What Will Be Missing at Next Month's Climate Talks

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The world order was further roiled this week when a Evo Morales stepped down as Bolivia’s leader amidst a military-led coup. Jeanine Áñez Chavez, a right-wing senator, usurped the presidency on Monday. And though she vowed to hold elections, it’s under her leadership that Bolivia will enter next month’s climate negotiations in Madrid.

In the grand scheme of things, Bolivia is a bit player, climate-wise (it’s responsible for just 0.06 percent of the world’s carbon pollution) and economy-wise (South America’s poorest country). But under Morales—and particularly during his early years as president—it’s also been a consistent advocate for international climate policies that would require wealthy polluting countries to pay for the damage they’ve wrought and for an end to extractive capitalism.

Small countries’ votes count just as much as large ones, which helps even the playing field. Moreover, previous climate talks have shown that bit players can play an outsize role either by banding with other tiny countries to extract concessions or taking a moral high ground to illustrate the hypocrisy of big emitters. With a new right-wing government at the helm in Bolivia, it’s likely that other smaller countries advocating for radical action have lost a partner, and the whole world could suffer.

International climate talks won’t begin for a few weeks, but they’re already kind of a mess. They were supposed to be hosted by Brazil, which passed the buck to Chile, which, in turn, passed the buck to Spain as far as venues (Chile is still technically the chair). The Bolivian coup isn’t quite on the level of those disruptions, but it could still have an impact on the talks.

To understand why, you only have to look at the Paris Agreement and language about trying to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Specifically, the text calls for keeping the global average temperature “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.” That didn’t happen out of the kindness of big emitters’ hearts. Instead, small island states maneuvered to get the language in there because their ability to survive, let alone thrive, is in doubt if warming goes past that threshold. They essentially pushed the big emitters to fall in line.

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In the early years of Morales’ presidency, Bolivia also played a radical role at climate talks. Negotiators pushed a Marshall Plan for the Earth. They also argued that rich countries owed a climate debt to developing countries because they had used up almost all the space in the atmosphere to stash carbon pollution in their rush to develop. Bolivia was central to pushing a proposal in the run up to 2009 climate talks, calling it a “fair, effective and principle-based approach for addressing climate change.”

The value of such an approach is clear to countries like Bolivia. Its GDP per capita is a shade less than $3,400 per year, which means it both has a need to develop and precious few resources to do so in a sustainable manner. It also faces numerous harms from the climate crisis as its glaciers shrivel and water supplies become more erratic for millions of people. Dozens of other countries are in similar predicament and backed the climate debt proposal as a result.

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The push was ultimately unsuccessful in terms of being adopted, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth it. Small island states spent years lobbying for 1.5 degrees Celsius to be included as part of an international climate agreement. In 2015, the year the Paris Agreement was hammered out, the stars aligned with increasingly dire science and a push from civil society right before the summit.

The scientific and civil society pressure has kept growing and is at its highest point in years. The climate talks next month represent a chance to push for more ambition, and small countries could be the drivers. Yet it seems like a safe bet to say that Bolivia’s new business-friendly government won’t be leading the charge. It’s the rise of right-wing governments globally, including Jair Bolsonaro in neighboring Brazil and Donald Trump in the U.S., that have dulled climate ambitions at the exact time they need to be ramping up.

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“You worry with the moves that are happening Latin America that those voices now might be nonexistent,” Nicole Fabricant, an anthropologist at Towson University, told Earther. “I’m not sure who from Latin America at this moment will be representing that global south push.”

Morales moderated Bolivia’s approach to international climate negotiations over his more than a decade in power. And to be sure, his environmental legacy at home is a complicated one. He nationalized the oil and gas industry and then allowed it to expand, including in protected areas. While Morales may have capitulated on his previously hardline stances on climate policy, his shift also held the potential for greater international cooperation.

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Losing Bolivia and its tiny moral center of gravity is likely to further erode the bloc of countries pushing for the bigger structural shifts needed to avoid catastrophic climate change. And that’s concerning, no matter where you call home.

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