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People's Climate March = Tipping Point in Fight to Halt Climate Crisis
The New York state elections just concluded, and the national midterms are still weeks away, but there is a campaign office in downtown Manhattan that has just gone into overdrive. Volunteers there are hard at work on another deadline: Sept. 21.
That's the day of the People's Climate March, what promises to be the largest demonstration for action on climate change in world history. The march has brought together more than 1,100 organizations at last count, from the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance to the Georgia Climate Change Coalition. A coalition that's both staggering in size and diversity.
"There's a vast latent constituency of people out there who are alarmed about climate change. But for years, nobody has put up a banner that said 'this is the time, this is the place, to show you care,'" says Ricken Patel, executive director of the 38-million member civic organization, Avaaz. "The People's Climate March is that banner, and we're seeing a phenomenal response to it."
The response should be a wake up call to politicians who still consider climate change a niche issue. For years, climate change felt like a distant threat. Environmentalists, used to stressing out about such things, were incensed. But for the vast majority of the public, fixated on immediate priorities, like finding a job or keeping the kids healthy, a few melting ice bergs just didn't register.
Enter Irene and Sandy from stage left. Cue wildfires, drought and devastating floods. Over the last couple years, it's as if Jerry Bruckheimer was put in charge of producing Mother Nature's special effects. The extreme weather events have become blockbusters: literally. Americans don't need to read a scientific report to understand the threat posed by climate change, they can see it right outside their window.
And as more people have begun to understand the impacts of the climate crisis, they've been connecting it to the daily hardships facing their families and communities. The asthma that keeps your kid home from school? You can look to the very same coal plant that's polluting the atmosphere. The lack of public transit options serving your community? Perhaps the generous subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, and lack of investments in public infrastructure, have something to do with it.
"The days when climate change was thought of as a sort of side issue? Those days are over," May Boeve, executive director of 350.org, recently told Capital New York. "The people are united calling for action."
At the forefront of that movement are the low-income, people of color, migrant and indigenous communities that are the hardest hit by climate disasters and the fossil fuel industry.
As Eddie Bautista, the executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance puts it, "While everybody is impacted by climate change, the impacts are not evenly felt." If you live in a high rise on the Upper East Side, Hurricane Sandy probably freaked you out. But you're probably not still waiting for your home to be rebuilt like many residents in the Rockaways and outlying districts of Queens.
The goal of the People's Climate March isn't to push a single demand or piece of legislation. Frankly, there's too much work that needs to get done to boil it down to one silver-bullet. The goal is to show that public opinion on climate change has reached a tipping point—that there is a loud, organized, and powerful movement of people in this country who are going to force our politicians to take action on this crisis. It's been said time and time again that the one thing that's missing from tackling climate change isn't the policies or technologies, it's the political will. Generating that will is what this march is all about.
"Students on hundreds of campuses, and thousands of youth vote leaders across the country are bringing their power and voices to the People's Climate March to say enough is enough," said Maura Cowley, director of Energy Action Coalition. "We will divest from fossil fuels and build a new clean and just economy, and President Obama and world leaders better be prepared to join us, or face the political consequences."
The march isn't just a flash in the pan. It's the result of years of base building, community organizing, and alliances that are just coming to fruition.
"Labor unions, community organizations--environmental justice, economic justice and faith groups--environmental and climate organizations have been working together more and more over the past several years," says Tomas Garduno, political director of ALIGN: Alliance for a Greater New York, a labor/community alliance. "The breadth and depth of who's working together to organize the People's Climate March is a testament to that."
And the work doesn't end on Sept. 21 in New York City. Throughout the build-up to the march, organizers have set building for the long-term as a key priority. On the People's Climate March website, dozens of online hubs are helping people connect at the local level, as well as via their own interests (the hubs rang from "fracking" to "beekeepers"). Turnout for the march isn't being led by a temporary political operation, but community groups who will continue to work for climate justice in the months and years to come.
"This isn't just about getting a bunch of people to New York to march for an hour then go home," said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. "This is about making sure that the tipping point in the fight to halt climate disruption tips in the favor of the average citizen and clean energy prosperity, and that the world's leaders see that the support to do so has reached a level that can no longer be ignored."
Brune is exactly right. As climate change has become impossible to ignore, so has the climate movement.
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Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:
Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."
According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.
The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.
But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.
The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.
Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.
An Uncertain Future
The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.
Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.
There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.
Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).
Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.
One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).
Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."
Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.
The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.
The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."
Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.
Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr
Alternative Amazon Funding
Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.
In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.
Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."
Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."
Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.
Council of Hemispheric Affairs
Looming International Difficulties
The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.
In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.
But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."
The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."
Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.
Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.
Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY
Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."
Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.
Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."
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