Last month, as scientists, policymakers and civil society leaders geared up to travel to Chile for the 25th Conference of the Parties of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 25) in early December, the country was making headlines for different reasons.
In mid-October, school students began jumping the gates of Santiago’s subways in protest of fare increases, eventually shutting down the entire Metro system for several days. The coordinated action kicked off mass demonstrations about the country’s rising cost of living and increasing levels of inequality, which are some of the highest in the world.
The state’s reaction to the unrest has been described as harsh and frequently violent: the U.N. high commissioner on human rights is currently investigating numerous claims of torture and sexual violence committed by security forces against protesters. But activists have vowed to stay on the streets until the government meets their demands for systemic change and better social conditions, including the establishment of a constitutional assembly, higher pensions and wages, and affordable healthcare and education.
On 30 October, the Chilean government announced it would no longer host COP 25 – or the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting scheduled for 16–17 November in Santiago – due to security concerns. It’s the first time a host for either gathering has backed out so close to the event. COP 25 will instead take place in Madrid, Spain. But many Chilean environmentalists, scientists and NGOs are disappointed about the shift.
“We had thought that this was an opportunity for Chilean and Latin American organizations to show how environmental issues in these regions are closely linked with climate change – and how we need to take action that aligns with the knowledge of our Indigenous peoples and also of people that work in the field,” says Ezio Costa, executive director of FIMA, a Chilean environmental law NGO involved in COP 25’s climate action social summit. “And we think that the fact that the COP is taking place in Madrid instead of Santiago will put the Chilean and Latin American issues lower down the agenda.”
Costa also thinks that hosting COP 25 would have been a great opportunity to “put onto the global agenda not only the environmental issues but also the human rights abuses that we are facing right now.” He notes, too, that Chilean president Sebastián Piñera’s decision to call off the COP a month in advance suggests that “he thought that in that month, we would still have the unrest going on. And that means that he is not very willing to make the changes that Chilean society is demanding.”
In a press release, Greenpeace Chile national director Matías Asun shared his concern that the Chilean government is showing its reluctance to engage in civil dialogue and uphold its populace’s right to peaceful protest. “It has quit its responsibility to guarantee the full protection of human rights, the restoration of order and the democratic dialogue to build agreements,” he said. “We are concerned about the fact that President Piñera’s government may decide to isolate itself from the international community. We must be able to solve the current problems in Chile with the support of the international community.”
“There’s never been a more vital time for voices to be heard; all over the world, people are clamoring for change,” said Greenpeace’s International Executive Director Jennifer Morgan in the same press release. “The channels for dialogue have to be kept open.”
Maisa Rojas, director of Chile’s Center for Climate Science and Resilience and COP 25 scientific coordinator, highlighted the interlinked nature of the issues of inequality and climate change in a television interview with CNN Chile. “In a very unequal country, there are going to be people who suffer much more from the impacts of climate change,” she said.
She pointed to water insecurity and desertification, which have intensified in the past year due to more extreme droughts and floods in the region, with disproportionate impacts on low-income communities. “And in a country with high levels of inequality, where we are not worrying about ensuring everyone’s well-being, that’s also where we’ll have high levels of pollution and high emissions,” she said. “They go hand-in-hand.”
“I think one of the worst things that could happen would be for us to say we’re not going to participate in these summits because we’re going to focus on our problems at home,” Rojas added. “The demands people are making are linked with climate change. Let’s not think of them as separate things.”
The implications of the shift for the international climate-change-negotiation community are also important to recognize, says Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) climate policy analyst Stephen Leonard, who will attend the event in Spain. “For me personally, this has really highlighted the disconnect between U.N. processes and social circumstances concerning things like equality on the ground,” he says, “if we, as the people traveling in and out of these international meetings, supposedly doing things that are supposed to be of benefit to people on the ground, won’t go to a place where there’s unrest.”
“Those realities on the ground, those inequalities – whether or not they’re inequalities that emerge from environmental conditions or capitalism or something else – are things that we need to be addressing in the context of addressing climate change,” he adds.
Might the change of venue make for a greater focus on inequality in Madrid? Ricardo Bosshard, the director of the Chilean chapter of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), said in a statement that the Chilean delegation, which still holds the presidency of COP 25, is aiming “now more than ever to focus on equity in climate and environmental issues. We hope that this will be embedded in Madrid and that distance will not cause the environmental demands of Chilean civil society to be left out of the negotiations.”
But Leonard thinks the move is more likely to dampen the focus on inequality. “We’re moving to an environment where we aren’t going to be subjected to any protesting of a significant nature,” he says, “so essentially, we don’t get to see that reality of what inequality is triggering in this country.”
On a practical level, he says, the move will likely also exacerbate inequality within the climate negotiation community itself in terms of who is able to attend the event, as poorer countries and civil society organizations may not have the budgets to absorb last-minute changes to delegates’ flights, accommodation and visas.
Costa agrees: “A lot of the people who were coming from around Latin America are not going to be able to be in Madrid, so we won’t have the same networks there,” he says. He also notes that the move has already delayed the government’s delivery of its updated nationally-determined contributions to the Paris Agreement on climate change. “And that’s of course a very bad sign for climate action and for environmental justice here in Chile,” he says.