5 degree goal set in the 2015 Paris Agreement. To discuss the latest developments at COP26, we speak with Nigerian environmental activist and poet Nnimmo Bassey. “There’s no force behind what’s being proposed,” says Bassey, who adds that the current trajectory of negotiations will have devastating effects on Africa. “That means setting the continent on fire. It is just sacrificing the continent.” Bassey also discusses the role of China in Africa and the impact of the climate crisis on the continent. He has attended climate summits for years but says this may be his last one.

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

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Glasgow at the U.N. climate summit. Earlier today, a draft agreement was released calling on nations to strengthen their climate plans and to accelerate the phasing out of coal, as well as subsidies for fossil fuels. The draft also urges wealthy nations to, quote, “urgently scale-up” financial support for developing countries to help them adapt to the climate crisis. A key part of the draft calls on nations to make tougher pledges to cut emissions by the end of 2022, three years earlier than scheduled.

Greenpeace issued a statement saying, quote, “This draft deal is not a plan to solve the climate crisis, it’s an agreement that we’ll all cross our fingers and hope for the best,” they said.

This comes as a new report by the group Climate Action Tracker estimates world temperatures are on track to rise by 2.4 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels based on current emissions pledges. That’s far higher than the 1.5 degree goal set at the Paris talks.

We now go inside the COP, to Glasgow, where we’re joined by the Nigerian environmental leader and poet Nnimmo Bassey. He’s the director of the Health of Mother Earth Foundation and author of a number of books, including Oil Politics: Echoes of Ecological Wars and To Cook a Continent: Destructive Extraction and the Climate Crisis in Africa.

Nnimmo Bassey, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you respond to the draft report? Where’s the enforcement? And what about the goals that have been set in the midst of this climate emergency?

NNIMMO BASSEY: Thank you very much, Amy.

It’s very clear that this COP is going to end the same way other COPs have ended previously, with very little ambition, very little seriousness and with a lack of focus on the fact that we are in a planetary emergency.

For the first time, however, they’re talking of phasing out some part of fossil fuel, but then they’re choosing and picking. The whole world knows that the climate crisis we are facing today is being exacerbated by the burning of fossil fuels. So, saying they should phase out coal, then only phase out subsidies for fossil fuel, means that this COP believes that fossil fuel use in energy production and whatever should continue — in other words, that the carbon budget is something that can be toyed with. So this is extremely disappointing.

And the only hope we have is that this is a draft document, but the tendency is that a draft document may be further watered down, so that final document may actually come out to say don’t phase out anything, just reduce — remove subsidies. But this is nothing that is binding, nothing that can be — anybody can be held to account for. That is why at the same time we’re seeing the kind of contributions and proposals made by government to cut emissions. They now talk about net zero, net emission reduction. They’re not talking about actual emission reduction. They are not talking about stopping emissions at the source. They’re talking about how to continue with business as usual while showing means and ways of capturing equivalents of the carbon they are emitting.

And so, the document itself shows clearly that those who are drafting it are drafting — have seemed to have drafted it for other people to implement. There is no force behind what is being proposed. For example, it shows — it expresses regret that industrialized rich nations are unable to raise the climate finance target of just a mere $100 billion. That is really a very serious disappointment, because it’s not for lack of funds that this money is not being raised. The industrialized nations, they spend over close to $2 trillion U.S. in military warfare every year. And so, looking for $100 billion shouldn’t be a thing that they would scratch about and keep procrastinating or try to make it as loans to poor, vulnerable nations that are already being flooded, that are already facing serious climate impacts.

So, I see the draft agreement or the draft pact, or whatever they may call it, draft decision, as an indication of lack of seriousness. And it’s a big threat to those who are already on the frontlines suffering impacts of global warming.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Nnimmo Bassey, could you talk about the impact of all of the fossil fuel lobbyists that have been at this gathering? Global Witness estimates that at least 503 fossil fuel lobbyists were granted access to COP26. Was it more of a carbon stock exchange than it was actually a meeting of the people of the world to figure out what to do about climate change?

NNIMMO BASSEY: Clearly, with the — having so many fossil fuel company delegates at the COP is a clear indication that we can’t really expect anything good from this COP. The fossil fuel industry have captured the COP over the years. They have been supporting the COP, sponsoring the COP, advertising the COP. This year there’s less of the advertisement, but they are all here, over 500 delegates, far more than many countries’ delegates put together. This overwhelming presence again validates the suspicion and the fact that the COP is not really serious about tackling global warming. And if they are not seriously tackling global warming, if they keep depending or listening to the fossil fuel industry, we don’t see how they’re going to do what needs to be done.

And what needs to be done is to keep fossils in the ground and then rapidly, rapidly wind — move away from this civilization that’s driven by petroleum resources and by coal and by gas. The presence of this group of people and the financial institutions backing them is really very disturbing and very troubling. Here we are today. We’re hearing, for example, the fossil fuel industry is planning to invest about $250 billion U.S. over the next one decade in Africa and about $1.4 trillion U.S. by the year 2050. All this don’t paint a good picture for the future. It’s like they’re looking for profit, for speculation today, and they don’t just care what happens tomorrow.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what about those who say that the very process, the structure of COP dooms it to failure, because you must have consensus of all of the nations rather than a majority rule. Consensus meets minority rule, because one or two nations can stop the process. How does this affect the majority of the nations of the world, who may have different perspectives from the industrial — the giant industrial polluting nations?

NNIMMO BASSEY: Working on consensus rather than majority vote is one of the things that people see as beautiful about the COP process, about the entire United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change processes. But this concept of consensus was shattered in the COP at Cancún. At Cancún, at least one nation, which was Bolivia, stood up against the agreement, and they were just pushed aside, and then they went ahead to celebrate the adoption of the Cancún outcome. So, consensus here has a peculiar meaning, defined by those who are driving the COP, the presidents of the COP and those who are organizing it. And it is not in the interest of the vulnerable nations. It’s not about listening to those who are suffering grave impacts.

Just imagine the fact that today the world is celebrating or accepting 1.5, the faulty Paris target, 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial level. And now estimates show that the nationally contributed — nationally determined contributions would amount to about 2.4, 2.7 degrees Celsius temperature increase above preindustrial level. What does that leave Africa? For Africa, that would mean at least more than 3 degrees Celsius temperature, and that means setting the continent on fire. It means just sacrificing the continent. And yet we believe that these things are tolerable. This is, I believe, criminal, to say the least.

AMY GOODMAN: Nnimmo Bassey, the text doesn’t mention the contentious Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, which would establish the rules of a global market for buying and selling carbon. Can you explain this in lay terms for people to understand, your thoughts on that and where you think this is ending up?

NNIMMO BASSEY: Well, the issue of bringing carbon markets into the COP is also one of those issues that kind of pretends to push the idea — or to pushing the idea that the market can solve a problem that has been created by the market. It’s completely impossible. The market is all about profits. That’s about power. It’s about control. It’s about domination. And this is not a way to build solidarity or cooperation between countries in the world today.

And so, we’ve got before — in terms of carbon market and so on and so forth, we had elements like carbon trading, like reducing emissions for deforestation and forest degradation. And now, to make it sound better, to make it sound more acceptable, they talk about net zero. So, pricing carbon is just about — is pricing hot air. That’s what it means. It’s just a — it’s a device. It’s a device for avoiding action.

And so, you could say, “Well, I could keep on polluting. Then some trees we paid for — we paid for a forest in the Congo or in Uganda or somewhere in Amazon that hasn’t already been burned down,” and then you continue with pollution, continue consuming things at levels that are intolerable. So, the whole carbon market mechanism is about avoiding action, avoiding climate action, but then profiting from the inaction and profiting from the misery of the majority people in the world today.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Nnimmo, could you talk about — two of the world’s largest polluting nations are absent from the COP this year: China and Russia. Could you talk about China’s role, especially in Africa with its Belt and Road policies and also with its voracious desire for more minerals?

NNIMMO BASSEY: Sorry. Could you repeat that?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I don’t know if you heard me. I asked you about the absence of China and Russia from the COP this year and China’s role in Africa in terms of the environmental harm.

NNIMMO BASSEY: Yes. Thank you. It’s really very concerning that the big polluters, such as Russia and China, their leaders, would actually stay away from the COP. It speaks very poorly of their leadership and of their concern about what is clearly a global problem. Many other leaders consider climate change as national warming rather than global warming. And that is why the Paris Agreement based its action on nationally determined contributions rather than globally, scientifically determined decisions about who would cut and to what level.

Now, China is about running Africa, driving deforestation in the continent, investing in fossil fuel facilities development, the exploitation pipeline, for example. They’re investing in a pipeline that would take oil from — very waxy oil from Uganda to a seaport in Tanzania for export. And this is something that’s really threatening not just climate change but the livelihoods of millions of Africans who live in the Rift Valley and who depend on freshwater system from the Lake Victoria basin in East Africa.

So, right across the continent, the influence of China and the investment in fossil industry development on the continent is a big problem in terms of global warming, in terms of livelihoods and in terms of local economies, because right on that continent, I would say, the total workforce of the continent, only — out of the total workforce, only less than a percentage, 1%, of Africans are working in that sector. So it doesn’t in any way multiply or adapt to the local economies. It’s just another way of — another wave of exploitation. And that’s what China is driving on the continent.

Russia is only driving, pushing old technology for nuclear power in some places on the continent. And I believe that they ought to have been on the table. They should have faced the nations that they are — in which the Russians are taking action that is compounding the crisis, and not stay away, and just send delegates to come here and talk to the rest of the people.

AMY GOODMAN: Nnimmo, as we wrap up, number one, can you describe the real effects of the climate emergency on the continent of Africa? And, two, what gives you hope? When we see you every year at the climate summits — we’ve been together from Copenhagen on — you’ve been arrested at protests, yet you keep going. What gives you hope?

NNIMMO BASSEY: Well, the impacts of global warming on the continent of Africa is enormous. One thing is that Africa is right at the center of the world, have their large chunk of the continent right on the Equator, so the temperature impact on the continent is far above the global average. So, global averages, personally, are very threatening to me and to others on the continent.

Now, again, the continent is surrounded by water bodies. So there’s serious sea level rise impact, has been predicted by the IPCC to have higher levels of impact, apart from the Pacific island states, on the continent. Already a place like Nigeria is losing about two meters every year to coastal erosion due to sea level rise. And this is having grave impact already on communities, on infrastructure, and it’s a big problem.

Now, what gives me hope? I’m thinking that this may be — I’ve been to most COPs, and we’ve met, and I really enjoyed, appreciate the amount of influence and that you’re helping to promote the right solutions from these COPs. But this may well be my last attendance at a COP, if the process continues to go in the wrong direction. But the COP provides a very good opportunity for movements and civil society actors to meet outside. And right now as we sit in the COP in Glasgow, there are very real, grounded discussions going on in the People’s Summit outside of the COP. And I’m looking forward to a time when the outside will be the arena for decision-making, just as we find in Cochabamba, but this time enforceable decision-making, because the COP is more or less a playground for politicians.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you so much, Nnimmo Bassey, for being with us, Nigerian environmental activist and poet, director of Health of Mother Earth Foundation in Nigeria. In 2010, he won the Right Livelihood Award, author of a number of books, including Oil Politics: Echoes of Ecological Wars and To Cook a Continent: Destructive Extraction and the Climate Crisis in Africa.

Coming up, we look at the “Global Climate Wall,” a new report examining how the world’s wealthiest nations are prioritizing borders over climate action. Stay with us.

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The Global Climate Wall: Wealthy Nations Prioritize Militarizing Borders Over Climate Action

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