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Climate Justice Summit Provides Alternative Vision

by Joshua KarlinerSpecial to CorpWatch
November 21st, 2000

THE HAGUE -- In sharp contrast to the at times mind numbing official climate negotiations taking place this week, community activists from around the world held a watershed gathering. Members of communities fighting the oil industry, international environmental justice activists, and those facing the rising tide of global warming gathered in The Hague for the first ever "Climate Justice Summit."

While government delegates and mainstream environmental groups at the official negotiations debated the details of market-based "solutions" to global warming, speakers met at a small theater in The Hague to share experiences of the on-the-ground impacts of climate change.

Their stories were riveting. Speaker after speaker described the human rights violations and environmental devastation wrought by the fossil fuel industry as well as the industry's responsibility for the global dynamic of climate change. Many spoke of how their communities are either already affected by global warming or will be threatened by the rising tides and extreme weather associated with climate change. Summit participants also placed much of the blame for the painfully slow progress in the climate negotiations on giant oil corporations -- the same companies they say contribute to global warming.

Taking Shell to Task

Dr. Owens Wiwa accused Shell of continuing to put profits before basic principles of human decency in the Niger Delta. Wiwa should know. He is the brother of the late environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was executed by the Nigerian government five years ago this month.

"In 1993 the Ogoni people ejected Shell from their land because they were flaring gas and poisoning the people with methane, carbon monoxide and C02," explains Wiwa. "At that time we did not know that these same chemicals that we were breathing were also contributing to global warming. Now Shell wants to possibly come back to Ogoni to continue to poison our lungs, our land and the atmosphere. We once again reject that."

Wiwa spoke of his homeland in the Niger Delta as an epicenter of climate change. "Rising sea levels are going to lead to the disappearance of the Niger Delta, whose people and environment have already been under assault by the oil industry for more than forty years. It is crucial for the drilling to stop, so as to save both the Delta and the world's climate."

Perhaps the most dramatic moment in the Climate Justice Summit came when local Louisiana activist Margie Richard confronted Shell executives. Her group, "Concerned Citizens of Norco" has been fighting a Shell refinery for years. Richard entered a meeting co-hosted by Shell on the Clean Development Mechanism inside the official conference center. As a Shell representative expounded on how the Mechanism "must reflect commercial reality," Richard gave him a dose of on the ground reality. She presented the surprised Shell executive with a bag of toxic air captured outside her house, which sits 17 feet from the factory fence in Norco.

Joining Richard was Bobby Peek, a Goldman Environmental Prize winner who works with the group Ground Work in South Africa. Both Peek and Richard told reporters that Shell had misled their communities about their local emissions. "If they lied to their neighbors about emissions in South Africa and Louisiana, then how can we begin to believe their rhetoric at the climate change negotiations," said Peek.

A Citizens Movement to Confront Climate Change

As the Summit unfolded, it became clear that communities are starting to take the climate issue into their own hands. Conference organizer and CorpWatch staffer Amit Srivastava notes that by fighting the oil industry in their own backyards, local activists are beginning to take on global climate change. "When taken together, the efforts of these communities to protect their human, cultural and environmental rights by preventing oil exploration and production, constitutes a major grassroots initative to reduce production of CO2 -- the major global warming gas," according to Srivastava.

"By resisting new oil projects in their lands," observes Ivonne Yanez, of Oilwatch International, an Ecuador-based network fighting oil development in the tropics, "people like the Cofanes in Ecuador, the Ijaw in Nigeria and the U'wa in Colombia are going forward faster than our governments in creating a true Clean Development Mechanism."

The so-called Clean Development Mechanism Yanez refers to, is increasingly under fire by mainstream environmental groups and grassroots activists alike. The Mechanism allows industrialized countries to claim emission reduction credits by curbing their emissions in less developed nations. Critics say it serves as a vehicle for industrialized nations, like the US, to abdicate responsibility for reducing their own greenhouse gas emissions and instead continue with business (and pollution) as usual by financing emissions reductions in Third World countries.

"All the fighting about technicalities is the fight about how to avoid dealing with the corporations who are the real climate culprits," Chee Yoke Ling of the Third World Network told Summit participants in her key note speech.

Meanwhile, climate conference delegates continue to ignore the issue of curtailing oil production and exploration, despite the fact that just burning all current oil reserves will most likely lead to ecological catastrophe. Statistics show that, when burned, the oil a company like Shell produces is responsible for as much CO2 as the entire Central American region. And Exxon Mobil's production accounts for nearly as many emissions as all of Africa, according to data from environmental groups.

Representatives of indigenous peoples are joining the call for an end to drilling. Sarah James, of the Arctic Village, Gwichin Nation, called on the US government not to drill in her homeland which includes parts of the Arctic National Wildlife refuge. Roberto Afanador Cobaria, made a similar plea for the U'wa people who are fighting Occidental Petroleum's encroachment on their lands in Colombia. "Oil companies say that it is progress to exploit oil. This is not progress. You cannot put a price on that which carries life," according to the U'wa leader.

Others, like Salvadoran Ricardo Navarro, Chair of Friends of the Earth International, see climate change as a human rights issue. Citing the tens of thousands of people who have already died from climate change-related storms in Central America, Mozambique, India and elsewhere, Navarro told Summit participants that "people who oppose the reduction of CO2 are behaving like criminals. They are sanctioning the killing of people."

The Climate Justice Summit was attended by about 500 people, including a strong contingent from the environmental justice movement in the United States. The watershed meeting marked the first time that such a diverse group of grassroots actvisits from around the world gathered to focus on climate change.

The event was sponsored by the Corporate Europe Observatory (Europe), CorpWatch (USA), Environmental Rights Action (Nigeria), Oilwatch International (Ecuador), People and the Planet (UK), Rising Tide Coalition (Netherlands), Sustainable Energy and Economy Network (USA), and World Rainforest Movement (Uruguay).