The UN climate change talks in Cancun are about to conclude. But for millions of people across the world, the awareness of climate change does not rely on the media, or the ebb and flow of global negotiations. It is a terrifying reality. Bringing greater vulnerability to lives already precarious.
I have yet to meet a small scale farmer who has not noticed the shifts in weather patterns affecting their livelihoods. And who does not fear for the future of themselves and their families. These are people struggling to survive on the edge of a precipice. They remain the forgotten and unheard voices in the climate discussions.
Among the many participants at the Cancun meeting is a small group of representatives from the Fairtrade networks in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Their message is a simple one: provide small farmers with a fair return for their products, invest in them as individuals and as organised groups, genuinely act to empower them, and they will find their own solutions to the crisis they face. Already within the Fairtrade system we see examples of smallholder cooperatives working together, finding new production techniques, testing new crops and reducing their dependence on high carbon inputs.
In Uganda members of the Gumutindo coffee cooperative have reduced water stress on coffee bushes caused by reduced rainfall by increasing soil mulching to preserve moisture, planting trees to increase shading and reusing water. In Costa Rica the COOCAFE Fairtrade certified cooperative have invested in water efficient systems for washing coffee beans and have developed systems to use coffee skins and Macademia nut shells as fuel for drying the beans. In Ghana the Kuapa Kokoo continues to extend credit to ever greater numbers of small scale cocoa farmers, providing them with the opportunity to adapt and diversify. All small steps in the face of enormous challenges maybe. But there are practical, and valuable, lessons to be learned here.
And climate change, as serious and urgent as it is, can also be seen as a symptom of something deeper. The global economic and political system is failing to deal with climate change, just as it is failing to reach agreement on a pro-poor global trade deal in the WTO and failing to get to grips with the underlying causes of the economic crisis.
In advance of the talks, the policy makers and advocacy groups have been working overtime, thrashing out proposals, debating the details and analysing the science and economics behind each new idea. But the question that lurks beneath all of this activity is geopolitical. After all the detailed policy debates, the outcome of last year’s Copenhagen conference hinged on a final showdown between the US and China – the most powerful players.
Never mind the science or the policy options, what really matters is who wields the greatest power. Has anything changed in the last year that may shift this dynamic? It really isn’t clear it has. Ultimately it is this issue of power that lies at the very heart of the climate change debate and how the future of our global economy plays out.
Look at the issue of climate finance. As part of a post 2012 climate regime, the world needs to come to an agreement on how we will pay for the transition to a low carbon economy. But we also need to pay to prepare for the impacts of the climate change we are already locked into.
What does not bode well is that the percentage of climate finance so far to deal with the inevitable mess we have created is only 8% of the total funds released to date. In this statistic lies a simple truth. There is money to be made in mitigation, through efficiency gains, carbon trading, technology development. The powerful players in our economy can see where their interests can be accommodated. Those who are most exposed to climate change are not powerful. Their voices are rarely heard on the global stage and they rarely figure in the economic calculations of powerful governments and multinational companies.
The experience of Fairtrade shows that the simple act of creating a fairer distribution of benefits from trade can provide an opportunity for small scale producers to take action to secure their futures. But so much more is needed. Economists will tell you that a rising tide will lift all boats. That poverty reduction is not a zero sum game and that global economic growth is the answer to all our woes.
But perhaps, what matters in finding solutions to global problems like climate change is not just money, but power. And power IS a zero sum game. You cannot empower one party without removing power from another. At the moment we see power shifting from West to East. But not from rich to poor. If this doesn’t change, a global deal may be reached but it won’t be a deal the communities on the frontline of climate change are looking for and urgently need.
Toby Quantrill is head of policy at the Fairtrade Foundation