Is Bolivia trying to destroy the international climate change regime?

The answer of course is no. Bolivia is actually trying to destroy capitalism. Its constant battle to block the normal schedule of progress in the climate negotiations can surely only be understood as being another theatre in this broader ideological crusade. Or is something a little more sinister going on?

Bolivia’s lead negotiator Pablo Solón (reputedly an unrepentant Trotskyite) distinguished himself at the final showdown in Cancun by insisting on spoiling the party, holding the floor at the final decision-making plenary for what seemed like hours when every other country on the planet – including even Marxist-minded allies like Venezuela and Cuba – just wanted to formalise and celebrate the small amount of progress they had made and then get on the first plane home.

No-one comes here for a holiday

Cancun was important because it put the UN climate change process back on the rails after the difficulties of Copenhagen, integrating most of the controversial ‘Copenhagen Accord’ into a proper ‘COP’ (Convention of the Parties) decision, and restarting the long slog towards a legally-binding global treaty. After the bitter quarrels of Copenhagen, it was heartening to see everyone united in giving the Mexican foreign minister Patricia Espinoza a hearty standing ovation to recognise her skilled handling of the conference.

Everyone, that is, except Bolivia. Now Solón has submitted a statement [PDF] to the UN climate change secretariat demanding that the decision at Cancun be rescinded on the grounds that Bolivia’s objections were ignored by Espinoza when she brought down the chairman’s gavel to conclude the meeting. Under usual UN procedures consensus is necessary to make a decision, and Solón maintains that since Bolivia clearly stated its objection at the time, no consensus was obtained.

The preamble states:

Bolivia views this violation of consensus as a disastrous precedent for the multilateral system and the rule of law and will seek to defend the rights of Bolivia and ensure that rules and procedures apply equally and fairly to all States, large and small.

Legally this is difficult territory. Several other parties at the time, objecting to Bolivia’s blocking stance, insisted that consensus does not mean that a single country can exercise a veto in the face of the entire world. This seems reasonable, otherwise nothing would ever get done. But unfortunately formal rules have never been agreed – the consensus rule operates as custom, but what ‘consensus’ means has never been defined or its operation adopted formally by the parties.

In cases of this kind, countries look to precedent. As it happens, there are precedents in the climate negotiations for individual blocking countries to be ignored: the Kyoto Protocol only came into existence because the objections of the Saudi negotiator were summarily dismissed at COP-1 back in 1997. But blockers cannot always be ignored: only six countries objected to the draft Copenhagen Accord, but they carried sufficient weight to ensure that no consensus was reached, and the Accord was merely ‘taken note of’ rather than adopted as a formal decision.

Many NGOs and activists have sympathy with the Bolivian position. The Bolivians demand extreme action to combat climate change, with a target of 300ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere and a complete cessation of global emissions by 2040. The problem is, apart from the fact that this is dreamland stuff, is that they do not make their demands constructively: their position is more about victim-posturing and blaming capitalism/the rich countries for every receding glacier rather than anything resembling a serious attempt to make progress.

As one sympathetic but frustrated youth delegate blogged after Cancun:

Yep, [they] blocked everything. Understandably, they spoke out against REDD+ [using markets to reduce deforestation], they scoffed at meager commitments, they called for more ambitious action. However, Bolivia also blocked due to typos and missing page numbers; they blocked adaptation funding, technology transfer, a second commitment period of Kyoto. Claiming they were acting with allies, such as the African nations and the small islands states, Bolivia offended countries who were counting on progress in these negotiations.

Now they are blocking again, and it is a fair bet that next week’s ‘intersessional’ climate negotiations in Bangkok will be forced to devote substantial time to procedural issues in the face of this one-state protest movement. This is unfortunate because everyone knows that momentum has to be maintained after the qualified success of Cancun if the next COP in Durban at the end of this year is to sufficiently pave the way for a full legally-binding treaty outcome in 2012 (presumably at Rio+20).

One thing is not entirely clear. Are the Bolivians acting alone out of misplaced ideological passion (as I suggested above) or are they, at least to some extent, acting as ‘useful idiots’ by adopting an extreme G-77 (developing countries) position and hence giving cover to the wider interests of India, China et al? The Bolivian insistence that rich countries are the sole cause of climate change meshes well with the unwillingness of the big emerging emitters to be coralled into adopting any legally-binding emissions caps of their own.

Some clarity on this may emerge in Bangkok, but I doubt it. More likely formal progress will be glacially slow, and informal progress on the sidelines little different. I know the ‘progressive’ Cartagena Dialogue countries are planning a busy programme of action to help speed things along, but the meetings will be extremely technical in nature and devoted in large part to process issues. The first order of the day will be to adopt the proposed agenda. But it is a sure bet that one country flag will be raised – Bolivia’s – and that their aim will be simple: to block.


  1. Emilie

    I disagree with you that their goals are “dreamland” stuff — ambitious, binding targets are not a fantasy, they are a necessity. Yes, Cancun was frustrating but for a number of reasons. Frankly, Bolivia’s objections right now are not the greatest challenge facing the international climate movement. In fact they serve to highlight the inadequacy of the status quo. If you want to point fingers and label countries as dismantling the process, why not Canada, the “colossal fossil” for four years running? Why not USA, the orchestrator of the back room deals that brought Copenhagen down in a hot mess. Not to mention that their “posturing”(your words) puts blame where it rightly belongs — with the developed nations who have profited from irresponsible emissions and unrestrained growth.

    one sympathetic, but frustrated youth delegate

  2. Mark Lynas (Post author)

    Hi Emilie – Thanks! I hope you didn’t feel my quote misrepresented your position. Your article was useful and insightful I thought. And I quite agree: Canada’s position is beyond shameful!


  3. Emilie

    Thanks Mark! I just don’t think Bolivia should be portrayed as “the” problem (although they’re position is … conflicting), when we have other countries doing so much more to hamper progress.

    1. Emilie

      whoops! *their (how embarrassing)

  4. Patrick Bond

    Hang on, Mark, in the documentation you link to, the Bolivian delegation argued that the Cancun agreements were fatally flawed (not a ‘qualified success’) because they would:

    * end the Kyoto Protocol;
    * replace it with a more lax voluntary pledge and review approach;
    * anchor inadequate emission reductions by developing countries of 13‐17% from 1990 levels under the Convention;
    * realize levels of global warming of 4 degrees Celsius, which is unacceptable to humanity and nature; and
    * prefigure new market mechanisms which enable developed countries to further transfer their responsibilities to developing countries.

    Is there anything wrong with these interpretations? If not, then shouldn’t other countries be joining Bolivia to block a fatally-flawed process, and put forward something more akin to what science demands? From a Durban climate justice perspective, the Bolivian stance seems entirely reasonable.


  5. Nick Buxton

    Mark, I am surprised that someone who has drawn attention frequently to the science and the urgent need for action on climate change can put the word ‘progress’ anywhere near the Cancun agreements. You surely know that it was not only deeply inadequate but also stripped out any binding elements from existing agreements, effectively taking us backwards.

    Of course, given the dearth of expectations prior to Cancun and the clear decision by large polluters to do nothing, perhaps you like others felt relieved that at least the parties agreed to carry on talking. But what if Bolivia’s position had been supported by bigger nations? What if other countries had dared to say what many climate scientists say: which is that current negotiations are completely inadequate and will do nothing to stop runaway climate change? Could that not have had a more impact than an empty agreement where everyone went home deluded by the idea they had achieved something?

    The fact is that climate change can not be treated like other issues, where incremental change can be seen at least as better than nothing. Climate scientist Kevin Anderson made this very clear in a compelling opinion piece after Cancun:

    We all know that tackling climate change requires radical action, and needs more and more people willing to say that is what is needed, and putting the onus on those responsible for acting (not on countries like Bolivia that will suffer all the consequences).

    I would hope you would be one of them.

    1. Mark Lynas (Post author)

      Hi Nick,

      Thanks for your response – and Patrick too. A couple of issues occur to me:

      – Bolivia is a big hydrocarbon producer. Not exactly Saudi Arabia, but you get the drift. He who is without sin may cast the first stone… hence the need for us all to work together as constructively as possible.

      – Stances may change in different fora. I’m currently sitting in the same room in Bangkok as Solon discussing the proposed technology mechanism, and his interventions have been extremely constructive. No blocking!

      And yes, we have a lot in common. I’d love to see a concentration target (350ppm) back on the LCA agenda – I’ll raise this in meetings this afternoon, and may post on here in a while.

  6. Chris Pickering

    Perhaps as an international climate ‘regime’ it should be destroyed. Do you really see the COP process leading to any sort of international agreement that will stop climate change? OK so Bolivia got in the way of a slightly-less-catastrophic result at COP16 when compared to copenhagen but it’s nowhere near where we need it to be.

    Using language like “back on the rails” is making a completely unfounded assumption about the destination of this COP process.

    Pablo Solon has rightly said that only ‘global democracy’ can prevent climate tragedy. It was with that in mind that the Bolivian cochabamba summit birthed the badly executed but well intentioned concept of a global referendum on climate change.

    Any binding international agreement worth the paper it’s written on is going to require a radical democratisation of climate negotiations. Why are you so wedded to the COP process?

    The COP process can never work, the sooner we realise that, the better. Or maybe all the summit hoppers actually enjoy the drama.

    And before someone says “oh it’s the best we’ve got”, take a leaf out of Egypt’s book and realise that the shambolic UN climate process is just a piece of paper. It’s not sacred.

  7. Robin Smith

    “Bolivia is actually trying to destroy capitalism. ”

    Can you define what you mean by “capitalism” please? And is that the same thing that Bolivia believes it means too ?

    Do you/they mean a social organisation that employs capital in the production of more wealth? Or do you/they mean something else?

    This sounds very much like another false battle between labour and capital. When monopoly power is probably at the root hidden away laughing at you both.

    Ask yourselves this question:

    “Is it any surprise that rational, fair people are destroying the very thing that gives them life, when there is abundant wealth and no shortage of anything. Nothing. Yet no matter how hard even the western middle classes work, they are getting ever less wages and rents and mortgages always rise in proportion? Who is getting their hard won earnings then?”

    Even the wealthy are in deep fear of not being able to keep food on the table. Climate change is important yes. But its not as important as that!

    If we want to deal with climate change, and REALLY MEAN IT, we must address this first, else nothing will change evidently. This forced opposed to change is far more powerful and will overwhelm us in the end.

    This is essentially what Bolivia is saying. Can you see this? I’m not asking you to agree with it all. Just that you think about it with great care.

    The Robin Smith Institute: The Real Battle

  8. GreenHearted

    I’m glad Chris Pickering mentioned the Cochabamba Agreement. Solon was merely upholding what tens of thousands of us agreed to in Cochabamba. And no, 350 ppm isn’t going to cut it. Those of us who participated in it would not be able to agree with:

    • “misplaced ideological passion” – What is misplaced about it when the whole point of these negotiations is to do exactly as Solon called for (safeguard the future by doing what needs to be done NOW)?

    • Bolivia “acting as ‘useful idiots’ by adopting an extreme G-77 (developing countries) position” – Again, why would you call the only position capable of saving our collective butts “extreme”?

    • “The Bolivian insistence that rich countries are the sole cause of climate change meshes well with the unwillingness of the big emerging emitters to be coralled into adopting any legally-binding emissions caps of their own.” – I’d be willing to bet that Bolivia sees India and China as rich.

    I think the point Bolivia was trying to make in Cancun is that if a large/developed country has the power to scupper agreement at a COP (because of “consensus”), then certainly a smaller, less developed country that is already suffering because of the changing climate should be heard.

    Is there no chance in hell that the international climate negotiations could start doing what all nations agreed to when they signed on to the Framework Convention on Climate Change? Could get some heart and start giving a damn about the poorer countries that are bearing the brunt?

    Yes, it’s frustrating that unheeded FCCC obligations of the developed nations haven’t allowed Bolivia to develop in the right direction (leaving their fossil fuel resources in the ground), but right now, theirs is the only voice of reason in any of these talks.

  9. Kjell Kühne

    Hi Mark,

    I encourage you to fight for 350ppm in the text. But I challenge you to be more daring and work towards reaching some of the “dreamland stuff”. I am sure you are aware that 350 is lower than current CO2 levels, so there is no way other than through zero emissions to get there. And since we are climbing 2-3 ppm a year, we need to get down to zero quickly to stand a chance to ever get back to 350 and also to hold warming under 1.5° in the long run.

    But currently, zero emissions is dreamland stuff. Almost nobody seems ready to face the uncomfortable fact that “low carbon” is nothing more than a first step that needs to be followed very quickly by the next, leading to zero carbon. If we look around, there are no real role models to follow either. No zero emissions country yet. Only one carbon neutral country (Bhutan) and a small number of pioneers who are planning to get there soon (Maldives, Samoa, Costa Rica, Ethiopia). But within my lifetime zero emission lifestyles will have to be the standard again, for all of humankind. And I say again, because it was the global standard, just a few generations ago. It is definitely possible. We will have to replace all fossils with renewables. Plans exist. But it is a long way and an uphill battle. In 1990 the problem was identified. In 2050 it will have to be solved (i.e. global zero emissions reached). 2020 is half way, a good point to take stock. Here is a list of 2020 targets, as you may not know it:
    I disagree that formalizing these numbers would constitute progress. We need to use these ten years for much stronger action.

    And for Bolivia-bashing, I’d be interested in one thing: Why did you not loose a single word about Cochabamba while suggesting a sort of “conspiracy” instead?

    best wishes to Bangkok,


  10. Andrew Bennie

    Hi Mark, I must disagree with your analysis of Bolovia’s position(s) on the climate change negotiations, specifically Cancun. An important framing of your analysis of Bolivia’s “obstruction” is just that – obstruction for the sake of it, within a “broader ideological crusade” (ie anti-capitalism). However, while many commentators and analysts simply dismiss any arguments pointing to the destructive tendencies of capitalist growth without any attempt to debate the issue (as you do in your article), it is surely important that this become a more prominent and open debate. If capitalism is the most pervasive system on earth in terms of its planetary reach and its spread for sources of production and consumption, and the fact that few people on earth are not in some way touched by this system, and if the drive to consume resources and consequently emit the carbon is what has led us to the climate change negotiations, is it not then in some way legitimate to point towards this dominant social and economic system as ultimately the cause of the current climate crisis? That is, it is not simple ideology to draw the link between the ecological crisis and the crisis of accumulation, but rather can be seen as quite a technical argument instead.

    So in summary, it is not sufficient to simply dismiss the anti-capitalist argument precisely because it is anti-capitalist. What is required is reasoned debate that seeks to logically interrogate the anti-capitalist argument and better understand why this very important argument is made.

  11. Jim Thomas

    I like Solon’s example of the firemen and their buckets (see below). When the emperor has no clothes i’d tender its perfectly fine and right for Bolivia to point it out and not go along with the ridiculous charade.


    G77+China and ALBA Back Bolivia in Climate Change Negotiations in Bangkok

    “We would like to express our profound worry due to the fact that two decisions were adopted in the framework of the Cancun climate negotiations despite the formal and explicit objection made by a Member State. We consider this a dangerous precedent that should not be repeated under the Framework Convention on Climate Change,” said Bolivia, Cuba, Dominica, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela in the name of the regional group ALBA (the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our Americas) at United Nations climate talks in Bangkok today. The countries emphasized that “these illegal practices are affecting the Plurinational State of Bolivia, a country that has the same rights as all others, and tomorrow, any other country present here could be affected.”

    During the inaugural session of the climate talks, the G77 and China, a group comprising 131 developing countries, said that “as we move toward Durban [for the next annual climate change conference], the path should be to ensure a multilateral process that is transparent, open, and driven by the Member States, and also brings us toward consensus.” The statement alluded to the fact that the adoption of decisions without consensus in Cancun should not be repeated.

    In its speech, ALBA backed the positions of Bolivia, saying: “We do not consider the results of Cancun a step forward for the Working Group on the Kyoto Protocol, but rather, a step backward.”

    On behalf of the Bolivian delegation, Ambassador Pablo Solón thanked countries for their support and offered the following analogy: “If we compare global warming to a wildfire, we would say that the process of negotiation in Cancun resembled a long meeting of firemen who decided to throw a single bucket of water onto the fire, while declaring, ‘one bucket is better than nothing,’ ‘ the perfect is the enemy of the good,’ and ‘this is just the first bucket’ – then held a press conference to announce that gradual progress was being made, and that they had ‘saved the process of negotiation among the firemen’ while the flames engulfed a town. Solón concluded: “Cancun saved the firemen and their bosses, and now in Durban we have to save the climate and humanity.”

    In order for Durban to be a success, and to avoid a catastrophic rise in global temperature of 4° to 5° Celsius during this century, developed countries must make real, domestic emission reduction commitments of 40 to 50%.

  12. Ian

    I don’t believe that the Mark Lynas who wrote Six Degrees would have referred to Bolivia’s proposals as extreme. How can they be when they are close to what scientists recommend? Surely the positions of the larger countries which propose feeble emissions cuts that will take us to 4ºC and beyond are the extreme.

    How are we supposed to believe that Bolivia blocked over page numbers and full stops? Because some guy with a blog said so?


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