The Insanity of the COP: We Must Adopt a Different Vision

December 8, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Graphic from the International Tribunal of the Rights of Nature, Paris, December 5, 2015. Photo by John Foran.

AMY GOODMAN: What did you make of President Obama’s speech on Monday here at the U.N. Climate Summit?

JAMES HANSEN: Well, we have to decide, are these people stupid or are they just uninformed? Are they badly advised? I think that he really believes he’s doing something. You know, he wants to have a legacy, a legacy having done something in the climate problem. But what he is proposing is totally ineffectual. I mean, there are some small things that are talked about here, the fact that they may have a fund for investment and invest more in clean energies, but these are minor things. As long as fossil fuels are dirt cheap, people will keep burning them.

Interview on Democracy Now!, December 4, 2015

Thus spoke climate scientist James Hansen after listening to the statements of the heads of state at the Paris COP 21 negotiations last week.  He went on to say: “What I am hearing is that the heads of state are planning to clap each other on the back and say this is a very successful conference. If that is what happens, we are screwing the next generation, because we are doing the same as before…. we hear the same old thing as Kyoto [in 1997]. We are asking each country to cap emissions, or reduce emissions. In science when you do a well conducted experiment you expect to get the same result. So why are we talking about doing the same again? This is half-arsed and half-baked.”

We are now entering the second and final week of the talks, and there is considerable discussion in much of the world press about the growing possibility of a historic agreement.  Ministers will settle down to resolve the many parts of the treaty text still in brackets, with diametrically opposed competing proposals still very much found across the still sizable forty-plus page document. 

But like Hansen and many others here in Paris, I come not to praise the COP, but to bury it.  That, certainly, was the verdict of the International Tribunal of the Rights of Nature, held over two days in a packed auditorium in Paris on December 4 and 5.  And a careful look at how the case was made is the subject of this essay.

Another, Older Way of Looking at the World Anew

First, some background.  In 2010, a gathering of 35,000 people in Cochabamba, Bolivia, discussed, and after much deliberation, adopted the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth.  It is a must read for all who would be Earth Citizens.

Its foundational premises are that “we are all part of Mother Earth, an indivisible, living community of interrelated and interdependent beings with a common destiny;…. recognizing that the capitalist system and all forms of depredation, exploitation, abuse and contamination have caused great destruction, degradation and disruption of Mother Earth, putting life as we know it today at risk through phenomena such as climate change;  convinced that in an interdependent living community it is not possible to recognize the rights of only human beings without causing an imbalance within Mother Earth;….  conscious of the urgency of taking decisive, collective action to transform structures and systems that cause climate change and other threats to Mother Earth.”

From this it follows that Mother Earth, of which we are only a part, has inherent and inalienable rights, among them:

“(a) the right to life and to exist;

(b) the right to be respected;

(c) the right to regenerate its bio-capacity and to continue its vital cycles and processes free from human disruptions;

(d) the right to maintain its identity and integrity as a distinct, self-regulating and interrelated being;

(e) the right to water as a source of life;

(f) the right to clean air;

(g) the right to integral health;

(h) the right to be free from contamination, pollution and toxic or radioactive waste;

(i) the right to not have its genetic structure modified or disrupted in a manner that threatens its integrity or vital and healthy functioning;

(j) the right to full and prompt restoration the violation of the rights recognized in this Declaration caused by human activities.”

In view of these rights, it follows that each of us, as human beings (and crucially, this applies to nation states and public institutions, as well as businesses and corporations, who are part of Mother Earth, whether they recognize it or not) has responsibility for “respecting and living in harmony with Mother Earth.”

And therefore, the Declaration obliges (i.e. requires and insists) that all of the above entities must “ensure that the pursuit of human wellbeing contributes to the wellbeing of Mother Earth, now and in the future;  establish and apply effective norms and laws for the defence, protection and conservation of the rights of Mother Earth;  respect, protect, conserve and where necessary, restore the integrity, of the vital ecological cycles, processes and balances of Mother Earth;  guarantee that the damages caused by human violations of the inherent rights recognized in this Declaration are rectified and that those responsible are held accountable for restoring the integrity and health of Mother Earth.”

The Declaration furthermore empowers all human beings and institutions “to defend the rights of Mother Earth and of all beings;  establish precautionary and restrictive measures to prevent human activities from causing species extinction, the destruction of ecosystems or the disruption of ecological cycles; guarantee peace and eliminate nuclear, chemical and biological weapons; promote and support practices of respect for Mother Earth and all beings, in accordance with their own cultures, traditions and customs,” and finally, “promote economic systems that are in harmony with Mother Earth and in accordance with the rights recognized in this Declaration.”

Though ignored in the halls of the UN when Bolivia tried to bring it to the General Assembly for adoption, the Rights of Nature have been taken up and defended by global activists in many parts of the world.  In January 2014, the first International Tribunal on the Rights of Nature and Mother Earth was held in Quito, Ecuador, and chaired by Dr. Vandana Shiva, trying such cases as the oil pollution of Chevron-Texaco in Ecuador, the catastrophic BP Deepwater Horizon spill off the Gulf Coast of Mexico, instances of hydraulic fracturing in the US, and the condition of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.  A second tribunal was held at the end of 2014 during COP 20 in Lima, Peru, looking at specific mining projects in Ecuador and Peru, the Belo Monte Dam in Brazil, and the REDD program on deforestation, a centerpiece of the climate negotiations.

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The Tribunal is hosted by the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature, a coalition of movements and organizations from every continent whose founding members include the Fundación Pachamama, Global Exchange,the Pachamama Alliance, the Council of Canadians, the Australian Earth Laws Alliance, EnAct International, the Gaia Foundation, WildLaw UK, and Navdanya International.  The Paris Tribunal was conducted in partnership with End Ecocide on Earth, and supported by NaturesRights and Attac France.

The judges for this year’s tribunal in Paris included Tom Goldtooth (Indigenous Environmental Network), economist Alberto Acosta (former president of the Constituent Assembly in Ecuador), Ruth Nyambura from Kenya (African Biodiversity Network), Osprey Orielle Lake of the US-based Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network, Nnimmo Bassey, former director of Friends of the Earth International, and federal prosecutor Felicio Pontes from Brazil, with other accomplished judges drawn from academia and the climate justice organizations around the world.

A Different Kind of Opening Ceremony

While the COP is famous for the flowery words of the nations on day one (which would be inspiring if they led to deeds), the Tribunal opened with a different invocation, an indigenous song to the six cardinal directions – east, south, west, north, the sky above, and the earth below.  We did this to “narrow the distance between our head and our heart,” advice the negotiators would do well to follow.

There followed some of the most beautiful words of welcome for the occasion I have ever heard, spoken by Casey Camp-Horinek of the Ponca Nation in Oklahoma, and I offer here a poor paraphrase of some of what I heard.

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Casey Camp-Horinek.  Photo by John Foran.

This morning we all woke up to the same sun.  Here, in Paris!  We also felt some pain, because the Earth has become so ugly.  We recognize human violence in so many places.  Maybe we don’t deserve to be here right now.

But maybe we can make the effort to see that we are but a small fraction of what exists in Mother Earth.  Sometimes we sundancers go without food or drink so that we may understand what that feels like, and so that future generations may have these things.

When we share this breath, it’s not new breath.  We share this breath with all things.  Science says the same thing, in a different way.

What we have forgotten is to give back sometimes.  We think that paying a bill with money or a plastic card makes things alright, is payment in full.

You should know better.  Aren’t you part of Nature?  You haven’t forgotten her, have you?  And if you have, feel her now.

In Oklahoma, we’ve had over 5,000 earthquakes this year, from fracking. We are stealing the liberty of the planet itself.  We must learn to make decisions about the entire community of life. 

This tribunal is a people’s convention – of all peoples – at a time when governments are locked inside negotiations that will lead nowhere.

We will bring seven cases to prove that Earth is a living being.  That her rights have been violated, and that we have made her sick.  And we will present some solutions and remedies.

The Central Case of Climate Change

The most encompassing of the cases brought to Paris was the issue of climate change itself.  It was tried by Pablo Solón, former Bolivian chief negotiator at the COP and one of the co-organizers of the 2010 Cochabamba gathering.  Solón set out to establish that climate change is “a crime that is a systemic violation of almost all the inherent Rights of Mother Earth.”

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Pablo Solón.  Photo by John Foran.

He asked:  who is responsible for climate change?  It is not humanity as a whole.  The richest ten percent of the world’s population bear responsibility for almost half of all the emissions caused by human consumption.  Meanwhile, just ninety companies have produced a staggering sixty-three percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions from 1854 to 2010 – some 914 gigatons of CO2e out of a total of 1,450 (or the carbon dioxide equivalent of all greenhouse gas emissions).  Of these, just six giant fossil fuel companies have produced sixteen percent of all emissions ever:  Chevron (3.52 percent), Exxon (3.22), Saudi Arabia’s Aramco (3.17), BP (2.47), Russia’s Gazprom (2.22), and Shell (2.12).  If we look at nation-states, the countries of the United States, the European Union, China, and Russia are the most responsible, in historical terms.

If we look at the INDCs that the nations have brought as their emissions reduction pledges to COP 21, they will not reduce annual global emissions from the current level of about fifty gigatons CO2e but instead we will actually have an increase to sixty gigatons CO2e by 2030!

Since nothing that is likely to survive in the COP negotiating text requires real emissions cuts, limits fossil fuel extraction, halts deforestation, or reduces the practice of industrial agriculture, the whole process is a form of “schizophrenia” that doesn’t address the causes of climate change, let alone attack them aggressively and in line with climate science. 

As Solón put it, “there is a madness of the COP with respect to capital and power.”  The case is therefore against corporations, governments, the UNFCCC, and the “capitalist, productivist, anthropocentric, and patriarchal systems.”

Witnesses for Mother Earth

At this point various expert witnesses were called upon to speak to the many issues raised by the case of climate change.


French activist Maxime Coombes charged the fossil fuel industry, whether transnational corporations or publicly-owned national industries as public enemy number one, and singled out ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson’s declaration that they will continue to burn fossil fuels as long as possible as a crime against humanity.  He noted the danger of treaty text that states that measures cannot be taken that go against the current rules of the global economy.  Coombes called for an immediate moratorium on all new fossil fuel exploration as a minimum measure in the right direction.

Desmond D’Sa of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance and winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize for his tireless organizing in South Africa, stated that “Society is paying a huge price because of our greed and our thirst for fossil fuels. What is needed is the world’s people to come together.  We can’t rely on the governments – they will fail us.  It’s time to find a new way of how to deal with the COP.  It needs a new approach, an approach that puts people first.  We have to start pushing back to dismantle the corporations and the governments that support them.  Nature is not going to wait for us.  Neither will anything else.  The time is right.  Right now.”

The nuclear power option was ruled a crime against Nature “for eternity” by Roland Debordes, President of La Commission de Recherche et d’Information Indépendantes sur la Radioactivité (CRIIRAD), who called it the riskiest form of energy.  It is also one of the dirtiest, as evidenced by the terrible effect on the public health of communities where uranium is mined, including on indigenous land in the US and in Niger.  He concluded:  “Nuclear power is not for human beings.  We do not have enough morality for it.”

Water and forests

Global water expert Maude Barlow began her testimony by noting:  “We take water for granted – for our pleasure, and for profit.  But every day we put waste into water that equals the weight of all humans!  The deforestation of the Amazon is contributing to the drought in California.  Water is an absolutely crucial part of the picture that is almost entirely missing here in Paris.  Two billion people drink contaminated water every day.  More children die of water-borne disease than any other cause.  Water is the first face of climate change, of refugees, of conflict.”

Deeming the global water situation an unequivocal crime against humanity and nature, she called for a new water ethic.  Against Nestlé’s criminal proposal that after putting aside 1.5 percent of the world’s water for the poor, the rest should be privatized, she argued “Water is a human right that should never be privatized.  Water has rights too.  The way we abuse and take water for granted is a crime against nature, forests, wetlands, and other species.  We now have water trading, which is insanity.  We absolutely have to keep water out of the market system.”

She ended with Martin Luther King Jr.’s words:  “Legislation may not protect the heart, but it will restrict the heartless.”

When asked what would happen if we did not have forests, David Kureeba of the Global Forest Coalition in Uganda answered:  “We would not have life.  If we harm Mother Earth, she will penalize us.  We would be destroying our own lives.  Communities can manage forests better than governments.  We need people power.”

Agriculture and the financialization of nature

Ivonne Yanez of Acción Ecológica led several expert witnesses through the problems with the UNFCCC REDD reforestation program, which like other new market mechanisms is based on calculating the monetary value of “ecosystem services.”  German biologist Jutta Kill explained how one aspect of an ecosystem can be isolated and made equivalent with another ecosystem service somewhere else, all the while pretending that no harm has been done to the biosystem, the climate, or Earth as an organic whole.  French economist and member of ATTAC Genevieve Azam called the neoliberal financialization of nature a “veritable pollution.”  The concept of “natural capital” is “nature for economists.”  Now, instead of being concerned with the actual environmental impact of a project, it becomes simply a question of compensation, of finding some “equivalent” to “offset” the harm.  This utilitarian substitution of one of its integral parts for another marks the death of nature as a whole. 

World-renowned global justice icon Vandana Shiva prosecuted the case against industrial agriculture.  We were treated to a preview of a film in progress, Farmers Lives Matter, in which one Punjabi farmer said:  “The Earth now has cancer.  We now have cancer.  The pesticides are intoxicants.  The more you use, the more you need.”  She called on several witnesses to make her case.

Badrul Alam, a leader of the Bangladesh Krishok Federation, the largest peasant organization in that country, contrasted the model of peasant agriculture based on the principle of food sovereignty with “Climate Smart” agriculture based on GMO seeds, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides being pushed by Monsanto, Cargill, and DuPont inside the COP, calling the latter “not smart enough.” 

Journalist Marie-Monique Robin noted that dozens of independent studies have demonstrated the toxicity of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s signature weed-killing product, RoundUp, in wide use across the world.  Glyphosate was first introduced in the 1960s as a powerful industrial cleaner, and was recently pronounced to be “probably carcinogenic” to humans by the WTO.  It is definitely carcinogenic in animals, and as Robin put it, “A lot of scientists will deny it, but we are animals.”

The case against industrial agriculture was further supported by the testimony of Ronnie Cummins, long active in social justice movements and the founder of the Organic Consumers Association. He estimated that fifteen percent of all fossil fuel use comes from industrial agriculture, and another fifteen percent from the processing, packaging, and transportation of its products.  Then our food waste ends up as a source of the potent greenhouse gas methane.  “Industrial food is poison,” he concluded tartly.


Pat Mooney, Executive Director of the etc group which tracks new technologies, focused attention on how the promotion of such technologies at the COP, among them carbon capture and storage (CCS) or emerging forms of extreme genetic engineering are a dangerous element of the Paris negotiations.  The term “net zero emissions” is used to justify the lack of ambition in the collective INDC pledges by gambling that risky, unproven, and as yet not even discovered decarbonization technologies will allow us to keep using fossil fuels because we will eventually be able to remove “excess” carbon dioxide from the atmosphere!  Quipping that “Pachamama would be doing just fine if there weren’t so many macho papas around,” he said of the promotion of these fixes:  “This is absolutely insane.  That we would leave Paris and have confidence that BP, Shell, and Volkswagen will take care of the problem of overshoot.  We can’t leave Paris with anyone believing that is the answer.”

Silvia Ribeiro, etc’s Latin American Director, followed this with a concise critique of large-scale geo-engineering schemes that are most prominently pursued in the US, UK, Canada, Russia, and on the local level, in China.  Whether putting aerosols into the atmosphere, iron sulfate into the ocean, or giant mirrors into orbit, these promised solutions will disequilibrate the climate and can’t be experimented with at scale to see if they work or are safe.  They also tend to be capital-intensive projects beyond community control, and almost all of them would be irreversible.  Most importantly, they cut off the full flowering of the safer, more just alternative technologies and practices that we need to, and can, develop.


Tony Clarke, Founder of the Polaris Institute in Canada and board member of the International Forum on Globalization testified on the impact of free trade agreements on climate change. Trade agreements and the corporations that benefit from institutions such as the World Trade Organization are the engine of global economic expansion.  Transnational corporations “look upon nature as capital.  They see Earth as a dead organism, to be exploited and extracted from.”  Free trade agreements are hindering the full development of alternative energy.  The only remedy for the planet’s climate is to dismantle corporate sovereignty and power in a complete overhaul of the present system in favor of global trade justice.  The good news, he told us, is that there is a people’s treaty being developed to attempt just that.

In a kind of summary, for me, Gloria Ushigua, an indigenous Ecuadoran activist, testified:  “We are fighting for our lives, for our land.”

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Gloria Ushigua.  Photo of a picture taken by John Foran.

A Judgment on the COP

The prosecutors, witnesses, and judges knew their subjects.  They were all qualified experts, skilled in a variety of ways of approaching the climate crisis, which at bottom is a human, existential issue.  It can only be confronted honestly and squarely by each of us rising to the occasion and taking responsibility in a time of planetary crisis. 

The overall verdict of the Tribunal is that the Paris agreement will lock in the worst abuses of capitalism and guarantee climate catastrophe. 

The current logic of the COP, which isn’t sustainable, just, or innocent of multiple crimes comes with the clear intention of committing many more.  We need another logic and set of principles to guide us.  And we need a path to get there…

The Tribunal represents a possible alternative logic for a global agreement, one based on a very different conception of rights – of Nature, of human communities, and of future generations who must find a balanced way to live on Earth, if they, and she, are to thrive.

And though we surely don’t the upper hand inside COP 21, it is entirely possible that that is not where the real battle for the planet will be fought.

There is a different way.  All we have to do is enlarge the many paths to it that already exist, and create many more new ones.  This we must do, and this we will do.

Tags: climate justice movement, COP21, international climate agreements, social movements