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Curse of the COP 17 cavalcade

Janice Golding

The UN's power and sphere of influence can be measured by the impacts of its climate change drive.

The UN’s power and sphere of influence can be measured by the impacts of its climate change drive. Evidently, its effort to reduce global warming is the most lamentable process failure in the history of the organisation.

More than 15 years have lapsed since the UN hosted its first Conference of Parties (COP 1) in Berlin. There, in the northern spring of 1995, it broadly defined solutions to climate change, culminating in the Berlin Mandate.

Two years later, the UN passed the Kyoto Protocol which binds the wealthiest and most polluting countries to reduce carbon emissions. To date, several influential economies have refused commitment. The enduring stumbling block is associated with a phrase from the Berlin Mandate, “common but differentiated responsibilities.”

China and India, amongst others, are reluctant to sign without the United States which was not party to the Kyoto Protocol. The Protocol will expire in December 2012. Tabled for discussion at COP 17, is its extension and the Green Climate Fund, a financing mechanism headed by Trevor Manuel, that aims to support the Protocol’s implementation.

Other options are to negotiate a new protocol acceptable to the key players or to continue the deadlock until the Protocol terminates. Many believe that the UN’s effort to reduce global warming has been like an endless corridor in a house of horrors—at every turn, a jack-in-the-box that paralyses and whittles away at whatever hope is left of reaching the end of the corridor.

The continued support for the UN’s climate change agenda lies in its noble vision for curbing global warming. The growing discontent stems partially from the linear force of rigour in its science-to-policy-to-implementation formula. Attitudes and responses to global warming are formed by uneven social and political terrain.

Climate change dogma is largely centred on Western scientific knowledge production and information dissemination deals, and characterised by politicised interpretations of science, disputed values and intensely debated alternatives. The UN has steered the direction of the science, published in successive reports of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The management of scientific controversy and knowledge gaps trivialised dissenting points of view. In raising awareness about global warming effects, such as Lord Nicholas Stern’s Review on the Economics of Climate Change (2006), the UN effectively provoked a global culture of fear for an apocalypse. As a result, norms and values have transformed.

The impact is a social dichotomy of Believers and Unbelievers, akin to Zake Mda’s account in Heart of Redness of the 19th Century prophetess, Nongqawuse, who preached salvation for the Xhosa nation. Most believed that slaughtering their cattle and burning their crops would invoke the ancestors to drive away their oppressors, the British colonisers.

The Xhosa nation might well have been decimated, but for Unbelievers who rejected the prophecies. Climate change Unbelievers may include those who do not grow their own fruit and vegetables or recycle waste, and generally, those who have not yet converted to ‘going green’. In maintaining the moral high ground, Believers play big brother and keep mental score-cards of others’ social goodness.

The UN’s approach has entrenched dominant ideas about climate change, pulling in institutional and political actors. Green businesses have mushroomed. Many are risk-intensive ventures, inspired more by ideology than by the markets, and motivated by the global race for technological intelligence and first-mover advantage.

The call to convert to green economies while countries are drowning in financial deficit may have a similar outcome to the Nongqawuse saga. And if this is not enough, the UN is facilitating international treaties, defining and promoting clearing house mechanisms and the carbon trading concept, and playing a role in the monitoring and regulatory environment of carbon emissions.

Overall, the ‘buy-in’ and transformation process required to implement the Kyoto Protocol has been contrived. Construed by some analysts to be in the interest of participatory rigour and democracy, most think that the protracted inter-governmental debates and civil society engagements are euphemisms for organisational inefficiencies.

The UN’s stubborn persistence with multi-lateralism, despite years of consecutive deadlocks at the COPs (evidence-based failure), is a strategic miscalculation of its confidence to successfully negotiate with world’s current and emerging economic super-powers. This systemic fault-line is fed by “common but differentiated responsibilities”.

The attempt, therefore, to fortify its multi-lateral approach at COP 17 is likely to fail in raising Lazarus from the dead. At this juncture, is it not concerning that a panopoly of national sovereignties, under the aegis of a single global organisation (the UN) has failed in delivering climate change mitigation?

An impact and efficiency review of the UN’s climate change strategy may be required. COP negotiations have long since moved away from environmental and energy science technicalities. Now, they involve rehabilitating tentative foreign relations and building faith in fiscal co-operation under lucrative global economic conditions.

Global treaty-making (and the UN climate change drive) are not exclusive means to address global warming. Alternatives, in the form of existing or new bi-lateral Sino-American and Afro-Sino structures may invigorate interest amongst countries that have repeatedly refused to commit to the Kyoto Protocol, and it may inject renewed enthusiasm amongst those now disillusioned.

Low-carbon tax incentives and investment schemes supporting national climate change priorities can create a more sustainable and effective climate change mitigation culture than the exit options associated with the Kyoto Protocol. All 54 African countries have agreed on a position for contributions towards an Africa Green Climate Fund for adaptation to climate change.

Africa is particularly vulnerable to climate change effects. Altered weather patterns cause the poor to become poorer. The poor must not be viewed as an additional problem in climate change negotiations. They are at the centre of climate change mitigation.

However, the economically marginalised in society are frequently portrayed as abstract phenomena. Referred to in denigrating terms, such as “the bottom billion” or “the bottom of the pyramid”, the heartless benevolence underpinning the vocabulary dehumanises the right to dignity and skews trade-offs in climate change decision-making.

In attempting to recast society’s norms and values, and economic structures, solutions do not lie in conferences but also in home-brewed expressions of environmentalism. The wisdom for creating pillars for environmental justice and social equity within bi-lateral climate change frameworks, perhaps, are deeply embedded in ideologies espoused by individuals like the late Professor Wangari Maathai, Africa’s Earth Mother and first female Nobel Peace laureate.

An ardent supporter of the UN’s climate change initiatives, Maathai demonstrated over more than 40 years, that self-sufficiency and resourcefulness is the gateway to sustainability. Africa’s peasantry, traditionalists and new urbanites retain strong rural connections to nature and her ways.

The rest of us can recall the generation of our parents or grand-parents who lived by simple truths, some of which overlap with contemporary notions of sustainability. The diverse activities and innovations beyond the negotiation halls—in our homes, villages, cities, provinces and states—are addressing global warming. These may not always match the Western interpretation of “going green” and are not articulated as such in “conference-speak”.

Dr Janice Golding is an Honorary Research Associate at the University of Cape Town’s Plant Conservation Unit and writes in her personal capacity.

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