Venezuela’s 2014 climate summit faces credibility crisis

Analysis: Caracas government says it’s committed to climate justice, but do actions on the ground match its words?

Many Venezuelans appear unhappy with President Nicolas Maduro's government (Pic: MPP Relaciones Exteriores Fotos/Flickr)

Many Venezuelans appear unhappy with President Nicolas Maduro’s administration (Pic: MPP Relaciones Exteriores Fotos/Flickr)

By Guy Edwards, Michael Murphy and Paola Eisner

Deteriorating political stability, which has allegedly left 150 injured and 50 dead, does not bode well for Venezuela’s plans to host a climate summit in November before the UN Climate Convention meets in Peru this December.

Venezuela plans to host the first “Social Pre-COP” [Conference of the Parties], a series of conferences planned from July to November which aspire to put civil society at the heart of the global climate change debate.

This effort is urgently needed in order to make the UN climate change negotiations more accountable and open to the world’s citizens.

Last year the UN climate negotiations in Warsaw saw a historic walk-out of civil society groups who voiced anger at what they saw as regressive steps taken by rich countries and their lack of interest in listening to civil society groups’ priorities and demands.

Venezuela is capitalizing on this frustration by envisioning a “Social Pre-COP” that would promote civil society voices instead of corporate and political interests that normally dominate the Pre-COPs.

Venezuelan chief climate negotiator Claudia Salerno explained to DemocracyNow! that Venezuela would host “the first formal consultation of every single social movement involved in the climate change agenda,” in which ministers would not only talk to each other but also their people about the agreement the world wants to see.

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Venezuela wishes to build on the legacy of the 2010 First World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, which drew over 35,000 people to Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Regarded as a revolution in social mobilization around climate change, numerous statements from the People’s Agreement were incorporated into the UN Climate Change official negotiating text in 2010.

However, by the COP16 in Cancun, they were all eliminated as the focus on highly politicized issues was deemed too controversial for the UN climate negotiations.

Instead, the Social Pre-COP would be a unique opportunity for civil society to debate and draft its own document before presenting it in person to ministers.

Although Venezuela projects a climate justice discourse that resonates strongly with civil society groups, its domestic and international policies reveal inconsistencies.

In light of the recent violence and forced closures of some media outlets, rhetoric from the Venezuelan government promoting inclusive and participatory governing systems rings hollow.

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Venezuela’s domestic efforts on climate change are modest. It has distributed millions of energy-saving light bulbs as part of a national energy efficiency initiative and reforested 31 thousand hectares since 2006.

In 2012, Venezuela announced plans to put in place a program to limit greenhouse gas emissions; although skeptics suggest that these plans have no chance of being implemented.

Oil is the lifeblood of its economy and essential to its development.

Venezuela holds the world’s largest known oil reserves, which, if considered alongside Canada’s tar sands, would fill up the available atmospheric space within the estimated carbon budget for remaining below 2 degrees of warming.

This poses a difficult challenge for civil society groups who oppose the extraction of heavy crude found in Venezuela and Canada which if extracted and burned could overwhelm the global carbon budget.

At the UN climate change negotiations, Venezuela’s role in the Like Minded Group, alongside China and Saudi Arabia, and its position on maintaining the North-South “firewall,” (alongside foot dragging by major polluters such as the United States and Australia) have also frustrated attempts to chart a middle ground for progress.

Venezuela might see hosting the Social Pre-COP as a free pass to appear that they are doing something and brush aside criticisms that they are not pulling their weight.

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Venezuela’s typically fiery rhetoric may strike the wrong note, given the timing between Ban ki-Moon’s Leaders’ Summit on Climate Change in September and the UN climate conference in Peru in December.

Foreign ministers may be reluctant to attend due to lingering security concerns and Venezuela’s habit of commandeering the podium for its political ends.

Ensuring sufficient civil society representation at the events and allowing them the necessary space to meaningfully participate will be essential.

Compared to other Latin American countries such as Brazil or Peru, Venezuela’s civil society has little capacity on climate issues, which poses problems for a strong and credible turnout at home.

The Social Pre-COP’s aim of projecting the voices of civil society groups could be an extraordinary wakeup call for politicians around the world especially in the richest countries who lack the political will to take a strong stance on climate change.

It could also be the turning point for Venezuelan civil society to play a bigger role in shifting public opinion towards confronting climate change and promoting a more sustainable development model.

In turn, hosting the Pre-COP could put much needed pressure on the Venezuelan government to upgrade its own domestic climate policies.

Whether Venezuela can successfully play this role due to its existing climate policies and ongoing political instability and violence is unclear. Regardless, the voice of civil society must be placed at the heart of the climate negotiations.

Venezuela’s proposed efforts are a positive and a much needed step in the right direction.

The authors are based at the Climate and Development Lab, Brown University, Rhode Island. The opinions reflected in this article are the sole responsibility of the authors and do not reflect the views of Brown University.

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