15 Sep 2014

200,000 protesters won't stop
corporations from dominating UN

The United Nations will host dozens of governments, corporations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) during a one-day Climate Summit 2014 in New York on September 23rd but, alas, according to scientists and environmentalists, the meeting will deal mainly with only one limited way of fighting climate change.

In recent years the UN has proven incapable of playing an important role in slowing world climate change in a meaningful way, and is not practically dictated to by a powerful lobby.

“On the climate issue, the world’s biggest corporate polluters and pushers of unsustainable rates of consumption are hell bent on maintaining ‘business as usual’ and are working alone and in groups [and at the UN] to ensure that climate policies will not interfere with the profitability of their operations” says a research paper produced by Canada’s highly-respected Polaris Institute.

Because the UN and governments are not making progress, as many as 200,000 environment supporters from all over North America are expected to take part in four days of protest in New York leading up to the UN Summit. More than 800 groups are backing the protests, hoping to advance the climate crisis cause in the eyes of the public and with governments.

While 125 heads of states are expected to attend, including U.S. President Barack Obama and U.K. Prime Minster David Cameron, Canadian PM Stephen Harper will skip most of the Summit. Harper, who will be in New York that day for another event, will take part in only the luncheon discussion concerning carbon pricing. Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq will attend the entire Summit.   

The expensive, one-day Summit – corporations are picking up a lot of the cost – will be a self-serving exercise for both the UN and the corporations. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will issue meaningless platitudes. The invited government representatives will denounce global warming in general ways. And as usual, the culprits – the air-choking corporations – will not be named.

The most powerful so-called climate-saving UN committee is loaded with the most powerful corporations from around the globe, companies such as Coca-Cola and Cisco from the U.S., Siemens from Germany, CEMEX from Mexico, Banco do Brasil, Sinopec from China, etc.

Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner
One of the few moments of real heart-felt compassion will come when a 25-year-old poet, journalist and climate-change activist from the Marshall Islands delivers the keynote opening address. Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner will say she became inspired to fight climate change when she witnesses the raging ocean destroying her city’s main graveyard on her island of 71,000.

 “I was inspired by the concept that the ocean is almost eating, or swallowing our dead in a sense,” she said in an interview with a U.S. donor. “There is profound sadness and a profound helplessness about that. It is so sad, we have no control over it; it is the ocean that is taking it over. That is what inspired me; that is what moved me deeply.” Click here to view the video she produced.

The Summit will, among other things, hold brief discussions on theme areas such as climate, health and jobs , a climate change photo contest the UN says may be the largest ever , and a week of fun events around New York.

But what the corporations really want from the meeting is to exploit the legitimacy of the UN to increase their preferred action against climate change: create more carbon pricing systems.

Governments create carbon markets by telling corporations how much carbon they are allowed to produce. If they exceed their limit they are, in effect, fined. But if they are under their limit they can sell their excess credits to another company that hasn’t met its limits, often walking away with a big profit.

Carbon pricing is a critical tool to address climate change, and momentum is building to put in place carbon pricing schemes,” says one UN document. “Nearly 40 countries and more than 20 cities, states and provinces use carbon pricing mechanisms such as emissions trading systems and carbon taxes or are preparing to implement them.”

But there are two serious problems.

First, most corporations want to implement only carbon pricing mechanisms. But the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) says: “A cap-and-trade program alone would not be sufficient to meet the challenge of climate change.”

UCS says many other actions are required, such as having utilities to generate a higher percentage of their electricity from renewable energy, requiring automakers to increase vehicle fuel economy standards, stronger energy efficiency policies, and policies encouraging smart growth.

Secondly, critics such as activist Naomi Klein are highly critical of carbon pricing programs because they can be manipulated. Earlier this month Klein told In These Times that such schemes create perverse incentives, allowing manufacturers to produce more harmful greenhouse gases, just to be paid to reduce them. In the process, carbon trading schemes have helped corporations make billions — allowing them to directly profit off the degradation of the planet.

NGO participation at Summit strongly limited

While the UN will welcome powerful corporations in New York, it will strictly control the participation of NGOs. NGOs were not permitted to decide among themselves who will be allowed into the Summit. Instead, the UN selected four civil society speakers and 34 additional civil society attendees from the 544 nominated groups.

The approved groups will not be permitted to take part in the high-level carbon pricing session.

Protestors will launch their activities in New York on Friday, September 19 with plenaries, speak-outs and teach-ins. The main march will take place on Sunday several blocks away from the UN, on the other side of Manhattan Island. The march will be closely monitored by New York’s often-brutal police force.

The more radical protesters will target the “climate profiteers” on Wall Street on Tuesday, September 22nd, the day before the UN Summit. Protesters can receive non-violent direct action training, and will hear pep talks from journalists/activists Naomi Klein and Chris Hedges.

According to the organizers, large protests and occupations will take place in financial districts in hundreds of communities around the world. Protests are planned for about 10 Canadian communities.

Will these protests, which will cost many thousands of dollars and use up hundreds-of-thousands of hours of labour, be any more effective than past protests in getting the general public behind climate protection initiatives? I’d say it’s unlikely.

The environmental movement has been trying to shame the UN and national governments to make more progress on slowing climate change for many years. However, earlier this month the World Meteorological Organization voiced concerns over the surge of carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere, which reached a new record high in 2013. It said there are worrying sings that oceans and biosphere seem unable to soak up emissions as quickly as they used to.

Perhaps it’s time for environmentalists and the general public to change tactics and begin focussing on the big corporate polluters. It wasn’t too many years ago that the once mighty cigarette industry was forced to greatly curtail its activities in many countries. And many more people are dying from climate change compared to deaths we saw from smoking.

3 May 2014

Canadian group not dealing with
major free expression issues

Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), a non-profit organization I worked with for 14 years, is one of dozens of groups from around the world that celebrated the importance of an unencumbered media on World Press Freedom Day May 3.

CJFE has an almost 30 year history of carrying out vital press freedom work throughout the developing world with its own programs and, in particular, through the creation and operation of the International Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFEX), a worldwide network of 88 groups. Working with other groups, lives have been saved and entire nations of people have gained the right to express themselves.

The group has just published its most elaborate ever, 46-page Free Expression in Canada Review. The report addresses a number of important issues, such as access to information, digital surveillance, and the failure to protect the country's whistleblowers. The Review should result in more people becoming involved in CJFE, which is important.

But with this anniversary of World Press Freedom Day, I feel it's important to explain how CJFE comes up short when addressing the free expression problems we face here in Canada.

It's not only in developing countries where journalists lack rights. In fact, Canada is facing its greatest public information crisis in many years.

It is true that mainstream journalism is adversely affected by the economic downturn and the loss of millions of dollars in advertising revenues to Internet-based companies. But this is not what I'm referring to.

15 Apr 2014

Flaherty's Legacy:
The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

The unexpected, shocking death of Jim Flaherty, the Conservative Party of Canada’s only finance minister until his retirement less than a month ago, has resulted in hundreds of tributes for his commitment to public life and praise from those in business and conservative circles who approved of his financial and economic policies.

Flaherty, who was only 64, was devoted to his family and one of the most popular Members of Parliament. And while his life achievements and humanity should be praised, it also needs to be said that during his time in the federal government his policies severely discriminated against the vast majority of Canadians.

Flaherty had control of Canada’s purse strings during a period that led to a situation where, by 2012, the 86 wealthiest residents held the same amount of wealth as the bottom 11.4 million Canadians combined. Lagging wages have led many Canadians to take on record-high debt as they try to keep up with increasing costs.

In fairness, it’s impossible to assess Flaherty’s legacy as finance minister without factoring in that Prime Minister Stephen Harper kept him on a short leash. Harper, a rabid neoliberal, no doubt put forward a number of the Conservatives’ most anti-social policies. The two argued, but it’s safe to say that Flaherty lost more battles than he won.

With apologies to Clint Eastwood, the Flaherty/Harper contributions to the economic life of the country can be broken into three main areas: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.