Sean McDonagh provides his latest reflection from Durban at the End of the First Week at the UN Conference on Climate Change

Posted on Saturday, 3 December 2011

This is the third in a series of reports on the UN Climate Change conference curreently taking place in Durban prepared by Sean McDonagh SSC. Social Justice Ireland is very grateful to Sean for providing these updates. The previous two may be accessed at the end of this report.
The Meeting of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Conference on Climate Change or COP17 here in Durban is similar to many of the other COPs which I have attended in Nairobi, Bali, Poznan, Copenhagen and Cancun and yet, I discern a very different mood among the participants in Durban. Organisations from civil society are here in force, challenging the politicians to come up with a fair, ambitious and binding treaty which will secure the future for ordinary people. But the question is; are politicians listening to climate change concerns anywhere across the globe? Are the distractions of the current financial and banking crises just too overpowering?
At breakfast this morning here in St. Philomena’s Conference Centre in Durban where I am staying, more than 40 women from a variety of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) were preparing to join in the March to the Conference Centre which is scheduled to begin around 1 pm. Their conversations were animated and focused as these people, many from a rural background here in South Africa, are already feeling the effects of climate change in their lives. They are fearful about what the future might bring, and well they might be, as the momentum which drove previous COPs seems to be waning. Everyone knows that, if the Durban Conference fails, it will be difficult to get a satisfactory international agreement on the measures which will be necessary to prevent an average rise in global temperature of between 3 and 4 degrees Celsius by 2100. This would be a disaster for almost every country and ecosystem in the world.

United States of America

The United States is the largest economy in the world and its citizens are the largest per capita emitters of greenhouses gases in the world. While the US signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, the US Senate never ratified the treaty. During the Presidency of George W. Bush, the US negotiators spent much of their time at the various COPs either trying to deny climate change was happening or, in the later years of his presidency, espousing scepticisms about its consequences. 
The election of President Obama seemed like the dawning of a new era. In his campaign speeches he understood and accepted the scientific underpinning for global warming. He appeared to grasp the seriousness of climate change for many countries both in the global South and even for the US itself and, above all, he promised to lead rather than impede an international consensus for dealing with it. 
Unfortunately, those bright hopes of 2009 have now turned to dust. Local politics in the US and the rise of the Tea Party candidates has effectively pushed climate change off the political agenda. On the third day of the Durban Conference, the US chief negotiator Jonathan Pershing, himself a scientist who was formerly involved with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC), made the implausible statement that the current collective mitigation targets are sufficient to avoid a rise of more than 2 degrees Celsius. In addition given its greenhouse emission status the US’s own mitigation targets are woefully weak. They are set to achieve a 17% reduction below their 2005 level by 2020. It would appear that in the political calculus of the Obama administration, re-election is now the top priority, dealing with climate change is a task for someone else.
The unwillingness of the US to accept any binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions unless the newly emerging economies of China and India agree to similar measures is totally irresponsible and immoral. The US seems to forget that it and other Northern economies, are responsible for 75% of historic or accumulated carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The prosperity which many people in Northern economies experienced in the late 19th century and especially in the second half of the 20th century depended directly on burning fossil fuel. The unfortunate consequence is that it increased the percentage of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere which has led directly to our present crisis. True, many people were unaware of the connection between burning fossil fuel, greenhouse gases and climate change, but that did not change the outcome.  

In traditional moral terms the US and other Northern countries are being called to make restitution for the damage which their greenhouse gas emissions have caused to millions of poor people around the world. Unfortunately, the problem will continue and become more serious unless there are ambitious and binding agreements to reduce greenhouse gases emissions in the next few years. Putting off such decisions for a decade or so will be disastrous. The moral issues here come under a relatively modern category called intergenerational justice. The core issue is that this generation has the power to increase global temperatures significantly and, as a consequence, make life difficult for every succeeding generation of human beings and the children of every other creature as Fr. Thomas Berry wrote many years ago. Once a tipping point is reached it is difficult and even possibly in historical time to reverse the process. Runaway climate change will introduce a new geological era. This is highlighted in the title of the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences’ recent document on climate change which is entitled The Fate of Mountain Glaciers in the Anthropocene.

Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) are calling politicians to account

Members of CSOs in the United States are concerned about the Obama administration’s lack of leadership on climate change. In the run-up to the Durban Conference, 16 major CSOs including Greenpeace, Oxfam America and the Worldwide Fund for Nature challenged the US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton to alter the US stance on climate change. The letter called on the US negotiators to withdraw the stringent preconditions it is expecting poor and emerging countries to meet in return for the US agreed to support a realistic mandate for negotiations on a long-term climate regime. These include legal symmetry, a clear process for poor countries to gradually take on mitigations commitments similar to those which should currently apply to rich countries, such as the US. According to these CSOs, the most negative element in the US’s negotiating position in Durban is its position on climate financing.
Since the Nairobi COP in 2006, there have been slow and painstaking negotiations about the best and most efficient way to make serious amounts of money available to poor countries which will have to adapt to the inevitable impact of climate change. For some countries it will mean, higher costs to deal with severe weather events, for other counties it will mean smaller food harvests, for others shrinking glacier will cause water shortages for major cities and vital agricultural crops. The Green Climate Fund seemed to have been agreed at Cancun in 2010. Here at Durban the US appears to want to reopen these negotiations. In contrast, the European wants the Green Climate Fund to begin delivering funds to poor countries next year.
Tomorrow I will look at what seems to be happening on the EU front.