Climate Change: Public Health and Human Survival

Climate Change: Public Health and Human Survival

A common sight around the world: a dried up river bed in Cochabamba, Bolivia

Based on what I’ve read and what I’ve heard from participants who attended COP-15 in Copenhagen last December, the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and Mother Earth Rights held last week in Cochabamba, Bolivia had a completely new tone and a very different guest list. In fact, there was no guest list in Cochabama.

Everyone could attend and there were no locked doors. Rather than limit the most critical discussions to political leaders from the western world, ‘real’ people gathered at the People’s Conference: Indigenous farmers and villagers, local activists, educators, bloggers, etc. Some people arrived in Bolivia already possessing extensive knowledge about climate change and experience in the green movement; others got there knowing almost nothing, but they brought dozens of questions about what exactly climate change is and who it is affecting.

I know that not everyone there considered themselves environmentalists, but I’m fairly certain that most would categorize themselves as social activists. Global civil society came to Cochabamba: We spoke; we listened; we argued; we wrote; we shared our experiences with the world. Now, Cochabamba has returned to normalcy and conference participants have returned to their homes and their work. What I need to know is how can we make sure that the discussions and debates that happened at the People’s Conference are still happening around the world everyday, in offices, living rooms, and public forums?

Bolivia’s conference has been called the “Woodstock” of climate conferences. If this is true, then people should be talking about it for years to come. It’s hard to compare this event to a massive concert that occurred in the 60s, long before I was born, but there were certainly some conference attendees who wouldn’t have looked out of place at Woodstock in 1969: Lots of woven sandals, long hair, and loose-fitting pants. But this wasn’t a convention of hippies. Rather, it was a forum that included everyone. There were state officials present, from countries around the world, but there were also high school students from Cochabamba and European backpackers who’ve been roaming South America for months.

We all gathered for four days to discuss and debate the issues surrounding climate change; now we have the People’s Declaration on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. The document includes an outline of ten rights of the Madre Tierra, what one might call a Bill of Rights for the planet. They are as follows:

* The right to live and to exist;
* The right to be respected;
* The right to regenerate its bio-capacity and to continue it’s vital cycles and processes free of human alteration;
* The right to maintain their identity and integrity as differentiated beings, self-regulated and interrelated;
* The right to water as the source of life;
* The right to clean air;
* The right to comprehensive health;
* The right to be free of contamination and pollution, free of toxic and radioactive waste;
* The right to be free of alterations or modifications of it’s genetic structure in a manner that threatens it’s integrity or vital and healthy functioning;
* The right to prompt and full restoration for violations to the rights acknowledged in this Declaration caused by human activities.

However, these are just words that will mean nothing unless we change the underlying mechanisms in society that support systems of unlimited growth, unrestricted resource extraction, and endless consumption. We must examine capitalism in terms of human rights–if people are allowed to take, take, take, we cannot ignore the people they are taking from! Climate change isn’t coming from the Indigenous people of Bolivia; it’s coming from the United States, China, and Europe. However, the people of Bolivia are already feeling the burn (or the melt), as are millions of poor people around the world who depend on the land for their daily survival. This is why it will be difficult to maintain the dialogue built in Bolivia now that the conference has ended. How many conference attendees will return home and forget their experiences and what they learned in Bolivia? Not many. But what about the people who didn’t attend the conference? They will forget– so we have to remind them. The New York delegation has already started planning meetings to discuss what we can do in the next few months leading up to Cancun; how can we avoid another Copenhagen disaster? We will take our People’s Declaration to COP-16 in Mexico, but how do we know we won’t face locked doors?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I think our best chance is to raise as much awareness about this event as possible and let everyone know that climate change is happening in the United States, even if we may not be able to see it yet. This is a global problem and it’s not just about polar bears and fish. It’s about public health and human survival.

Photo courtesy of Whitney Hoot