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A few well-written words can convey a wealth of information, particularly when there is no lag time between when they are written and when they are read. The IPS blog gives you an opportunity to hear directly from IPS scholars and staff on ideas large and small and for us to hear back from you.

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Entries since November 2013

Six of the Top Ten U.S. Billionaires Are Kochs and Waltons

November 25, 2013 ·

This blog originally featured in YES! Magazine.

(Truthout/Flickr)For the first time ever, according to Forbes magazine, the 400 richest Americanshave more than $2 trillion in combined wealth. And, a fifth of that amount is held by just 10 individuals. Of those top 10 richest Americans, six hail from two families—the Kochs and the Waltons—who are destroying our economy and corrupting our politics. We all should be outraged.

Arguably, the two most urgent tasks in this country are to transform our economy and to clean up our politics, and these two families stand in the way of both.

Our economy is addicted to fossil fuels and Charles and David Koch’s company,Koch Industries, is a key driver with investments in pipelines and refineriesacross the United States. These two Koch brothers rank four and five on the billionaire list.

In addition, our economy is marked by stagnating wages, which have sunk to povertylevels for millions of workers. The key driver of our low-wage economy is Walmart, with its 11,000 stores worldwide that pay so little that many of its workers get by on food stamps. The four main heirs to Walmart’s founder, Sam Walton, rank numbers six, seven, eight, and nine on the billionaires list. Three sit on the Walmart board, including Rob Walton, the board chair. (Other U.S. billionaires have made their fortunes in destructive Wall Street financial firms and through the generous government handouts of what President Eisenhower called "the military-industrial complex.")

The problem is, of course, not just economics. It’s the way that economics interacts with politics. The Koch brothers have poured some of their combined $72 billion in wealth into conservative and tea party politicians at the governor and state legislature levels.

Read the original in full on YES! Magazine's blog.

What's Hot and What's Not at COP19 in Warsaw

November 22, 2013 ·

Warsaw, Poland during COP19 (photo: Lauren Gifford)

This is the second week of the annual UN climate summit, hosted this year in Warsaw, Poland. Governments and activists gathered here on pushing for to make sure key provisions on lowering greenhouse gas emissions, adapting to a warming world, dealing with loss and damages from climate disruption, and finding ways to pay for it all are queued up for a new climate deal in 2015. As negotiations enter their final days, three participants weigh in on what’s hot, and what’s not, at COP19.


The HOT list…

Demanding climate justice

It seems everyone’s calling for ‘climate justice’ these days — and we’re all for it! It can mean many things, but most importantly it acknowledges the economic roots and geo-politics of the climate crisis. It’s based on recognition that global warming — and the proposed solutions to it — disproportionately impact low-income people and people of colour, and that those most impacted have the right to a seat at the table to speak for themselves. Sure, you can hang a climate justice banner on just about anything — that’s why international collaborations that separate the wheat from the chaff like the Global Campaign to Demand Climate Justice are so important.  

Philippine head of delegate Naderev Yeb Sano (photo: Adopt A Negotiator)Solidarity fasting

In his opening plenary remarks, Philippine head of delegate Naderev “Yeb” Sano announced that he would fast for the duration of the COP until “a meaningful outcome is in sight,” in solidarity with the hundreds of thousands of Filipinos without food, water and shelter in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan. Over 700,000 people around the world have stood with Yeb, and many are planning to fast once a month until COP20. As the Warsaw summit enters the realm of the ridiculous (like Poland sacking the COP host mid-meeting), we’d bet that people are getting pretty hungry. 

Asking “WTF?”

As in, “Where’s the Finance?” Dealing with climate change could cost more than $1 trillion each year. Wealthy countries promised four years ago in Copenhagen to set up a Green Climate Fund and deliver $100 billion per year once we reach 2020. But countries have so far refused to commit to a concrete plan for scaling up the paltry support provided since Copenhagen. U.S. climate chief Todd Stern has said not to expect more public funding from developed countries anytime soon. A High Level Ministerial Meeting on Finance is supposed to yield some answers — but we aren’t holding our breath.

Men in tights

There is one ray of hope for climate finance: Robin Hood and his merry men are about to visit Europe. 11 European countries — including the four largest economies on the continent — are implementing a Robin Hood Tax (also known as a financial transaction tax) in the coming year. This tiny tax on trades on stocks, bonds, currencies, and derivatives can yield up to $50 billion per year. France already has the tax and is earmarking ten percent of the revenue to climate and development overseas. The rest of EU11 might follow suit, and the U.S. should fall in line!

 Anti-corporate campaigning

The corporate capture of the COP by big business and dirty industry has been staggering. But the unexpected side-effect has been to unite civil society observers in taking up an anti-corporate mantle. Signs in the corridors have not been shy about asking “Who rules Poland?” and “Poland or Coaland?” 

Walkout at COP19: Polluters talk, we walk

In an inspiring show of solidarity with each other and the planet, environment, development, youth, labor, and faith groups said, “Enough is enough!” and walked out of the Warsaw climate talks on the eve of its final day, saying that it’s blatantly obvious that forces of the fossil fuel industry are making it impossible to have a real conversation about reaching a global climate treaty. Mainstream green groups joined with veteran climate justice activists to abandon COP19, promising they’ll be back even stronger next year when the climate summit moves to Lima, Peru.

 


The NOT list…

Paying twice the price of local food

Eating shouldn’t have to be a luxury, but it is in the Polish National Stadium (Stadion Narodowy) where the COP is taking place. Food is twice as expensive here as it is elsewhere in Warsaw. Delegates from many developing nations — and youth representatives — are counting their grozses to be able to afford the cardboard-flavoured Sodexo sandwiches. Another good reason to support Yeb’s fast!

Heart of darkness 

And we don’t mean the gloom that’s descended on the climate talks since Australia and Japan reneged on their promises (and policies) to reduce greenhouse gases. In November, the sun sets in Warsaw around three in the afternoon. Or maybe it’s coal ash settling from Poland’s 47 coal-fired power plants. Either way, consumption of Vitamin D has gone through the roof.

Sucking up to coal

In a show of solidarity with the dirty energy industry, UN climate chief Christiana Figueres heralded coal as an integral part of solving climate change at the International Coal and Climate Summit. Meanwhile, civil society staged a major action outside the summit denouncing the expanded use of coal. Cozying up to coal cost Figueres her invitation to the annual Conference of Youth, a meeting attended by people who actually care about the future. On the positive side, the UK said it would stop financing coal with public money.

Putting lipstick on the carbon market

The bleachers of Stadion Narodowy are abuzz with the promise of new market mechanisms. But existing carbon markets have shown a weakness for fraud, scams, and general ineffectiveness. The World Bank tells us not to worry — they’ve learned from the EU’s failures and the 20 new carbon markets they’re helping setup in developing countries will get the job done. For now, a decision’s been kicked down the road. But can we please stop trying to put lipstick on this pig (did someone say pirogues in szmalec)? Let’s stop wasting time and simply cut emissions.

Shameless self-promotion

You’ve got to hand it to Emirates Airlines. They’ve placed oversized beanbag chairs all over the conference for weary negotiators to take a nap. But let’s be honest, grownups in suits look silly sleeping on the floor! Maybe the aim was to get delegates so relaxed they’d forget that the airline industry as a whole is responsible for about 2% of global climate pollution — or that two of the UAE’s major economic drivers are oil and gas export. 

Australia’s "DILLIGAF?" attitude

Urban dictionary can help you out with that acronym. Australian delegates made it perfectly clear how little they care about finding a way to help compensate poorer countries deal with “loss and damage” from climate disruptions. The Aussie officials acted like “a bunch of high school boys misbehaving in class” in their t-shirts and flip flops before finally bracketing [i.e. putting on hold] all of the already agreed-upon text. Their disruptive behavior drove 130 developing nations to eventually walk out in frustration at four in the morning, abandoning what some have called the most important talks in Warsaw. Walk outs are so hot right now, it seems.

Jonas Bruun and Robbie Watt are PhD candidates at the University of Manchester. Lauren Gifford is a PhD candidate at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Corporate Capture in Warsaw: The 'New Normal' in the Disaster Zone

November 18, 2013 ·

Robbie Watt in front of COP19's plenary session boxes, sponsored by the corporation ArcelorMittal

We are half way through the 19th summit of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in cold, grey Poland. Far away in the Philippines thousands of people have lost their lives to Typhoon Haiyan and hundreds of thousands struggle to find food, water, and shelter.

This typhoon makes climate chaos dramatically visible as current reality—not just future possibility. The pictures and stories of the devastation are a reminder that as the planet warms, mega-storms like Haiyan are expected to become more frequent and more fierce. A typhoon hit the Philippines at the time of the COP last year too, as if devastating storms are becoming a ‘new normal’ at the climate negotiations.

The immediate and future impacts of climate change make the case for an urgent response – yet in Warsaw delegates seem to be responding with words instead of action.

As has been the case since the signing of the climate convention in 1992, a priority of international negotiations is for rich countries to agree and then act to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. Commitments are not really on the table here, but are supposed to be agreed by 2015, when the summit meets in Paris. Unfortunately governments are not showing much ambition, and are even outlining plans to do less than they had previously agreed to. Australia, Japan and Canada have been set a bad example to this effect, while the United States’ position as a laggard has hardly changed.

There are plenty of technical questions under discussion here in various work programmes and subsidiary bodies, keeping the delegates busy. But without any ambition on pollution cuts we are left with the clear impression of running around going nowhere, like a hamster racing round on the exercise wheel in its cage. With the meeting rooms arranged in a ring inside the circular national stadium, delegates are literally running around in circles at this negotiation.

Officials in Warsaw are already resigned to the idea that we must wait until 2015 before reaching a new global climate deal, and many countries—particularly developed ones—have accepted the notion that we’ll wait another five years after that before any of these plans are implemented. If that happens, the next 8 years will be filled with another ‘normal’ at these negotiations – all talk and no walk.

Only an emotional speech by Philippine head of delegation Naderev Sano about the lives and livelihoods lost in his home country and his pledge to fast until “a meaningful outcome was in sight” seemed capable of rousing the attention of both delegates and international media. 

‘Green’ Corporate Sponsorship

Meanwhile, another ‘new normal’ is emerging at the climate summit. The negotiations in Poland have attracted an unprecedented number of corporate sponsors and lobbyists from big business and dirty industry, such as General Motors and the French energy conglomerate Alstom.

ArcelorMittal—one of Europe's most polluting firms, with a track record of lobbying to make millions out of Europe's failing experiments with carbon markets—constructed the temporary steel boxes in the national stadium (where the talks are taking place) to house plenary sessions, giving the impression that climate negotiations are literally being imprisoned under corporate control.

An entire floor in the stadium has been dedicated to private companies peddling ‘solutions’ to the climate crisis in the form of false-hope technologies such as pumping pollution underground and burning trash. Negotiators can relax in Emirates Air beanbag chairs, strategically placed all around the stadium. And many delegates carry complimentary goody-bags, a gift from the 11 official for-profit partners representing the aviation, auto, fossil fuel, and heavy industrial sectors.

The Polish government defends corporate sponsorship, claiming that the businesses involved provide ‘green’ products and services. In making this claim, the Poles are ignoring the compelling evidence of these firms’ environmental destruction and are legitimizing their dangerous presence at the negotiations, as outlined in the COP19 Guide to Corporate Lobbying.  

Of course the private sector has to be part of solving the climate crisis—but first, they have to get out of the business of polluting for profit. We find the corporate capture of the climate conference problematic in three major ways.

First, the 11 corporate partners are enjoying privileged access in return for their support while civil society observer organizations—the groups that represent the public interest—have experienced unexpected restrictions in their ability to participate in the UNFCCC.

Second, many of the ‘solutions’ corporate partners offer are not ‘green’ and will not stop the release of greenhouse gases. Instead, these proposals serve to protect corporate interests while creating new opportunities for profit.

Third, climate change is a problem that can only be properly addressed through collective action. However, it’s becoming ‘normal’ to frame climate change as a business opportunity, where companies can make money from flawed carbon markets and the ‘Green Corporate Fund’.

COP19 is being branded as the first full-out corporate COP. This sets a dangerous precedent and should not become a 'new normal.' The apparent normality of disasters and lack of action associated with climate politics is already bad enough. 

If You Can 'Speak' with Your Money, Then Why Is Asking For Money Illegal?

November 18, 2013 ·

(Flickr/Gamma Man)Money may be protected speech but apparently, speech that asks for money is not.

Two recent legal cases about money and free speech unveil a contradiction in our application of the First Amendment. One deals with the right of the rich to influence politics with a lot of money, the other deals with the right of the poor to ask for a little to buy a meal or bus ticket.

On October 8, the Supreme Court heard arguments in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (FEC) that could open the floodgates on unlimited campaign contributions. If McCutcheon succeeds, the case could lift limits on how much money an individual can spend in an election cycle.

If the Court sides with McCutcheon, it could strike down aggregate limits on campaign contributions in the name of free speech. Currently, the donation limit is $48,000 per cycle, which enables giving the maximum amount of money to 18 national candidates per election. Even if the FEC could still limit donations to a single campaign, rich donors would see a new rush of power, gaining influence in more elections. Every politician in the country would basically need to beg this small group to finance their next job interview with the American people.

If the court overturns years of campaign finance reform, it will take a constitutional amendment to distinguish unlimited campaign money from protected speech.

Meanwhile, the homeless and unemployed are experiencing the right to express their need for money taken away.

In Arizona, a 77-year-old woman was arrested for asking an undercover cop for a bus fare under a state law that forbade panhandling. This law was subsequently challenged in federal court and overruled, but other similar laws exist nationwide.

Since the recession, the U.S. has passed a litany of laws making it illegal to ask for even a small amount of cash. Cities and states across the country have banned panhandling and "loitering to beg" in response to increased poverty.

The state of Michigan faces a similar challenge to its panhandling law. Even some more liberal cities have proposed or implemented panhandling bans, like Baltimore, MD, Bennington, VT, and Worcester, MA.

We are becoming a nation where free speech is granted only to the rich and powerful while the rest of us are increasingly rendered utterly voiceless.

Andrew Small is an intern of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

Opening COP19 Warsaw: A Climate Justice Take on UN Talks

November 12, 2013 ·

Opening statement by the President of COP19 Mr. Marcin Korolec (UNclimatechange/flickr)To mark the start of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP19) in Warsaw, Poland, a new series of Climate Justice briefings has been released offering critical perspectives on a number of the crucial issues under discussion.

First up, A Vision for Equity argues that negotiations should focus on setting a “global emissions budget” to keep temperature rises within the 1.5 degree target that would avoid dangerous climate change. Using historic emissions data as well as records of current per capita emissions, it calculates what developed and developing countries would need to do within that framework to contribute their fair share to addressing the climate problem.

A system of international climate controls based on science and the principles of equity is needed to achieve that target, which means climate negotiators should resist any attempts to deregulate international climate controls. That’s the subject the next briefing, which sets out a case against the “pledge and revenge” approach that many developed countries are pursuing within negotiations for a new international climate treaty. 

The new system risks being even weaker than the outgoing Kyoto Protocol, while threatening to retain or even expand upon the carbon markets—one of the most problematic aspects of the existing agreement. This briefing on markets explains why carbon trading is not the answer. Instead of setting up “new market mechanisms,” the failure of existing markets should be grounds for a moratorium on the development of new ones.

Non-market approaches should be pursued instead, and that’s the subject of the fourth briefing in this series, which looks at the positive role that could be played by Globally Funded Renewable Energy Feed-In Tariffs.

Background on COP19

The web is awash with reports on the UN climate talks, but to cut through to the core issues you could do far worse than starting with this useful guide to “the Big Fights, Red Lines and Initial Predictions” from [Earth in Brackets], who will also be blogging and tweeting. Our colleagues at climate-justice.info have also issued this useful media background briefing covering the basic issues from Poland, alongside some snappy quotes.

The Warsaw conference is being hailed in some quarters as a “finance COP,” the implication being that debates on the money needed to address climate change will take center stage. At the same time, we’re witnessing an attack upon and dilution of the very notion of “climate finance”, which refers to public transfers of resources from developed to developing countries. Brandon Wu of ActionAid USA picks up the story here.

In other quarters, COP19 is being talked about as a haven for corporate lobbyists – an impression that the Polish Presidency of the meeting has done little to counter, by seeking sponsorship from “climate crooks” such as ArcelorMittal, Alstom and BMW. Corporate Europe Observatory and the Transnational Institute look at corporate influences on the UN Climate Change Conference with itsCOP19 Guide to Corporate Lobbying. They’ll also be blogging from Warsaw.

During the COP itself, it’s easy to miss the latest developments with several meetings taking place simultaneously. Third World Network’s briefing papers are an invaluable resource to find out who said what in the meeting halls of Poland’s national stadium.

And finally, as the COP in Warsaw gets underway in the shadow of the deadly Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, it’s worth pausing to take in the words of that country’s lead negotiator, Yeb Sano, who reminded delegates of the true costs of continued inaction on climate change.