Not enough will to reach climate unity

There has been a lot of hot air blowing through Durban in the past few weeks and it has not been a berg wind. As I write this we find ourselves two-thirds of the way through the two weeks of climate-change negotiation that is COP17.

There has been plenty of frothing at the mouth and gnashing of teeth about how the conference would be a damp squib. Judging by all the commentary from the host of environmental non-governmental organisations and members of civil society, no one is expecting anything meaningful to come out of Cop17.

But how exactly could anything positive come out of COP17?

After more than a week of covering the event it strikes me that there are too many interests, too many agendas and not enough will to reach a real and meaningful consensus.
Everybody has an issue to push, a report to release or a voice to be heard—and the noise is deafening.

Inside the Durban International Convention Centre politicians and government negotiators go at it hammer and tongs, attempting to reach—or obstruct—a consensus on climate-change targets, depending on their countries’ individual agendas or the corporate lobbyists to whom they are listening.

One level removed, in the Durban Expo Centre, a host of NGOs, governments, corporate lobbyists and youth delegations have stands from which they disseminate their views and participate in the side events that take the form of panel debates.

Then you get to the streets, where the greenies congregate across various platforms and protests to vent their anger at the lack of action they see inside and what they call the “corporate capture” of the climate-change negotiations. Meanwhile, in hotels and office buildings around Durban, you have corporate leaders having friendly discussions among themselves, reaffirming how committed they are to the negotiations.

But when an environmental activist group like Greenpeace attempts to hang a banner from a roof of one of these hotels containing these ­corporate leaders, the police are there to cart off the trespassing activists and deport the international members of the team.

The message is clear: we are committed to climate change as long as it is in our interests—and do not dare to try to rub our noses in the mess we have helped to create.

‘Failure is not an option’
It is no wonder that the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Christiana Figueres, burst into tears on day two of COP17. She was floored by a question from the head of the Consider Us campaign, a platform for the youth to tell world leaders why they should be considered when making climate-change decisions.

During a side event one of the Consider Us organisers asked Figueres for advice on how to deal with the possible eventuality that no agreement would be reached at COP17. “We have been telling these kids that what they think matters. If no agreement is reached, how can I not feel like a charlatan?” she asked.

Figueres began to answer: “There is no plan B because there is no planet B,” said Figueres. “Failure is not an option.” Then she stopped dead in her tracks, tears streaming down her face. “I am 55 and proud of my age, but I know I am on the way out. We have borrowed this planet from our kids and our grandkids.”

It was a telling moment. Having been involved in climate-change negotiations since 1995, Figueres knows everything about the daunting task facing the chosen representatives at COP17.

The first thing that struck me when I arrived at the event was the security. The convention and expo centre have been in lockdown for the past two weeks, with entry only through an intense security-processing system.

I guess this is a reality of having world leaders getting together to negotiate the future of the planet, even though they cannot see beyond their own narrow self-interest and corporate lobbyists.

Someone or something has to protect these leaders from the angry greenies who congregate outside to vent. That task falls to the UN’s very own police force on the inside—and to the eThekwini municipality’s police on the outside.

So, while the negotiations, press conferences and side events run like clockwork inside the convention ­centre, the anger rages outside.

This anger is expressed in many different ways. The Canadian Youth Delegation, for instance, a project of the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition, expressed its anger by hosting a cake sale to raise money to buy influence with the Canadian government. Its logic, of course, was that money was the only language its government understood.

Heads in the sand
Members of the influential Sierra Club, one of the oldest and largest environmental organisations in the United States, buried their heads in the sand on North Beach in a less-than-subtle message to the world leaders and companies they regard as instrumental in obstructing or derailing the negotiations.

The University of KwaZulu-Natal has been a hive of activity, with the Democratic Left Front and the Rural Women’s Assembly hosting a number of events while COP17 is in town. Both groups were involved in a stand-off with the police last week, after a protest moved beyond Speakers’ Corner outside the convention centre and occupied the streets.

The next day, during the main march on the convention centre, both were again involved in altercations with a group of COP17 volunteers, whom they accused of being paid by the eThekwini municipality to disrupt the march, something municipal manager Mike Sutcliffe has denied. The Democratic Left Front is not taking this lying down and has already gone to the police to lay charges of assault after some of its members were allegedly injured by the volunteers.

Although all these shenanigans may be entertaining and grab news headlines, one has to wonder what COP17 really means. Is it, as so many people loudly claim, a giant blast of hot air that is costing an awful lot of money? My take on it is that there are so many agendas and so many interest groups that it would be a miracle if anything ever got done.

Activists chant “leave the coal in the hole” and “leave the oil in the soil” while governments such as China and South Africa argue that these demands are completely unrealistic. Others, such as Canada and the US, stand accused of being obstructionist at the talks.

The ridiculousness of the situation was illustrated for me while I was ­listening to Lucia Ortiz, co-ordinator for the Brazilian chapter of environmental organisation Friends of the Earth, talk during a breakaway session at the Climate Job Summit held at the University of Kwazulu-Natal.

Ortiz recounted how she had read a document circulated by her own organisation that talked about moving towards a “post-carbon society”.

“I thought ‘but our bodies are made up of carbon, what are they talking about’,” said Ortiz.

She also highlighted the problems encountered when governments and the private sector try to roll out green-technology projects in communities without proper consultation with them. One of the examples she gave was of a fishing community, which had solar panels installed in their homes when their main energy need was the oil they used to power their fishing vessels.

Ultimately it all comes down to a few simple realities. The world needs to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels and some fundamental changes need to be made in how we all live our lives.

However, this means difficult ­decisions for governments and potentially catastrophic realities for private-sector players, who are going to fight for their interests tooth and nail.

At the same time there is a lot of money to be made from the green economy and a lot of private-sector players want to get their hands on this money, lobbying for a scenario in which they can reap the rewards.

Meanwhile, there are a lot of idealistic greenies on the sidelines, venting their anger at the inaction they are seeing.

But the more radical they become, the further they push themselves away from playing a meaningful role in the climate-change negotiations.

For the latest COP17 news and special features view our special report.

Lloyd Gedye

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