Before the COP21 meetings in Paris, I had never attended an international negotiation of any kind. Perhaps as a result, I participated in the event without preconceptions. Based on my experiences at the talks, I brought back to Nepal new and sometimes alarming understandings that will guide me in my continued activism for justice and climate change.

What I found most disturbing in Paris was the widespread expectation of – and reliance on – foreign donations for climate change adaptation. This, I believe, is the single reason we will most likely fail to implement the measures needed to prepare for climate change. In particular, leaders of the climate justice campaigns demand funds for Least Developed Countries (LDCs) that would ensure the continuation of existing social and economic systems. This serves the interests of rich people who do not want fundamental change. However, fundamental change is actually essential to achieve a sustainable and more just world.

Within the Paris framework there are predefined roles for nations – determined by their status as Developed Nations, Developing Nations, and LDCs – that are based on culturally-biased definitions of development. Those definitions essentially assume that industrialization is fundamental to development. There is no acknowledgment of historic contributions by LDCs, through their traditional cultures, to the conservation of resources and natural areas. Those traditions are therefore considered to have no economic value. The fundamental focus on Western-style economic development drives most of what really happens at UN climate conferences.

What’s more, the USA and other developed nations are the potential funding sources for the changes the LDCs must make to adapt to climate change. This makes the LDCs even more dependent on the developed nations than they already are. It leaves no room for ideas from the LDCs to percolate up into the developed nations. And as hat-in-hand nations, the LDCs are constrained in their criticism of the policies of the donor nations.

When measured against sustainable development goals, most LDCs are already close to a sustainable way of life. This, however, takes exception to the presumption that GDP growth is essential. LDCs are being forced into the industrial paradigm, like it or not.

The UN definitions of “Developed” and “LDC” are mostly based on resource intensity, and this is a fundamental problem in itself. We need new terms to categorize nations by their level of sustainability, in which resource extraction and consumption no longer add to measures of economic health, but instead subtract from them. While GDP-based evaluations encourage ever-greater consumption of natural resources, there are better economic yardsticks, such as Gross National Happiness, that evaluate nations on the basis of the actual well-being of their citizens. Alas, concepts such as this were all but invisible at COP21.

Instead, sources of energy – i.e. fossil fuel vs. renewable – were the focus, preventing the delegates from recognizing the effects of the energy-intensive, resource-exploiting economy that is presumed to be the only means of achieving prosperity. Overall, the discussions took little account of the gains to be made by reducing consumption. It doesn’t matter what your source of energy for the washing machine is when you are still using it to wash your clothes while at the same time exercising for hours on yet another machine or sitting in the sauna to get your sweat out. The energy intensity of “modern” life is driving excessive energy consumption, and leading to huge releases of greenhouse gases.

Technology Transfer to the South vs. Cultural Transfer to the North

All nations, especially those in the South, see increased energy consumption as the only road to prosperity. This implies abandoning traditional, sustainable ways of life that evolved through centuries of wisdom handed down from generation to generation. This accumulated wisdom is now ignored and disparaged as “undeveloped ways” or “the ways of the poor.”

Technology transfer from the North to the South has long been regarded as the path to a better life in the less-developed regions of the world. But even the best and the most sustainable technology proposed in Paris would make Nepal less sustainable than it is today, thus leading us in the wrong direction. Indeed, cultural transfer from the South to the North would lead both in a more sustainable direction. In traditional societies, energy efficiency is highly valued, and conservation is considered more important than comfort and ease.

Ultimately, the need for change is greater in the North than in the South. The shift towards more sustainable ways of life – in which development and growth become less important than conservation and sustainability – will not be achieved without a change in aspirations and a redefinition of the model of development around the world.

Attending discussions at different levels in Paris, I also felt a sense of division between the objectives of local governments (which are better connected with the movements happening around them) and national governments (which are increasingly focused on global trade and other economic agreements). Citizen movements around the world that advocate consuming less are thwarted by the global system: they are trying to change the system at the same time that the central government refuses to accept that systemic change has become essential. This is especially true in the global South, which has become dependent on ever-increasing levels of international funding and trade. Systemic change won’t come from top-down government decrees: government officials can’t move the carpet they are standing on.

Instead, citizen action will be required, including greater participation at the local level. Responding to climate change requires a major change in value systems and calls into question the very meaning of “prosperity.” These kinds of changes are nearly impossible to organize at an international scale. Instead, they must occur through the participation of all groups of people in rigorous discussions at local, regional, and national levels.

In Paris, however, it seemed that the underlying debate was whether the focus should be on “saving people” or on “saving investments.” In that way, the division between people and their governments was clearer than the supposed division between North and South. The scale at which we at COP21 were attempting to stop climate change was so large that I felt that the real agenda was to preserve the existing system in the face of climate change.

Nations such as Nepal, which have for decades been the recipients of advice and economic assistance, will have to determine their own pathways to sustainability. LDCs must prepare for a discussion of the major changes that will be required to establish an ecological civilization based on justice, modest standards of living, inherited wisdom, and local traditions.

Photo credit: Oxfam