A View of the UN Climate Talks in Durban, South Africa

Of Elephants and Blind Men and Noah’s Ark and Elephants Again

Like the parable of the three blind men coming upon an elephant and determining, each on his own, that this thing before them is a tree trunk, or an enormous boulder, or a thick scaly snake, one’s perspective on the events here at COP17, the UN Climate Summit kicking off today in Durban, South Africa, reflects one’s position and willingness to grope with searching hands in the dark.

But no matter where you come from, if you are actually concerned about the climate crisis, it’s going to be an ugly two weeks.

The science tells us that maintaining global temperature rise to 2 degrees centigrade – the current best case scenario – will lead to the inundation of coastal areas, loss of glaciers, and a tremendous toll in human lives and species lost, but may – just may – prevent what climatologist James Hansen calls, forebodingly, the “Venus Syndrome.” But given the gridlock in the UN negotiations and the absolute unwillingness of the most polluting nations to reduce their carbon emissions, a mere 2-degree rise is increasingly unlikely.

The politics, by and large, revolves around a tug of war between the wealthiest and most polluting nations ( whose goal is to maintain steady economic growth, though this dooms us to the Venutian future), the so-called emerging economies such as China, India, Brazil, and South Africa (whose goal is to grow large enough, fast enough, to gain a hearty middle class, while doing their fair share to contribute to Venus-on-Earth), and the poorer nations (whose struggle, as always, is just to survive). And, finally there is the great, multitudinous, heterogeneous beast we call civil society – those of us who represent neither national interests, nor ‘scientific’ concerns (though climate science forms a strong basis for our positions). Civil society in its bulk is the vast representation of women, Indigenous Peoples, youth, peasant farmers, labor, and ordinary folk who come to be gathered under such technocratic nomenclatures as “the poor,” “the vulnerable,” “the marginalized populations,” and now, in the powerful parlance of the Occupy movement, “the 99 percent.”

For the 99 percent, the climate crisis is neither about settling a scientific debate (the scientists have that pretty well sealed up), nor about safeguarding an already dubious multilateral agenda (if the 16 previous Conferences of Parties haven’t forged a solution, why should we expect one now?) Rather, it is about ethics, about human rights, and specifically the rights that UN parlance calls economic, social and cultural rights (food, water, shelter, health, political participation). For many, in short, the concern in Durban – as in Cancun and Copenhagen previously – is for justice.

The previous climate summits have made it painfully clear that, at the top levels, government ministers, heads of state, and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) itself, is more about form than content. Last year, in Cancun, after the spectacular debacle of the failed talks in 2009 at Copenhagen, the concern among global leaders was less about saving the climate than about saving face. Those clamoring for justice in Cancun – a delegation of thousands from civil society – were fenced out, and kept literally miles away from the talks. They were the 99 percent.

The Cancun Agreements, as the latest global climate accord is called, sealed in a process that abandoned mandatory global greenhouse gas reduction goals – the essential purpose of the Kyoto Protocol – for a voluntary system with no global goals at all.

Since the first Conference of the Parties, in 1994, annual CO2 emissions have risen by around 40 percent globally. Part of the blame can be laid on the market-based mechanisms ensconced in the Kyoto Protocol from the beginning, such as pollution offsets, carbon markets, and the Clean Development Mechanism (an arrangement to have ‘clean’ projects in the Global South earn credits they then sell to speculators on the carbon market). Each of these market-based efforts at climate mitigation has proven inadequate at best and counterproductive at worst.

The reality is that to stave off the Venus Syndrome – indeed, to maintain temperature rise to 2°C – the better part of known reserves of fossil fuels must remain untouched in the ground. But to the contrary, while the UN stalls and governments stonewall, corporations and the World Bank continue to invest wildly in expanding the fossil-fuel frontier through deep-sea drilling and exploitation of shale gas and tar sands, scraping the bottom of the oil barrel and locking us into a path of high emissions and a toxic future. Venus, here we come.

In a panel discussion the first afternoon of COP17, Third World Network, a highly regarded body of analysts that provides daily briefings at the UN meetings, called the plans afoot in Durban, “an elite and corporate-led agenda by the 1 percent for the 1 percent” and “a great escape for the rich countries – each country for itself according to its national priorities.”

Lim Li Lin of Third World Network says: “What the rich countries want most of all is the continuation of market mechanisms. This is so that they don’t have to reduce emissions at home but can simply continue shifting the burden to developing countries.”

Since Copenhagen in 2009, it has been increasingly clear that the goal of rich nations, insofar as one can be discerned, is to strip the Kyoto Protocol of its binding emissions reductions to protect the planet and the 99 percent, but to keep the pollution trading market mechanisms, which promise to generate so much profit for the corporate elite. Neil Tangri, Climate Change Campaign Director with the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, calls it, “throwing out the baby but saving the bathwater.” Given the dire circumstances, I’d go a step further and call it drowning the baby in the bathwater.

A fluff piece in the South African Airlines in-flight magazine calls Durban the planet’s “last, best hope for a climate deal,” but it is lost on no one here that Africa, accompanied by the small island states, is already feeling the heat. Because of the particular geography of the African continent, a 2-degree rise in global temperatures could mean a rise of 4 degrees or more here. Nnimmo Bassey, the Chair of Friends of the Earth International calls it “the frying of a continent.”

Mohammad Adow, an African correspondent for Al Jazeera sitting on the Third World Network panel, noted that “the COP is taking place on the continent where humankind was born, which is also the most vulnerable continent, where hundreds of millions of people are already suffering the impacts of climate change through hunger, thirst, and displacement from their lands.”

Adow used a biblical metaphor to describe the power struggle at play: “The developed countries are not only not building the ark to save us from the great flood, they are preventing developing countries from building our own arks, as well.”

While the intransigence of the most polluting states – the US comes immediately to mind – deserves universal condemnation, it should be recognized that the US has no monopoly on stonewalling. South Africa, the setting for the negotiations, is among the most polluting of the emerging economies, with a per-capita carbon footprint higher even than that of the US. The country is a recent recipient of the largest ever World Bank loan ($3.5 billion) to build the third and fourth largest coal-fired power plants on Earth. The companies behind these projects, Sasol and Eskom, both sit on the country’s negotiating team at the COP.

Still, some have faith in the negotiations. The Climate Action Network (CAN), a group of NGOs devoted to building incremental reform through the UN process, posed the question Monday in their first daily briefing: “The science is compelling, the economics makes sense, so why are countries holding back from achieving the progress the world so badly needs?”

The question hangs in the air like a wisp of smoke among the frustrated, hopeful delegates that fill the conference halls here in Durban. But such a question is at best rhetorical, and at worst dangerously naïve, as it blithely ignores the white elephant in the room. Climate Justice Now!, the more radical civil society network that sometimes vies with CAN for space inside the negotiations, has a name for this white elephant that, thanks to the rowdy Occupiers at Wall Street and everywhere, can finally be pronounced in print. The elephant, I daresay, is called “capitalism.”

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