By Shail Shrestha

COP 21 was my first experience of attending an international negotiation. I tried to follow and understand what goes in the climate negotiations and actively participated in many events organized across the city of Paris over the two weeks. While the negotiations and side events in the main conference center had little space for real discussion, events organized outside provided opportunities for genuine participation and emphasized on the need for adoption of solutions based on justice and equity. Those interactions stressed that fundamental change is essential in current system that brought today’s climate crisis. Of the different experiences and understandings I brought back to Nepal, some were sufficiently alarming to guide me in my continued activism for justice and climate change.

What I found most alarming was the widespread expectation of and reliance on foreign donations for climate change adaptation. This, I believe, is the single most likely cause of a failure to implement the measures we need to prepare ourselves for climate change. 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 is in 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.

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 that essentially presume industrialization as fundamental to development. These roles do not allow for historic contributions by LDCs to the conservation of resources and natural areas and are therefore not considered to have economic value. The fundamental focus on Western-style economic development drives most of what is really going to happen at UN climate conferences.

The United States of America (USA) and other developed nations are the potential funding source for some of 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. 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 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 stop being “goods” and become “costs.” GDP-based evaluations encourage ever-greater consumption of natural resources, but newer economic concepts to evaluate nations on the basis of the actual well-being of their citizens were all but invisible at COP21.

The focus of the negotiations – on addressing sources of energy prevents recognizing the effects of the energy-intensive, resource-exploiting economy that stem from the current approach to bringing prosperity. The discussions take 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 the washing machine to wash your clothes while at the same time exercising for hours and sitting in the sauna to get your sweat out. The energy intensity of our everyday lives is the biggest problem that is driving excessive energy consumption and leading to huge releases of greenhouse gases.

Virtually all nations, especially those in the South, see increasing energy consumption as the only road to prosperity. This implies abandoning traditional sustainable ways of life that developed 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 currently being 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 us in a more sustainable direction. In traditional societies, energy efficiency is highly valued, and conservation is considered more important than comfort and ease.

Attending discussions at different levels in Paris, I 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 international trade and other economic agreements. Citizen movements around the world that advocate consuming less are thwarted by the international system. They are trying to change the system at the same time that the central governments refuse to accept that systemic change has become essential. This is especially true in the global South, which depends on ever-increasing levels of international funding and trade. The quest for viable solutions will need to be strategically addressed, and will need greater citizen participation. Government officials won’t be able to move the carpet they are standing on.

I realized that the need for a change in our way of life is greater in the North than in the South. This 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 for development around the world.

Although much of the focus today is on preparing for and avoiding the natural disasters that will occur with increasing regularity, it is equally important to observe and prepare for the social, political, and cultural changes that will come. These challenges will come at different levels, but it seems that the most effective efforts to meet these challenges will occur at the local level.

The opportunity for humanity to unite beyond local identities is threatened by the competitive fund-based support system. This support still tends to contribute to greater energy consumption and will divert us from analyzing the real roots of the crisis.

While attending the discussions and analyzing the roles of the players in the negotiations, I felt that the underlying debate was really about “saving people” vs “saving investments.” I felt that the division between the governments and the people was clearer than the supposed division between North and South. What COP21 was attempting to come up with was preserving the existing system while pretending to stop climate change.

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.

Nations such as Nepal, that 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.

A longer version of this article was published in Issue 81 of the Carfree Times.
Photo Credit: Basanta Paudel

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