A SAFCEI colleague requested a message back to South African communities. This is what I wrote:
We’re three days in to the 16th UN Climate Change Conference, COP16, here in Cancun. The event is attended by thousands of negotiators from governments and many more observers from global civil society. Cancun itself is a gigantic resort city – gargantuan hotels carved out of the jungle on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. Imagine 30 Sun Cities slapped down side by side on a thin strip of land between a giant lagoon and a turquoise sea. It’s a perfect example of unsustainable development – dependent on air travel, mountains of concrete and right now, huge amounts of fuel to transport us all from our hotels to three different and widely separated conference venues, taking hours out of the day. Buildings are air-conditioned to freezing point, even though it’s not necessary. Buses sit idling by the roadside for hours. In the five days I’ve been here, I’ve seen just one bicycle – and that was a recreational cyclist.
These events start out in the hands of civil servants who negotiate incredibly complex texts that may or may not be approved by their political masters, who arrive in the second week, if they bother to attend. In the meantime, thousands of observers from the world’s NGOs are sweating to make sense of political moves and the minutiae of negotiating points that may or may not survive the day. One of the great injustices of it all is that the negotiations are divided into parallel tracks – and so negotiating teams need to have representatives in five or six parallel different meetings – impossible when you’re an African country with just two or three delegates. The negotiations are incredibly complex and I barely understand what is happening.
But some things are becoming clear, even to me. A year ago in Copenhagen, at COP15, after diplomats had carefully worked for years to achieve agreement on an agreement that will do cut emissions, and failed, a handful of countries pulled a rabbit out of the hat called the Copenhagen Accord. It was really more a Copenhagen Discord. Although it was agreed at COP15, it may as well have been agreed somewhere entirely different. It ignored the formal international process, was not endorsed by the UN and was essentially a face-saving gesture led by the US, China, and a few other countries, including South Africa.
As delegates from Bolivia said in the plenary here on Monday, ago, last year at 3am in the morning, three countries imposed an agreement that no-one else had seen before.
The problem with the Accord is, firstly, the difference between promises and obligations. Following the Accord, the world’s countries promise certain cuts in global warming emissions. But the Accord puts no obligations on anyone. It also undermines the international process that is the whole point of these gigantic meetings. And the pledges that countries have made to cut emissions are too small – according to the UN Environment Programme, the current pledges could still allow global warming of up to five degrees. And because Africa is more affected, five degrees could mean, roughly, up to seven point five degrees of warming for Africa. What does seven point five degrees mean for Africa? In the words of an observer I heard speaking last night, it means, “We are dead.” Rich countries have hijacked pollution space, the trade agreements they have imposed on Africa have weakened our manufacturing and agricultural sectors, destroying resilience, and now they are refusing to pay for the damage they are causing and continue to cause.
In the meantime, countries like Japan are trying to undermine the long-standing Kyoto Protocol. The Kyoto Protocol is significant because it imposes obligations to cut emissions. Not all countries have met their obligations, but the obligations are, at least in theory, binding. So even as science makes the dangers of climate change more and more clear, rich countries are trying more and more to wriggle out of their already inadequate obligations.
What to do? The US appears to be hell-bent on its own destruction and on the destruction of the planet. Perhaps its social and democratic failures will lead it to implode economically before it takes the rest of us down. But the rest of the world is by no means a group of angels either.
These negotiations are important. Progress does happen. But for things to change at these negotiations, we have to first change ourselves, as many of us are now doing. If we do not change, our negotiators and politicians cannot do a thing here.
Negotiators can only work on the basis of the power we, the world’s people, give them. What that means is we have to lead, changing the way we live, slowing down, finding a balance with the natural world we depend on, a balance that is both new and old. We forget that the world we live in, the world of intoxicating, often cancerous growth, is not the way we have always lived. It is something new, it is the product of unusual greed and cruelty to other people and other living creatures. And we are now running out of the resources that have created both madness and wonder.