IPS Blog

Talking Points: State of the Union, of War, of the Middle East

Obama State of the Union 2014President Obama’s State of the Union speech was pretty depressing. It didn’t start out that way, it was actually a pretty nice strong framework: ‘You members of Congress can’t get anything done, so I’m going to check out what I can do on my own, by executive action, without you.’ He started by raising the minimum wage for federal contract workers – he can do that on his own, maybe it’ll start a groundswell. That’s all good, for those hundreds of thousands of workers and their families (even though his is still below the poverty line for a family of four).

Obama even said “America must move off a permanent war footing.” That should’ve been a Wow! moment. But somehow it wasn’t. He did say he would impose “prudent limitations” on the drone war – his signature war. He even said, “We will not be safer if people abroad believe we strike within their countries without regard for the consequence.” But the problem is we do strike in other countries “without regard for the consequence.” The only “prudent” approach to the drone war is ending it, not just tweaking it a bit. And that’s what we didn’t hear.

We also didn’t hear plans to close down the 700-plus U.S. military bases around the world that create huge social and environmental problems and foment anti-U.S. tensions. We didn’t hear plans for massive cuts in military spending – by closing those bases, cancelling wasteful giant weapons systems, and ending illegal and immoral wars. My commentary on the State of the Union speech analyzes these and more issues we didn’t hear about (plus Iran and a few other things that we did). And if you want to go back to the day before the speech, and look at what President Obama should have been talking about you can get some ideas from my IPS colleagues and me on inequality, trade and Iran (not) in the Syria talks.

Iran and AIPAC

Netanyahu AIPACThere is some good news on Iran, but we have to be careful. The American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is losing — that’s huge. AIPAC has been waging a no-holds-barred, increasingly desperate campaign to derail the interim agreement between Iran and the U.S.-led “Perm 5 + One” global powers (Britain, China, France, Russia, United States and Germany.) Last month it looked like the lobby – as is too often the case – was winning. The AIPAC-led campaign resulted in 49 Senators signing on as co-sponsors of a bill imposing a whole host of new sanctions if Iran didn’t behave exactly as they wanted. They were aiming for a veto-proof 67-vote majority – and getting 49 the first couple days made that seem possible. I discussed the threat of the war-mongers scuttling the agreement here in Common Dreams.

But then it stalled. Top U.S. intelligence officials – and crucially, the White House – agreed that new sanctions would be a deal breaker. The White House took an uncharacteristically tough position, calling out those in Congress who preferred war to diplomacy. And during the State of the Union speech President Obama powerfully reminded Congress that diplomacy is working, that negotiations are responsible for “halt[ing] the progress of Iran’s nuclear program…Iran has begun to eliminate its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium. It’s not installing advanced centrifuges. Unprecedented inspections help the world verify every day that Iran is not building a bomb.” Then the kicker: “Let me be clear: if this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it.” At least three of the original 49 have now pulled back.

So the agreement is in place, and for now it’s holding. That’s all good, but it still faces some danger. Despite opposition from Iran’s own hard-liners (whose position the Washington Post says “mirrors that of Republicans in the U.S. Congress“) Tehran has welcomed UN nuclear inspectors, and is in the process of implementing the various requirements of the agreement. (In case you missed it, you can read my analysis of the agreement here in The Nation.) Washington and its allies haven’t yet begun releasing the small amount of Iran’s assets authorized in the agreement, or begun easing any of the few sanctions the agreement calls for reducing. Hard-core opponents of the agreement, led by Democrat Robert Menendez, remain committed to war over diplomacy. And AIPAC hasn’t given up. The pressure remains. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s refusal to put the new sanctions resolution on the table, President Obama’s threat to veto any new sanctions bill, the 70+ members of the House who have signed a letter supporting the Iran agreement and opposing new sanctions – all could collapse unless public pressure is maintained against AIPAC’s powerful arsenal of bribes and threats. That’s our job – we can’t count on official Washington to do it. Sign the petition here for a start.

Palestine-Israel: The Price to be Paid

John Kerry Iran Nuclear DealThe role of AIPAC makes a necessary segue into talking about Palestine and Israel – I talked about the connection between the Iran talks and Palestine in a discussion on the Real News. That led immediately to Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts towards a new framework to lay the groundwork for a future agreement. Oh, you thought he’s finally drafting a real comprehensive, just, permanent peace agreement that would actually resolve all the crucial elements of settlements, borders, refugees, Jerusalem, etc.? Oh no, that’s so last summer…

That’s when we first heard about Kerry’s new shuttle diplomacy. It never had much of a chance – I called it the “Einstein Round” of the U.S. peace process – the great scientist’s definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Unfortunately that’s still the case – although Kerry has achieved something none of his predecessors ever did: he managed to prevent almost all leaks throughout months of not-in-the-same-room negotiations. Until the leaks – apparently quite well orchestrated – began early in January, apparently to begin preparing Palestinian, Israeli and U.S. publics for the result.

It’s not a pretty sight. According to top PLO official Yasir Abed-Rabbo, Kerry’s ‘framework’ – as distinct from an actual agreement – would

  • Require Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state (thus legitimizing the second-class or worse status of Palestinian citizens of Israel).
  • ‘Solve’ the refugee crisis by allowing Palestinian refugees only into the new Palestinian state instead of the UN-mandated right to return to their homes in Israel,
  • Ensure permanent Israeli control and likely annexation of the large settlement blocs with about 80% of the illegal Jewish settlers.
  • Allow permanent Israel control of “Palestine’s” border crossings and air space.
  • Endorse permanent or near-permanent Israeli military forces in the occupied Jordan Valley, perhaps adding U.S., Jordanian and/or even Palestinian security forces to them.
  • Allow Israeli forces ‘hot pursuit’ into Palestinian territory.

The word from Kerry’s delegation chief Martin Indyk, though, should reassure us all – both sides can sign on to the U.S. framework “with reservations” – meaning it won’t actually have any meaning at all. The framework seems far more tied to Obama and Kerry legacies than to an actual end to Israeli occupation and apartheid. That doesn’t mean that something some people might call a “Palestinian state” won’t someday be declared through this process – it just means that that will be a far cry from a just and comprehensive solution grounded in international law, human rights and equality for all.

As has been the case with earlier U.S. ‘frameworks,’ the Kerry plan is limited to arrangements only for inside parts of the Occupied Territories. The settlements remain in Israeli hands. The borders – presumably the Apartheid Wall — will become the new “border.” Israeli and U.S. soldiers will remain in control of security. A big question will be Jerusalem: The Kerry proposals apparently do call for a Palestinian capital in the city, but it is almost certain it will not mean a real shared capital with the Palestinian flag flying over the center of Arab East Jerusalem. Rather, Israel will almost certainly assert its current revisionist demography – in which the outline of “Greater Jerusalem” extends from Ramallah in the North down past Bethlehem and out east almost to the Jordan Valley – to situate Palestine’s capital someplace like Abu Dis, a dusty village outside of Jerusalem. It abuts what was once the old Silk Road, a narrow potholed street that now dead-ends into the Apartheid Wall.

On the other hand, both Israeli and Palestinian negotiators conditioned their participation in these talks on the understanding that any agreement would require ratification by a popular referendum – something virtually guaranteed to fail on all sides.

In the meantime, the Apartheid Wall continues to be expanded, dispossessing Palestinians from their land as it goes. Settlement expansion continues across the West Bank and East Jerusalem. And in Gaza, the siege continues, with 1.8 million people largely locked inside the walled-in Strip, exports prohibited, and imports dramatically curtailed by the Israeli military. The situation has significantly worsened since the overthrow of elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi last summer and a resulting tightening of Gaza’s crossing to Egypt, and a massive storm last month created dire new humanitarian crises. You can watch my discussion of the Gaza siege here.

In Israel, the Butcher of Beirut, as he was long known, is no more. After eight years in a coma, during which the militaristic hard-right leader was re-branded a peacenik, Israeli General Ariel Sharon was finally pronounced dead. The tributes poured in, including from Secretary of State John Kerry, who paid lip service to occasional disagreements with Sharon, but reassured Israel that “Our nation shares your loss and honors Ariel Sharon’s memory.” For the rest of the world, of course, there is nothing – nothing – remotely honorable in the legacy of Israel’s perhaps most consistent war criminal. You can read the rest of my assessment of Sharon and Sharonism here.

The Good News

On the other hand, beyond the rise of the right and the certain failure of the U.S.-backed negotiations, non-violent economic, political, media and popular pressure is rising against Israel’s violations. The last couple of years’ rise in influence of the eight-year-old global BDS movement, which calls for boycotts, divestment and sanctions until Israel stops violating three areas of international law and human rights, has been dramatic.

Recent victories include the decision by the American Studies Association (ASA), following the examples of the Asian-American Studies Association and the Native American Studies Association to boycott Israeli academic institutions. The decision, supported by an overwhelming majority, led to outrage from supporters of Israel’s occupation and apartheid policies, including an effort by the New York State Assembly to withdraw funding from the ASA. But as AIPAC and the rest of the pro-Israel lobbies (Jewish and Christian) face so many challenges, that effort collapsed, and the Assembly withdrew the bill under a withering attack from defenders of free speech.

Oxfam’s decision to sack super-star Scarlett Johansson because of her high-visibility endorsement of SodaStream, whose manufacturing plant is located in the Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adumim in the occupied West Bank, was another indicator of the discourse shift. Another indicator is the new level of access to the op-ed pages of the most influential newspapers. The New York Times published Avi Schlaim’s “Israel Needs to Learn Some Manners,” exposing Kerry’s initiative as a “clever American device for wasting time,” and three days later published BDS leader Omar Barghouti on “Why Israel Fears the Boycott.” The Washington Post weighed in with Vijay Prasad’s “A Caution to Israel” supporting the ASA boycott call.

The Post finally acknowledged that “talk about a boycott of Israel is in the mainstream.” And the paper noted, for anyone doubting that seismic discourse shifts are underway, that Kerry himself warned Tel Aviv to be aware of “talk of boycotts and other kinds of things,” resulting in a chorus of Israeli outrage.

Action aimed at changing U.S. policy on

Pete and Toshi Seeger

Israel-Palestine has never been more engaged. For anyone interested, in a series of interviews I did with Paul Jay of The Real News, we began with a discussion of how I first got involved with Palestinian rights, after a childhood of active Zionist organizing. (Hint: it has to do with Viet Nam.)

I’m also now on the short-list of candidates to succeed my great colleague and friend Richard Falk as the next United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The selection process is currently underway at the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

There’s a lot more to talk about – the still-escalating crisis in Syria and the Syria negotiations, the dangerous moment in Egypt, rising violence in Iraq and the still-raging war in Afghanistan. Those will have to wait for the moment.

But I did want to leave one more memory of Pete Seeger. It’s hard to imagine going forward without Pete’s unstoppable, grounded optimism, his clear-sighted understanding of the need for songs to move our movements forward. What a gift that we had Pete with us all these years. He remains within the pantheon of our movements’ greats. You can read my appreciation here. Go well, Pete, we’ll carry on your songs from here.

Remembering Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger (flickr/rik walton)

Pete Seeger (flickr/rik walton)

One of our great heroes died last night. At 94, I suppose it wasn’t a tragedy for him, especially since his wife Toshi died last summer after a life of love and shared work, and 70 years of marriage, but what a huge loss. For all of us.

Pete gave us everything — inspiration, humor, organizing, collective empowerment. And Pete – and now his legacy — remain among the most principled and committed of our artists. He never lost his way in the toughest battles — through the civil war in Spain and the depression, through the perils of the McCarthy era when he showed up after being subpoenaed, but refused to testify about his ideas or associations.

“I feel these questions are improper, sir, and I feel they are immoral to ask any American this kind of question,” Pete told the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) witch-hunters. He said he would be glad to sing any of his songs for the committee, but they refused. Pete went on to lament, “I am sorry you are not interested in the song. It is a good song.”

It was always a good song. Through the civil rights movement, where Pete’s role went far beyond his part in reimagining and popularizing “We Shall Overcome.” His Those Three Are on My Mind is perhaps the most powerfully evocative reminder of the assassination of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Schwerner and Michael Goodman in Mississippi in 1964. From the earliest years of anti-war mobilizations, Pete kept our focus on The Big Muddy of Vietnam, as “the big fool said to push on.”

Pete was with us throughout the battles against the post-Vietnam wars, in Central America and apartheid South Africa, and all the wars in the Middle East. I spoke at rallies where Pete sang in 1990 and ’91, against Operation Desert Storm, George H. W. Bush’s war against Iraq. I remember once, during those years, a rally in upstate New York, not far from Pete and Toshi’s home in Beacon along their beloved Hudson River. I came backstage after speaking, Pete was tuning his banjo before heading out to sing. He was chatting with Toshi and friends who had joined him backstage — I didn’t think he had been listening to anyone else on stage. But he pulled me into his circle and said “that was really good — we need that kind of information.”

It was a very hard time — I think it was at that moment when we knew the war was imminent despite all our organizing efforts. While I was too star-struck to say much of anything, it was an extraordinary gift just to hear Pete’s acknowledgement.

Pete was with us in New York on February 15, 2003, when our global movement created the “second super-power” to challenge Bush’s war in Iraq. And he never lost his bearings at those moments of victory that bore within them the seeds of their own limitation or defeat, like the election of Barack Obama. He used every opportunity to push the envelope. Invited to sing at President Obama’s first inauguration, Pete included the usually-forbidden lines to his rendition of Woody Guthrie’s classic This Land is Your Land.

Beyond the summer camp anthem, he sang

Was a high wall there, that tried to stop me
A sign was painted there, said private property.
But on the other side, it didn’t say nothin’
That side was made for you and me.

What a gift that we had Pete with us all these years. He remains among the pantheon of our movements. And like Joe Hill, who charged his followers Don’t mourn, Organize! Pete left orders for us as well. In his 1958 To My Old Brown Earth Pete anticipated this moment, leaving a message for us all.

To my old brown earth
And to my old blue sky
I’ll now give these last few molecules of “I.”

And you who sing,
And you who stand nearby,
I do charge you not to cry.

Guard well our human chain,
Watch well you keep it strong,
As long as sun will shine.

And this our home,
Keep pure and sweet and green,
For now I’m yours
And you are also mine.

Go well, Pete. We’ll take up your songs from here.

Four Things Obama Should Say During his State of the Union Address

President Obama

What should President Obama say during his State of the Union address this year? IPS experts have come up with a few suggestions:

Sarah Anderson commends the administration’s commitment to improve conditions for the poorest among us, but urges Obama not to forget to do something about the “overprivileged” as well.

Emily Schwartz Greco, together with William A. Collins, asks Obama to stop talking about lowering the corporate tax rate, since there would be plenty of cash to go around if only everyone paid their fair share.

Ron Carver calls on Obama to stop pressing Congress to grant his administration fast-track authority to expedite the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and other global deals that are good for corporations but bad for people.

Phyllis Bennis urges Obama to reverse course in the global Syria talks and let Iran participate in them.

What do you think Obama should say in the State of the Union? Weigh in on these issues and others below, and be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter during the address for more commentary from our experts.

An Interview with Rene Gonzalez, of the Cuban 5

November 13th to 16th, 2013 was the 9th International Colloquium for the Freedom of the Five and Against Terrorism held in Holguín, Cuba, at the eastern end of the island, 85 miles west of Guantanamo. The goal of the Colloquium, organized by ICAP (The Cuban Friendship Institute), was to strengthen the unified international strategy to win the release of The Cuban 5; Gerardo Hernandez, Ramón Labañino, Fernando Gonzalez, Antonio Guerrero and René González; men imprisoned in the US for the last fifteen years essentially for fighting terrorism orchestrated in the US. Due to the lack of response from the FBI to stop such attacks, Cuba sent the Cuban 5 to Miami to monitor the organizations perpetrating these acts of violence. The idea was to gather information about similar acts that were in the planning stages in order to derail them before they were carried out.

photo of ReneOne of The Five, René González, was released on October 7, 2011, after serving his entire sentence. On April 22, 2013 René returned to Cuba for his father’s funeral and on May 11, Judge Lenard allowed him to stay there provided that he renounce his United States citizenship. That wasn’t a hard decision for René.

Soon to be released is Fernando Gonzalez in February. While millions worldwide look forward to this, it is not justice. Justice would be for all five men to have never gone to prison in the first place. The other brothers – Gerardo Hernandez, Ramon Labañino, and Antonio Guerrero – have much too much longer sentences to go and should be freed unconditionally. We still have to work for that.

During my visit to Cuba, I had the honor and privilege of interviewing with René:

Netfa Freeman: I just want to ask you, brother, a few questions to help our listeners understand things more, hopefully be fortified with information. I want to say this is an honor and thank you for giving me this interview.

I’m reading Stephen Kimber’s book right now. First is, I understand that you were born in the US. Your family, your parents moved to the US before the Cuban revolution and then ended up moving back afterward. So the first question is really what knowledge and information might your parents have imparted to you or shared with you that gave you your political consciousness and your commitment to the Cuban Revolution? And particularly if you could share how that might have influenced your choice to fight in Angola. You were one of those who served in Angola against apartheid South Africa, to help Angola get its independence.

René González: I want to start by advising everybody to read Kimber’s book. In my opinion it’s the best thing that’s been written about the case. He did great research. He wrote a book which is tied to the facts, to the most elemental things. So it’s a good way to get acquainted with the case, which on the other side is a very complex case. Now you say my parents. They are working class Cubans who by different ways ended up in the States in the 50’s. They met there and I was born in 1956. Then in 1959 came the Cuban Revolution. Since the beginning of the revolution they felt sympathy for the goals and the purpose of the revolutionary process. So they decided to come home in 1961.

It was an interesting time to be in Cuba…

Read the full interview featured in Black Agenda Report.

Demilitarizing the Economy: A Movement is Underway

Military vehicles (MRAPs) being produced in a Charleston, SC factory (Photo: New York Times)

Military vehicles (MRAPs) being produced in a Charleston, SC factory (Photo: New York Times)

End wars. Shrink the Pentagon budget. Reinvest the savings in neglected domestic priorities. It’s a logical progression. Right?

Yes, though we’d be fools to expect too much logic out of our current federal legislature. As we end the longest period of war in our history, we should be entering a period of postwar downsizing—the first since the end of the Cold War. And we are, though it’s been driven as much by budget squeezing generally as by a sense of postwar possibility.

And it’s a shallower defense downsizing than the last one. And the December 2013 budget deal will make it even shallower.

But communities that have been living off post-9/11 military budget surges are beginning to feel the effects of this (so far) modest shrinkage. This is the moment to deepen the defense downsizing, and make it endure. An essential piece of this task is to focus on helping communities and workers build alternatives to dependency on building weapon systems we don’t need.

The Institute for Policy Studies has developed a comprehensive strategy (PDF) for building this alternative economic foundation, linking action at the federal, state and local levels. Here are two of the most exciting developments pushing this forward. They look like the sturdy supports of a movement to me.

State commissions planning for diversification

Connecticut—one of the most defense-dependent states in the nation—is providing one new model for action. In May of this year, peace, environmental and faith groups joined with labor unions to push the legislature to pass “An Act Concerning Connecticut’s Future.” This vague-sounding law contains a visionary mandate: convene a broad-based Commission to come up with a plan to diversify Connecticut’s overly defense-dependent economy. This commission—made up of state economic development directors, legislators, representatives of business groups, the state AFL-CIO, and representatives of peace and environmental organizations—is beginning to meet and will reveal its plan by the end of next year.

Other states are following suit. Maryland will vote on a similar bill in its next legislative session. Wisconsin has one in the works. Activists are pushing the process in Massachusetts, Ohio, Michigan and Minnesota. It’s a growing movement that can become a model for the kind of postwar planning that needs to happen on the federal level.

New federal supports for local transition planning

Since the 1980’s the Defense Department has housed a small office dedicated to helping communities plan an economic transition following a base closing or defense contract cancellation. As the Pentagon budget soared during the post-9-11 years, this office focused almost exclusively on the base closings-half of its mission. Now it is refocusing on developing new tools for defense transition assistance (PDF) that would helping communities adjust to defense contract losses with planning grants and technical assistance.

The Obama administration is beginning to expand this Office of Economic Adjustment, as it’s called, and turn it into a gateway for assistance from other federal agencies, including programs in the Departments of Commerce, Energy and Transportation, for communities in transition.

Local activists can work with their local public officials to put together broad-based community coalitions and use these funds to build models of peace economy transition. The more we do, the more lessons we learn about the best practices for doing it, and the stronger this foundation for a demilitarized economy becomes.

New Economy Transitions From the Bottom Up

In the face of federal legislative dysfunction, more and more progressive initiatives are coming from the state and local levels. The effort to build a peace economy, following the longest period of war in our history, is taking its rightful place in this constellation of progress from the bottom up.

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

This blog originally featured in YES! Magazine.

(Truthout/Flickr)

(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

Warsaw, Poland during COP19 (photo: Lauren Gifford)

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)

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:

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

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

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?

(Flickr/Gamma Man)

(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

Opening statement by the President of COP19 Mr. Marcin Korolec (UNclimatechange/flickr)

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.

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