There is no doubt that the current pandemic, produced by the appearance and spread of the new SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, the causing agent of the disease known as COVID-19, has dramatically exposed the great contradictions of the modern capitalist hegemonic civilization model with its structural burden of individualism, racism, patriarchy, colonialism and the destruction of nature. Concern for environmental issues has long ceased to be restricted to small groups of isolated activists or academics. The environment has now become an issue in election campaigns, government programs and international meetings where decisions of global impact are made.
Although the pandemic may seem to have eclipsed the issue, it is actually showing itself to be one of the faces of the global environmental crisis. The destruction of natural ecosystems to impose an agricultural model based on monoculture and intensive animal breeding, extreme amounts of agrochemicals and antibiotics, and guided by the business of food and not the right to food and to make sovereign decisions about what to eat, increases the likelihood of pandemics like the one we are currently experiencing.
It is time to review paradigms and decide whether we choose a "new normality" based on a more humane capitalism, whatever that may mean, with modifications that will obviously not change anything, in other words a “post-normality”; or if we implement real changes that impact the structures of a model that led to the degree of destruction that we are currently witnessing.
In this article I will briefly present the evolution of the global environmental paradigm, using global climate change as one of the symptoms of the crisis of the civilization model with the greatest media coverage, as well as Venezuela's role in that evolution. Next, I will present the Venezuelan proposal of principles and actions to face the crisis, as well as specifically to face climate change, to then culminate with a proposal of an approach for the post-pandemic "new normality".
The environmental issue was formally placed on the global agenda in 1972 when the United Nations organized the First Conference on the Environment in the city of Stockholm, Sweden, which in turn led to the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). In 1979, a group of Academy members led by Swedish meteorologist Bert Bolin, with the support of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), established the World Climate Research Program (WCPR) which set itself the goals of determining (a) whether the climate was changing, (b) whether it was possible to predict it, and (c) whether humans were in any way responsible for what was being observed.
In 1987, the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme was launched. This global and regional research programme sought to link biological, chemical and physical processes and their interactions with human systems. It laid the foundations for what could be called a planetary system science which made it clear that there are processes at a global level that must be studied jointly, interdisciplinarily and not in isolation. In 1988, UNEP and WMO created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), considered the main international body for the assessment of climate change. In 1992 (20 years after the Stockholm Conference), the United Nations organized the World Conference on Environment and Development, known as the Rio Conference, which laid the foundation for three treaties that would become the backbone of global environmental policy: a) the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), b) the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and c) the Convention to Combat Desertification. More specifically, the UNFCCC (hereafter referred to as the convention) is partially implemented by the Kyoto Protocol agreed in 1997 during the Third Conference of the Parties (COP3), the Doha Amendment in 2012 (COP18) and the most recent Paris Agreement in 2015 during COP21.
The climate regime currently in place is the product of a process that can be divided into three phases. The first phase, from 1990 to 1995, involved the negotiation, adoption and entry into force of the Convention. The second phase from 1995 to 2004, from the negotiations leading up to the Kyoto Protocol and its implementation, and the third and final phase, which focuses on the development of a global approach to limit the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of all countries and which culminated at COP21 with the Paris Agreement.
This division into three phases is undoubtedly a simplification of a process that has been much more complex. In fact, underlying this has been the sustained pressure from the so-called developed countries to dilute and make the principles of the Convention disappear. This is especially true of the principle of historical responsibilities as well as that of common but differentiated responsibilities. For example, in COP15 in Copenhagen, a small group of industrialized countries attempted to blur the principles of the Convention, leading to the failure of the conference.
It is important to mention the role played by the countries grouped in the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) in opposing an Agreement that was intended to be imposed without due debate. At that time, the keynote speech of Commander Hugo Chavez gave the final blow to the hegemonic attempts to impose an agenda of the global north. The position adopted and defended by ALBA paved the way to the Paris Agreement which managed to maintain, although weakened, the principles of the Convention.
In spite of the failure of Copenhagen, it marked the beginning of a shift from a "Top-Down" approach (instructions are generated from the Summit to the Parties) to a "Bottom-Up" approach (the Parties propose their own commitments) reflected in the "Nationally Determined Contributions" (NDCs) submitted by each country. In these NDCs, countries voluntarily commit to reducing their emissions and propose a series of measures at the national level for both mitigation and adaptation. The latter is considered optional given that countries such as the US refuse to include adaptation as part of the commitments as it would involve transferring funds to the global south.
We have seen that global environmental changes are unprecedented in the history of the Earth and it is a fact that there is discussion at the highest level of various proposals that would allow these changes to be slowed down and their effects "softened". It is also a fact that when we talk about global environmental changes, we are not only referring to changes in the biophysical environment. It is about changes that deeply affect society economically, socially, politically and culturally.
But reaching agreements between countries with different degrees of responsibility, with different political, economic and even epistemological visions about the history and causes of the changes is not an issue devoid of tension and conflict. These tensions go beyond those between countries and are also present within regions, countries and localities. There are tensions between governments but also between national and local governments, between government bodies and social movements or local organizations. These tensions all reflect conflicting visions of society.
The environmental policy of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela has antecedents that date back to the times of the liberator Simón Bolívar, but it wasn't until the 20th century that special laws were sanctioned to deal with environmental issues. The first National Parks were established and a special institutional framework was set up. These policies do not differ from those adopted by other Latin American countries and basically internalize the precepts and orientations emanated from international and multilateral organisms.
In 1999, President Hugo Chávez began a process of transformation by establishing the National Constituent Assembly as a first milestone in the refounding of the Republic. The constitution drawn up there and endorsed by popular consultation establishes crucial elements such as the concept of participatory and protagonist democracy and that of co-responsibility. In Hugo Chávez's vision, the aim is to strengthen the exercise of sovereignty without seeking to abolish representation, but rather to articulate the relationship between constituted power and constituent power. This clearly aims to resolve one of the aforementioned tensions between state bodies, social movements and popular organizations.
Next I would like to highlight laws and articles that show the orientation of public policy on environmental matters in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. These must be placed in the context of the above-mentioned concepts of participation, protagonism and co-responsibility of the people in public management and the implementation of public policies within a process of social transformation.
The Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (CRBV) is explicit in articles 127, 128 and 129 regarding environmental rights. They establish that (i) it is a right and a duty of each generation to protect and maintain the environment for its own benefit and for the future world, (ii) everyone has the individual and collective right to enjoy a safe, healthy and ecologically balanced life and environment, (iii) it is an obligation of the State, with the active participation of society, to guarantee that the population functions in a balanced environment, (iv) the State will develop a territorial planning policy that takes into account ecological, geographical and cultural realities, (...) and (v) any activity that could generate damage to the ecosystems must be accompanied by environmental impact assessments. These articles and other sections of the CRBV also stipulate that popular consultations must be held in order to make decisions that affect ecosystems and impact the population. In other words, participation in decision making as a full exercise of sovereignty.
The purpose of the Organic Law on the Environment is:
to establish provisions and guiding principles for environmental management within the framework of sustainable development as part of the fundamental right and duty of the State and society to contribute to the security and to achieve the greatest well-being of the population and the sustainability of the planet in the interest of humanity.
A series of special laws subordinated to this law govern particular matters such as the Law on Biodiversity Management, Law on Forests and Forest Management, Law on Seeds, Law on Water, Law on Integrated Waste Management, Law on Hazardous Substances, Materials and Waste, etc.
The aim here is not to present an exhaustive compilation of the legal body that governs environmental matters in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, but rather to show that a legal compendium has been developed and is constantly being revised, and that the co-responsible participation of the people is always present in this legal body. In spite of this, global environmental change only appears indirectly or implicitly in all these laws, and it was not until the approval of the National Social and Economic Development Plan 2012-2019 (Plan Patria) that the subject of "climate change" was explicitly mentioned. Plan Patria has since been converted into a law of the Republic and, in 2019, was extended to 2025.
Plan Patria establishes five historical objectives, each with national, strategic and general objectives. Although the five historical objectives overlap, the fifth objective highlighted here reads as follows:
To contribute to the preservation of life on the planet and the salvation of the human species.
Included within this historical objective are, among others, the following national objectives:
National Objective 5.1. To contribute and promote the eco-socialist productive economic model based on a harmonious relationship between man and nature that guarantees the rational, optimal and sustainable use and exploitation of natural resources, respecting nature's processes and cycles
National Objective 5.2. To protect and defend the permanent sovereignty of the State over natural resources for the supreme benefit of our people, who will be its main guarantors
National Objective 5.4. To contribute to forming a great global movement to contain the causes and repair the effects of climate change that occur as a consequence of the predatory capitalist model
The latter includes the fight for the preservation, respect and strengthening of the climate regime formed by the Convention and its Kyoto Protocol, the opposition to market mechanisms, the design of a mitigation plan as a voluntary national contribution and the design of a national adaptation plan.
This legal and political apparatus will lay the foundations for the position that Venezuela has maintained in the international arena, particularly in climate change negotiations.
Venezuela's NDCs develop the principles on which the country's position in international scenarios is based. They are rooted in the CRBV and a series of political elements reflected in public policies, not without tensions and contradictions. The presentation begins by acknowledging the past struggles for independence and making it clear that the ideals of justice, freedom, democracy and inclusion guide the nation's policy as well as its anti-colonial and anti-imperialist position. The document expresses the conviction that capitalist values such as consumerism, individualism and unlimited growth are the basis of the current environmental but also political and social crisis of civilization. The document continues by stating that:
Capitalist values must be replaced by values based on justice, solidarity, community life, harmony with nature and respect for its cycles, respect for indigenous and peasant values and knowledge. In other words, they must be replaced by eco-socialist values
The fight against climate change is thus a struggle between two models and visions of society. On the one hand,
Developed countries seek to perpetuate the hegemonic systems that favour them, strengthening patterns of consumption, production, control, domination and markets that enrich their dominant elites (... and on the other hand...) developing countries demand the right to eradicate poverty and choose their own forms of development without suffering the consequences and carrying the burden generated by unsustainable levels of consumption of the so-called developed countries.
In its NDCs, Venezuela insists that the fight against climate change must be based on effective but also fair and equitable strategies that must consider historical responsibilities and contribute to reducing (not deepening) the inequities that affect many countries and social sectors. Emphasis is placed on the commitments and principles acquired by the signatory parties to the Convention, in particular those referring to the common but differentiated responsibilities. Further focus is placed on the priority of eradicating poverty for developing countries and - as ratified in Rio + 20 - on each country's right to decide its own forms and ways of achieving sustainable development. The right to self-determination is always present in the country's position.
Another important element set out in these NDCs is that people, represented in their governments, are recognized as the legitimate entities to mediate and balance the different sectors and interests within their countries, and not private companies. This was an element of heated debate during COP21 and continues to be a source of controversy in current negotiations. It is also in this context that Venezuela is opposed to turning the negotiations into business rounds to discuss market mechanisms that will eventually become spaces for the enrichment of private companies and will contribute little or nothing to counteract the effects of climate change.
We can thus summarize Venezuela's position in the climate change negotiations in the following points:
In this context, Venezuela has carried out a series of actions that are set out in its NDCs. Some of these actions had not been formally presented in the context of the fight against climate change before, although they have a direct or indirect impact on it and are presented in the NDCs.
Although Venezuela is only responsible for 0.49% of global greenhouse gas emissions (0.18 GTon CO2eq/year) by 2010, it had committed to a National Mitigation Plan (established in Plan Patria) that involves reducing emissions by 20% by 2030 compared to the "inertial scenario" in which no mitigation action is taken. It is important to note that the emissions values produced by Venezuela are so low that they fall within the margin of error of the values estimated for the United States, the European Union or China. This has however not caused Venezuela not to take action against climate change. Some actions already underway in the context of mitigation policies are:
With regard to risk reduction and adaptation plans, the following could be mentioned as examples:
These are examples of laws and specific actions resulting from commitments acquired in international scenarios mixed with the guidelines that have directed the process of changes underway in the country for almost 20 years. A process which, despite the imperial siege and the illegal blockade to which we have been subjected by the United States, is being maintained by titanic efforts. This is why Venezuela is taking action to protect its forests by decreeing National Parks (a guideline of the Convention on Biological Diversity), but also by promoting alternative forest development that respects local cultures. We do so outside the framework of programs with a neoliberal vision such as REDD+, and use means which are more in line with the transition to an eco-socialist society as dictated by the Economic and Social Development Plan. It is a mixture of actions that do not escape internal tensions and that, in the case of Venezuela, we could attribute to that time when - paraphrasing Gramsci - the old is dying and the new cannot be born.
We have witnessed intense negotiations to establish mechanisms for the implementation of the CC Convention through the Paris Agreement, where even the principles of the Convention have been questioned and where "business opportunities" seem to impose themselves on the interests of Mother Earth and therefore of Humanity itself. The Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos has said that we cannot solve a modern problem by applying modern solutions.
This brief history that I have told shows how, from multilateral spaces, attempts are being made to mitigate climate change without questioning its structural causes, resulting in a situation that is only getting worse. From Venezuela, in the midst of the inevitable contradictions and under the international siege led by US imperialism, attempts are being made to act locally with an alternative eco-socialist vision, while at the same time taking those positions to the multilateral spaces. In a situation of siege imposed by unilateral coercive measures by the US and its allies, that clearly violate international law and undermine the foundations of multilateralism, Venezuela's struggle is even greater and merits the enormous efforts to maintain the work that will allow us to achieve the proposed goals, even more so when the pandemic produced by COVID19 has affected the dynamics of countries and entire peoples on a global scale to such an extent.
Currently, there is much talk about the post-pandemic and the world to come. At first, videos of animals wandering through empty streets, dolphins approaching the coasts and entering the canals of Venice, cougars on the streets of Santiago de Chile, wild boars roaming the suburbs of several Spanish cities were spread on social networks and there was talk of a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions at a global level. Then, those who, with naïve optimism, said that it is indeed possible to stop pollution, to mitigate climate change, slow down the pace and achieve a more harmonious world appeared.
This "naïve" vision puts forward the possibility of changing the world without changing anything. Speeches disguised as progressive applaud the International Monetary Fund's measures or the declarations of leaders who openly promote neoliberalism when they talk about increasing taxes on the richest people or improving access to health care. The truth is that the paralysis of industrial activities at a global level only achieved a fleeting 17% reduction in daily emissions during the month of April and many indicators related to climate change are reaching non-return values such as the rise in sea level or the degree of melting of permafrost in Siberia. And this is just one aspect of the socio-environmental crisis manifesting itself in many other ways such as the accelerated loss of biodiversity, the threat to indigenous knowledge systems, and the projection that the seas will hold more plastic than fish by 2030.
Capitalism as a system and model did not come to a standstill. The change we have to make must be structural if we are to save humanity, and the measures taken must be comprehensive and truly transformative. Vijay Prashad, on behalf of the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research, recently proposed 10 points or lines of action to build a post COVID-19 world. This proposal was made within the framework of the High Level Conference on Post-Pandemic Economy organized by the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, moderated from Caracas by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. The proposal includes: 1. attacking the pandemic, 2. expanding medical solidarity, 3. creating common intellectual heritage, 4. canceling foreign debts, 5. expanding food solidarity, 6. improving the public sector, 7. implementing taxes on fortunes, 8. establishing controls on capital, 9. regional trade not based on the dollar, and 10. centralizing planning by decentralizing public action.
Just as you will not end racism by putting a few racist police officers in prison, you will not control climate change or the pandemic(s) with one-off measures that only seek to soften the structural causes of the problem. The proposal of the Tricontinental Institute is worthy of debate. They are proposals born from the global south based on experiences generated in the global south. Both climate change and the pandemic are global problems and require comprehensive action, solidarity, fair exchanges and international relations that are maintained within the framework of international legality and respect for the free self-determination of peoples. The proposal of the Tricontinental goes in this direction and that is what the progressive movements of the world should aim for.
We should be wary of proposals generated from the global north that deny the experiences of the south and try to disguise the positions of those who are part of the problem and really represent the structures of neoliberal power as progressive. This includes proposals made by those in the global south who, from a supposedly neutral point of view, are trying to promote reforms that will end up favoring neoliberal capitalist power. The pandemic has put us in a situation that may well lead the world towards fascism and extreme nationalism or towards a better world of equality and respectful relations between peoples. It is a time of definitions and the progressive movement has a great opportunity to promote and enable the necessary transformations that will lead us to that other, better world that we all dream of.
Guillermo R Barreto is a Venezuelan biologist. He is a professor at Simón Bolívar University involved in environmental issues, biodiversity management, science and technology management, and decolonial thinking.
Photo: Gosia Malochleb / Flickr