The tough road ahead.

Some weeks ago I was invited to a forum about the compatibility of the free markets and a healthy environment. I honestly didn’t expect to have to defend the basic principles of Climate Change in such a forum, so imagine my disappointment when the first question was if we (me and the other panelists) really believed in Climate Change. I was about to respond when another panelist stepped forward and answered for all of us, with a simple: “Be serious, of course there is a Climate Change”.

The science around Climate Change is clear. Decades of measures proves that the climate is changing. The new IPCC report, due to be presented some weeks from now, will address that the human activity is most likely (95% of certainty) responsible for the change. Better science just confirm these assessments. Richard B. Muller, a professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, and a former MacArthur Foundation fellow was also a well known skeptic. He conducted a long and meticulous study to discredit the IPCC findings. At the end of the study he had no other choice than to recognize the existence of a Climate Change and the importance to take action.

Either for journalistic integrity (if you believe in their good faith) or because of the oil industry lobbies, the popular media tends to give the same time to the scientists who defend and attack Climate Change science, so the people get the misconception that the scientific community is divided in this matter. That is not truth. The vast majority of the scientists are convinced of Climate Change. This point was proved by a recent article that reviewed 11.944 articles published between 1991 and 2011. More than 98% of these articles concluded that there is a Climate Change and that we are responsible for it (John Cook and others. Environmental Research Letters. May 2013).

But, if it is all so clear, why don’t we take action? Well, that’s a very complex question. The long time that will take until the effects are fully visible is clearly a disincentive. The ignorance and apathy are also important. But mostly is because we don’t fully understand the magnitude of the problem. The media throws us gigantic numbers about an upcoming economical crisis and diverse political problems, and we fall in the typical mistake to attend the urgent and forget the important.

Unfortunately the nature don’t stop giving us some incentives to take action. Europe had the worst floods in centuries, USA had the worst tornado season registered, and the changes in the rain patron are threatening South America harvests. The disasters will continue, and will only get worse.

We still have some time, a very small window of opportunity. We need to put the Climate Change in the focus of discussion, and we need leaders that take the difficult decisions that can save the future. It is a tough road, but we can make it.

For now, I subscribe the initiative of climatenamechange.org, and suggest that we start to name our natural disasters after our politicians, particularly those who refuse to recognize an undeniable fact.

Yasuní. Just a brave first step.

Given that some of the richest mineral and oil deposits are placed in important biodiversity reserves, the countries that posses the deposits faces the difficult decision of to exploit it or not.   The complexity of the decision is increased in poor, undeveloped countries. Despite there is always some discussion, the answer tends to be the same. The money is more important. Even the most progressive governments sacrifice their nature in order to get fresh incomes. There was a very honorable exception to this rule: Ecuador.

The initiative.

Since 2004 Ecuador faced an increasing pressure to exploit the oil deposits in the Yasuní. The Yasuní, a natural reserve with extraordinary biodiversity is also home of the Tagaeri and the Taromenan, two indigenous groups that live in voluntary isolation. In 2007 the Ecuadorian government came out with an innovative alternative. The Yasuní–ITT.

Ecuador was willing to keep the oil (about 846 million barrels) underground, with this proposal the territory itself would be preserved and the emission of about 407 millions of tons of CO2 would be prevented; in exchange, Ecuador was asking to the World, but, most of all to the rich countries, to pay 3.600 million dollars, approximately half the value of the oil they would not exploit. A trust fund was created to collect the money, and its administration was assumed by the United Nations1.

There were, of course, encountered points of view around the project. Still, this innovative idea was a whole new vision of the conservation and incorporated concepts such as shared responsibility and climate justice. It was more ambitious that any other environmental protection measure taken so far, and it was the first national scale project built in the spirit of a post-oil economy.

The response.

The initial response to the initiative was generally positive. People in countries facing dilemmas similar to the Yasuní-ITT proposed this project as an alternative to the exploitation, and some developed countries like Germany and Italy expressed his support. Unfortunately the project concurred with the most important economical crisis that the World faced in 80 years, so this was a serious barrier for the fundraising. It’s also important to note that the initiative had a much more shy response among the countries that are responsible for the bigger part of the CO2 emissions.

Without a question the crisis harmed the negotiations and made more difficult for the potential contributors to take action, but the crisis isn’t a valid excuse for the rich countries apathy.

The errors.

Despite its positive aspects there had been mistakes in every step of the project. The first and most important was the B plan. Correa announced that the initiative was the A plan, and that in the possibility that the goals of fundraising were not fulfilled they would proceed with a B plan, consistent in the full exploitation of the oil deposits. This B plan makes some people think that Correa was not serious about the project. Just a few weeks after the Yasuní-ITT presentation, Ecuador took the first steps to the creation of the so called Pacific Refinery. A 2009 intern document from Petroecuador (Ecuador’s state oil company) showed that this refinery would be the destination of the Yasuní’s crude2 . The B plan was the most important obstacle to the fundraising and is the most important cause of the Yasuní-ITT failure.

The B plan and other mistakes eventually provoked that some key characters –like Roque Sevilla former ITT commissioner or Alberto Acosta important sponsor of the initiative- took distance from the project and Correa’s administration. The succession of deadlines that were set by the government (each deadline involving an evaluation of the continuity of the project) made the initiative looked much like a blackmail. This lack of coherence provoked a series of advances and retreats among the countries interested in collaborate with the project, and eventually fully eroded Ecuador’s credibility in this matter.

When he was announcing the end of the Yasuní-ITT, President Correa blamed the World for the failure. In my opinion the accumulation of mistakes by his administration is the main cause of this outcome. In short terms Ecuador failed in the task to sell the Yasuní-ITT to a World that was, as always, reluctant to big changes.

The future.

One task that Ecuador’s government made pristinely well was to sell the Yasuní-ITT initiative to its own countrymen. The response that Correa’s decision had raised shows this success. There are millions of Ecuadorians that think that the Yasuní should be preserved even if the fundraising goals hadn’t been fulfilled, there are thousands that are willing to resist the government’s decision. There is still some hope for the Yasuní.

Hopefully, some decades from now, we will remember the Yasuní-ITT as the first step in the difficult but indispensable road to a post-oil economy.

1 Yasuní-ITT official website (http://www.yasuni-itt.gob.ec/quees.aspx)

2 July 30th 2011. Plan B, ‘el mayor obstáculo’ para que se concrete apoyo a Yasuní. El Universo.