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As protests rock Chile, COP25 move shines a spotlight on inequality

With just a month to go to the 2019 United Nations climate talks, protests over economic inequality and high living costs have forced Chile to withdraw as host country. If governments want to fight climate change and avoid social unrest, tackling inequality must be part of the equation, say observers.

As Chile’s recent withdrawal as host of this year’s United Nations climate change conference shows, both climate and social justice are crucial to averting the worst impacts of a warming climate. 

Last week, protests over economic inequality and high living costs escalated in Santiago, Chile, where the 25th Conference of the Parties (COP25) was scheduled to take place in December.

As the unrest turned violent, with reports of clashes between police and protestors, President Sebastián Piñera called off the climate talks, saying that his government would focus efforts on “fully restoring public order, security and social peace.”

Natalia Gomez Peña, networks engagement officer at international civic action non-profit CIVICUS, called the withdrawal “ a complete affront” to Chilean civil society which had called on the government to withdraw the military from the streets before hosting the climate talks.

“It is a sign that the government does not recognise that the social unrest is also an environmental crisis. Environmental activists in the country have denounced how the country has been growing for many years at the expense of the most vulnerable people and the environment, forcing entire communities to bear the burden of poorly managed and short-sighted development,” said Peña. 

Alejandro González, a senior adviser on climate change in Latin America for the United Kingdom-based relief agency Christian Aid, echoed in an interview: “The protests in Chile are an important reminder that transformation must be undertaken to address both inequality and the climate crisis, and that climate justice and social justice cannot be treated separately.”

COP25 has since been moved to Madrid, Spain, after governments scrambled to save the talks before national commitments to curb emissions meet their deadlines in 2020. This year’s climate talks are key to putting the 2015 Paris Agreement into practice and pave the way for more ambitious commitments at next year’s COP, say experts.

A people’s climate summit?

This is the first time the talks have been forced to move with just a month to go, and the second time COP25 has had to switch venues. Initially set to take place in Brazil, the conference was suspended and moved to Chile after President Jair Bolsonaro and his climate-skeptic government rose to power.

“COP will now take place in Europe for the third time in the past four years meaning that civil society from Latin America—the most dangerous region in the world to be an environmental defender—will not be heard,” said Peña. “This is particularly devastating for Chilean and other Latin American civil society groups that had hoped to use the COP to draw attention to human rights challenges in the region as the escalating climate crisis fuels new conflicts over access to natural resources and economic inequality.”

According to Chile’s national human rights institute, thousands of people have been detained and hundreds injured since student-led protests began in Santiago on 17 October as a response to a hike in public transport fares. The demonstrations have since spiraled to mass riots over the rising cost of healthcare and high unemployment rate. 

The protests in Chile are an important reminder that transformation must be undertaken to address both inequality and climate crisis, and that climate justice and social justice cannot be treated separately.

Alejandro González, senior adviser on climate change, Christian Aid

Among the demands raised by protestors are more equal access to Chile’s natural resources and an end to the environmental destruction wrought by industry. Protests signs also called out the almost total privatisation of water in Chile, which has exacerbated the inequality engendered by “deregulated markets” and “privatised social security systems.”

“The fact that this COP would be held in Latin America and the Caribbean would have given us an excellent opportunity to discuss the challenges the region has in the face of an unfair system that deepens climate change effects while driving profound inequalities,” said González.

Global climate justice movement 350.org wrote on its website that “the protests get at the very heart of what global climate talks should be addressing: the huge and expanding gap between the rich and poor, the fact that so many people are denied their basic rights, and an economy that prioritises big business and polluters over the needs of everyday people.”

Since Chile relinquished its role as host of COP25, 350.org has called for a People’s Climate Summit that marginalises fossil fuel companies and big polluters, and instead gives voice to frontline communities, environmental defenders and civil society.

“We support the request of 350.org for a people’s climate summit,” said Peña. “There won’t be any effective climate action if states don’t commit to guarantee a safe environment for those fighting for climate on the frontlines, in the streets or in climate negotiations.”

Civil unrest—harbinger of a warmer world?

Elsewhere in the world, communities disenfranchised by their country’s socio-economic system and new measures to curb carbon emissions have poured onto the streets to march against their government. In early October, the removal of a 40-year-old fossil fuel subsidy in Ecuador led to massive protests as the price of gas and diesel shot up.

Last year, France’s Yellow Vest Movement made global headlines when a carbon tax raised the cost of fuel, igniting fierce opposition from the country’s rural and working classes. As governments work to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, policymakers are also struggling to balance the tension between much-needed climate policies and the impact on the daily cost of living.

“The current events further highlight the social inequity dimension of climate change and the need for just transitions that involve the people who are currently feeling left behind,” wrote Ivonne Lobos Alva, a research fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute Latin America. 

Studies have further shown that the more unequal countries are, the higher their carbon footprint tends to be, especially in wealthier countries. Where economic and political power are concentrated in the hands of the rich, societies are also less likely to be socially cohesive and engage in collective action to combat climate change or demand pro-environmental policies.

“This time there is also another important dimension to the protests: social unrest as a reaction to worsening inequality has the potential to derail multilateral cooperation on climate change and other global issues,” wrote Patrick Schroeder, a research fellow on circular economy at London-based policy institute Chatham House.

The cancellation of COP25 in Latin America has also sparked worries that the new venue will sideline voices from the region and developing nations in the Global South, as traveling to Europe will be much more costly.

“Unlike government and business delegates to the COP, representatives of environmental movements, including Indigenous peoples, young people and grassroots activists from the Global South have few financial resources,” said Peña. “We hope however that the current circumstances make that the issue of climate justice and inequality will be central at this year’s COP.”

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