On 27/28 January 2011, organisations and individuals from South African civil society who wish to mobilise together around COP17, the December UN climate conference in Durban, met in that city at the very pleasant Diakonia Centre to discuss shared positions and shared strategies. The conference was funded and supported by HBS and the Global Campaign for Climate Action.
This is a personal perspective on the meeting from someone who served on the committee that planned it – in no way an official perspective. A press release should be published soon.
The meeting followed three earlier, similar meetings held last year under the auspices of the Heinrich Boell Foundation and Earthlife Africa. At the Earthlife conference, six of us were nominated to plan this one, and given certain terms of reference. Essentially, we were asked to expand the process and help map out the beginnings of a joint inside-outside strategy for COP17.
One expert contribution at last week’s meeting was from Tasneem Essop of WWF, who was part of the SA government delegation in Cancun. She made it very clear that any activist who hopes that they may somehow directly influence the course of negotiations themselves, is 99% likely to be disappointed. A small organisation is far more likely to be able to influence the climate conferences indirectly, through determined activism in a home country, than by attending a COP. If we in South Africa, for example, were to drop our focus on securing a sustainable national energy strategy, we will not find absolution by organising around COP17.
What were some of the outcomes of our Durban meeting?
- A new and more representative committee was elected to coordinate the work of civil society over the year ahead. The work of that committee will include planning:
- a march for climate justice; and
- a politically neutral meeting space or spaces for national and international civil society outside of the UN spaces (the UN spaces are not open to the public, only to accredited observers)
- We also held in-depth discussions on possible joint positions on a wide range of issues (this process – the joint writing of a position paper – was not concluded, but made substantial process). It was useful not just as a means of finding possible joint positions for mobilisation, but also for deepening our understanding of the issues and of each other’s positions.
- A wider range of organisations, including unions, community and faith-based organisations joined the environmental NGOs who have tended to be most visible till now in the climate justice space in South Africa.
- We began the process of rooting our joint efforts within Durban communities.
The new committee is tasked with, amongst other things, raising funds and establishing a secretariat. It will, no doubt, soon be establishing a joint information website and when it has done so I will publish that address here.
What were some of the lessons of the January COP17 civil society planning conference?
- Our event had two functions: providing information, and planning. There was a profound tension between the two. On the one hand, many of those attending knew relatively little about climate change and climate justice and were hungry for discussions and sessions that helped build that knowledge, so much so that these sessions were expanded on the fly. On the other hand, more knowledgeable delegates were there for the planning and political coordination sessions, and resented that the broader discussions ate into our planning time. Neither set of parties seemed to have much patience for the positions of the others. So,
- if similar conferences are held later this year, I would suggest an additional day of information sessions only. And given the hunger for information,
- it might be worthwhile for the new committee to prioritise establishing an information and education subcommittee to locate, publish, and where necessary, write accessible materials on climate change, climate justice, the UN process, not to mention related issues of sustainability.
- If possible, it would be best to try to send conference documents out earlier for comment, and to publish them on a website, so as to forestall complaints, just or unjust, that certain emails were not received.
- Many people attending the meeting, particularly those from community-based organisations who are disadvantaged by language and lack of expertise found it difficult to find their voices there, while a few others dominate. Breakaway groups – the more the better – do provide some space to overcome this tension. But chairs and facilitators need to be more alert to this problem than we were, and seek ways to make all participants feel included.
- For the sake of the planet, I hope that everyone might be less intent on preserving the purity of their own positions and more ready to work together; if our efforts remain fragmented, we will never be equal to the scale of this crisis.
For me, the visit was also a small reminder of what the conference might have in store for some COP delegates – a (happily failed) attempt to snatch my cellphone. Visitors to this city do need to be be careful – I was being careless in a rather seedy area. Anyway, I still very much like Durban, and wouldn’t hesitate to visit again.
Some delegates requested copies of the PowerPoint presentation on climate change from Dr Lisa Ramsay of UKZN: download it here.
Lastly, here’s my usual reminder that organisations wanting UN accreditation for COP17 – to get access to the negotiations and official side-events – must register soon!