At climate conference in Doha, Silent Spring or Arab Spring?

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December 8, 2012 by SCNCC


Qatari poet Muhammed Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami

Not far from where delegates are meeting at the UN’s 18th Conference of the Parties on climate change in Doha, the Qatari writer Muhammad ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami sits locked away in a maximum security prison. His crime: a poem.

Entitled “Tunisian Jasmine,” it reads in part, “We are all Tunisians / in the face of the repressive.” After a clip of al-Ajami reading his Arab Spring-inspired verse was posted on Youtube last year, the regime of Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani took offense.

Last week, the poet was sentenced to life in prison in a secret trial for “insulting” the emir and “inciting to overthrow the ruling system.”

The Qatar-based television news network al-Jazeera has been accused of using its influence to incite the Arab Spring. However, the network’s owner – none other than the sheikh himself – is apparently not so enthusiastic about the prospect of a popular revolution in his own country. Now al-Ajami himself is grappling with this irony, telling the Reuters news agency in an interview from behind bars, “You can’t have al-Jazeera in this country and put me in jail for being a poet.”

But so far, it appears you can.

Al-Ajami’s case is an illustrative example of the Qatari regime, which puts on a liberal face but behind the scenes is not above doling out harsh repression to those who signal even the slightest opposition.

Thus, Qatar’s strict laws regarding speech, together with the relatively high cost of visiting, make the gulf state an ideal location for global elites seeking to hold conferences away from pesky protesters – and hence a fine choice for yet another ineffectual UN climate gathering.

After the notorious Battle in Seattle, the World Trade Organization secluded itself in Doha for its 2001 trade negotiations. Today, given that the effects of climate change are being felt more and more around the world, and activists are ramping up resistance efforts in the face of the increasingly dire threat posed by anthropogenic warming, it’s not surprising that global governments largely apathetic to the crisis tore a page out of the WTO playbook and packed off to sunny Doha, opting to hold the first-ever UN climate conference in an oil-fueled dictatorship.

Leading environmental campaigners, such as Greenpeace’s executive director Kumi Naidoo, have vowed to escalate their struggle for climate justice in the face of the counterproductive stance developed nations have taken in negotiations. “If our climate were a bank,” Naidoo told Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman, “we would have saved it a long time ago.”

Earlier this year Naidoo strapped himself to a Russian oil rig in a bid to halt drilling operations in the arctic, making good on his pledge at the UN’s Rio+20 Earth Summit in June to take nonviolent direct action for the climate, since going through official channels to address the crisis has become an increasingly futile exercise.

Renowned environmental activist Vandana Shiva labeled the summit in Brazil a “Rio–20” in which corporations like Dow Chemical and Coca-Cola, together with delegates from developed nations, used the catch phrase “green economy” as a euphemism for privatizing every molecule on the planet.

Youth delegates at the summit walked out in protest, joining indigenous tribes, trade unionists and students rallying for a just and sustainable economy beyond the summit’s fortified walls. Meanwhile inside, the United States and obstructionist partners lobbied hard against any content in the final declaration dealing with human rights or goals for greenhouse gas emission reductions.

They got what they were after.

Journalist George Monbiot described the final text as “283 paragraphs of fluff” that “could be illustrated with rainbows and psychedelic unicorns and stuck on the door of your toilet.”

There’s been plenty more fluff this time around, both from developed countries and from COP 18’s host nation, yet little dissent on the streets of Doha. Civil society groups have complained that restrictions on gathering and leafleting have made it hard to have an impact on the conference where leading polluters aren’t putting their money where their mouths are.

The top U.S. climate negotiator – if we can say that such a thing exists – is Jonathan Pershing, who on Wednesday said America is “looking to participate in an outcome that will lead to a reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions,” though his comments came in the wake of a report published earlier in the week by Oil Change International revealing that the U.S. spent five times more money on fossil fuel subsidies in 2011 than on efforts to adapt to climate change from 2010 to the present.

Some developing nations that have been struck by extreme weather due to global warming, together with a cluster of nongovernmental groups, are calling for the U.S. and other Western governments to pay climate debt or climate reparations.

Given that Western nations are responsible for up to 75% of greenhouse gas emissions historically, the hope is that the world’s wealthiest polluters can inject cash into developing markets in a way that fuels sustainable development. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paraded around the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009 shaking hands and promising $100 billion in climate aid.

But in Doha, would-be recipients still haven’t seen more than a fraction of the amount pledged. Since the financial crisis hit in 2008, the U.S. government has managed to place $12 trillion in the pockets of banks, but when it comes to the climate crisis the cash comes at a trickle.

Put simply: the U.S. values the health of the business climate, not the actual climate. It’s tracking the Dow industrial average, not the planet’s rising temperatures, which are set to rise – if nonbinding emission reductions targets are honored – by six degrees Celsius by 2050, according the UN’s Environmental Program. Even by more conservative estimates of temperature escalation, we’re looking at a rise in droughts, flooding and other extreme weather events costing millions of lives and trillions of dollars.

Rachel Carson, in her classic plea for ecological conservation, Silent Spring, warned 1960s America that the chemicals it was spraying on its crops and infusing into the atmosphere were decimating the environment and could have a catastrophic impact on future generations.

She cautioned of a time when spring would come and there would be no birds to sing. Even seemingly benign compounds born in the chemist’s laboratory could mix with each other in the environment and reap deadly results. “In lakes and streams everywhere, in the presence of catalyzing air and sunlight, what dangerous substances may be born of parent chemicals labeled harmless?” asked Carson.

Here in New York City, where coastal neighborhoods struggle to rebuild in the wake of Frankenstorm Sandy, we are witnessing the ways in which poverty has catalyzed with climate change, creating a toxic elixir. Prior to the storm, politicians displayed little will to face up climate change or the city’s cavernous class divide.

Desperation, which often existed quietly beside New York’s billion dollar skyscrapers, reached a new pitch with Sandy. Homes that were the sole nest egg for many were inundated by rising tides. Once-prized possessions now sit under the winter sun, waiting to be driven away by garbage trucks. Much of New York’s public housing lies along the coast, often beside industrial areas. Floodwaters in Red Hook swept through a cement processing plant, a fuel loading facility and other industrial sites active and abandoned, carrying numerous toxins yet to be scrutinized into the projects where mold continues to fester five weeks since the storm.

Thousands, who were already scraping to get by before Sandy, have been displaced and/or lack basic necessities afterwards. It is but one example of the before-and-after effects we can anticipate as the environment turns more chaotic in the years ahead.

Yet, in the face of this most recent disaster, thousands mobilized in a social defense drive initiated by veterans of Occupy Wall Street. Calling themselves Occupy Sandy, activists have been delivering food, water, clothing, medicine and comfort to those in need while fighting for a sustainable recovery that benefits the 99%.

The campaign has involved tens of thousands of people, many of whom never took part in the occupation of the Financial District last year, and has helped connect peoples’ daily reality with the social justice objectives of the Occupy movement. After seeing the way Sandy exacerbated existing social problems, unionists, housing activists and healthcare advocates who previously did not consider ecology a central component of their lives now call themselves environmentalists.

Likewise, for many environmentalists the issue of climate change is now far less abstract. It’s not just about polar bears and beautiful scenery. Global warming has a class component.

As competing governments negotiate in Doha, the question remains: will the spirit of the Arab Spring and its promise of people power continue to rise across the globe and force world leaders to listen up. Or, will repression rule the day as storms like Sandy stand as augurs of a future where the songs of birds no longer thrill the sky?

This article first appeared at

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