Sunday, December 18, 2011
I spent the past two weeks in Durban, South Africa, at the United Nations climate change conference. I think I have recovered from the sleep deprivation, the over-caffination and the general frustration enough to put my thoughts into words.
I want to talk about what it was like to be at the conference. And I want to talk about the youth delegates, whose energy, enthusiasm and optimism blew my mind on a daily basis. But, before I do that, I want to talk about the outcome of the conference. To get the bad news out of the way first.
Durban was an incredibly complex and difficult meeting. In the end, all we got was a vague document called the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action. It's not a protocol or a mandate, just a "platform." It's too soon to tell if that's a good thing or a bad thing. If governments decide they want to raise the level of ambition on climate change, the Durban Platform can be a tool to set us on course. We now have an agreement to negotiate an "instrument" with "legal force." Governments can, theoretically, design the new instrument to match up with the deep emission cuts the IPCC indicates are necessary to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. The negotiations on the new instrument will determine if we are serious about solving climate change or not. So it's difficult to label Durban a success or a failure; it's what happens next that really matters.
That's the big question, what happens next? Will new negotiations actually result in real emission reductions or will it be too little, too late?
It's easy to feel pessimistic about international negotiations on climate change. Each meeting seems to follow the same pattern: all talk, no action. World governments have been talking about climate change for 20 years with very little progress. Trying to get 194 countries to move together in the same direction on climate change feels less like building consensus and more like herding cats.
Complicating matters is the fact that climate change comes with a time limit and the window to stabilize global temperatures is closing. The International Energy Agency has shown that CO2 emissions in 2010 were the highest on record; and they're still rising. Every year we don't deal with it, the problem just gets worse. And at a certain point, it will be too late to fix it. There will be too many emissions in the atmosphere and no way back to a world that isn't buffeted by uncontrollable, catastrophic climate change.
Scientists have been telling us increases in global temperatures must be kept to no more than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. In order to limit temperature rise to two degrees, the IPCC warns that global emissions have to peak by 2015 and then drop to 50 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050.
But the latest science from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research suggests that two degrees is no longer the threshold between "acceptable" and "dangerous" risks but between "dangerous" and "very dangerous" climate change. Scientists there are now looking at 1.5 degrees as a safer target. That means cutting global emissions at least 85 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050.
We are nowhere near that. The Kyoto Protocol contains targets that are far too small to achieve any of those goals. Under the Kyoto Protocol, developed countries are supposed to cut their greenhouse gas emissions a mere 5.2 per cent below 1990 levels by 2012. That's not going to happen.
Part of the problem is that negotiations are complicated by fundamental differences of positions, which have yet to be resolved. Countries will have to find a way to work through several key differences, including differences of historical responsibility, differences in development and differences in geographic vulnerability to climate change. International cooperation on deeper emission cuts will be impossible unless these differences can be resolved. Compounding the problem is a lack of political will to do what is necessary to tackle climate change.
Which is why Durban -- just like each and every climate conference preceding it for the past two decades -- was an incredibly complex and difficult meeting.
A snapshot of the Durban climate conference
It's worth mentioning what it's actually like to be at one of these United Nations climate change conferences. The scale of these meetings is so big that critics often deride them as a traveling circus. (I don't like the negative connotation but it's not an entirely inaccurate description.)
Since 1995, representatives of countries from around the world have gathered at the annual Conference of the Parties to hammer out the details of international action on climate change. For two weeks each year, thousands of negotiators, politicians, heads of state, journalists, celebrities, business leaders, academics, youth activists and environmentalists converge in a frenzy of activity. Because there are so many high-profile people in one place, security is always a big concern. Passing your bag through an X-ray machine and walking through a metal detector become as much a part of your daily routine as brushing your teeth.
The security checkpoints, scanners, X-ray machines, fences and road closures make you feel as if you are entering a gigantic hermetically sealed bubble when you walk through the conference doors. And, in a way, you are. You are entering a universe unto itself with a language unto itself. Everyone at the conference speaks in abbreviations: CDM, JI, REDD, SBSTA, SBI, AWG-KP, AWG-LCA. The numbingly dull list goes on and on (and we wonder why we're not winning the hearts and minds of the general public).
I would hate to be one of the thousands of journalists covering the conference. The whole thing is so confusing and difficult to understand that I wouldn't know where to begin. How they manage to distill it down to a succinct sound bite is beyond me.
That's not to say the journalists don't struggle. I saw a journalist crying in the women's washroom during the first week of the conference.
"It's really hard to know what to write or how to put it all together," she sobbed.
It's too bad Bill Clinton turned the expression into a cliche because there's no better way to describe it: I felt her pain.
The conference was held inside the sprawling Durban International Convention Centre, which was unremarkable as far as convention centres go. Still, Durban wins points for its creative space-saving techniques. The underground parking garage was transformed into makeshift offices for the UNFCCC, as well as the American, British and Canadian delegations. It was an airless, windowless, oil-stained, concrete wasteland.
These conferences are what I imagine being on a cruise ship is like, minus the onboard entertainment (unless you count as entertainment the small contingent of oddballs that always turns up at these conferences -- such as the woman registered as "Supreme Master" or his highness Lord Monckton, who showed up in Durban to stop the Marxists’ wet dream of global totalitarian dictatorship).
Sitting in on international climate negotiations requires a strong stomach, endless reserves of patience and a suppressed gag reflex. In Cancun last year, I watched as negotiations on a draft text to enhance public awareness and education on climate change began with 45 minutes of bickering by countries over the wording of one sentence in the opening paragraph. And this was one of the least nasty, least confrontational negotiating sessions.
It's no secret that certain countries come to the negotiating table year after year to obstruct rather than push for progress. These thinly veiled attempts to kill the Kyoto Protocol have brought negotiations to a virtual standstill. The pace of international climate change talks is now so grindingly slow it's no wonder almost nothing gets accomplished. The Kyoto Protocol is still alive but it's on life support.
And now for the good news
If we want to shift the level of ambition and political will that countries bring to the international negotiating table, we need to ramp up public concern on climate change. Without public pressure for strong action, countries will be able to continue to push for weak targets at international climate negotiations. Ministers will be able to return home from these meetings and ignore the problem until the next summit. Without public support for immediate action, international negotiations will continue to go nowhere and emissions will continue to rise.
Building popular demand for fundamental changes requires all of us to become involved. The good news is that things are already changing, with NGOs, schools and young people leading the way. I met many people in Durban working hard to make a difference. But the ones who impressed me the most were the young people.
The UNFCCC hired me to help with youth-related activities in Durban. My job was to make sure the youth delegates were able to participate in the process as fully as possible. We arranged meetings for them with high-level negotiators. We organized four slots a day for mini-side events. We gave them booths, an office, a meeting room, space to protest, logistical support, and the ability to intervene during negotiating sessions. To its credit, the UNFCCC truly understands the importance of giving youth a voice at these conferences. After all, it's their future that is up for negotiation.
The youth delegates blew my mind on a daily basis. They were an endless source of optimism, hope, positive energy and creativity -- essential ingredients in the shift toward a more sustainable future.
It was a good conference for young people. They got more media coverage than I've ever seen them get before. Three stories stood out for me.
The first was the six young Canadians who stood up during Environment Minister Peter Kent's address at the main plenary and turned their backs on him.
The second was the young woman who interrupted the speech by the U.S. chief negotiator Todd Stern. Security officers eventually led her out of the room but not before her plea for action was met with long, sustained applause from the room full of delegates and negotiators.
The third was the huge protest that went on for hours inside the convention centre on the last day of the conference. Young people refused to move until they got a fair, ambitious and legally binding agreement on climate change. They didn't get what they wanted. But, still, it was an exciting thing to see. You got the sense that they are the front wave of a much bigger movement back home.
Every young person in Durban was there because they care passionately about climate change. Some came to share their views with delegates, others to raise awareness about the work of their organizations through side events.
The UK Youth Climate Coalition, for example, worked hard to let the outside world know what was going on inside the climate talks. They filmed, edited and produced several short videos that they uploaded to YouTube while in Durban.
My personal favourite Shakira's Waka Waka Comes to Durban features young people singing and dancing to the theme song of the FIFA World Cup in South Africa. Because the climate conference was also being held in South Africa, the youth delegates decided to make Shakira's Waka Waka their official song too.
I hate to single out individuals because there was not one youth delegate who didn't impress me. But I think it's important to give a few concrete examples of the kind of work young people are doing.
Like Danae, who is working to engage young people on climate solutions in Mexico. Her project to improve alliances among young people, governments and NGOs won a national award, which is how she ended up in Durban.
Or Anton, a 17-year-old high school student from Germany, who wrote a policy paper on sustainable transportation, which he presented at a mini-side event in Durban. What was I doing when I was 17? Getting drunk, listening to Led Zeppelin, failing math? I had neither the motivation nor the intellectual capability to write policy papers at 17. At this rate, Anton is going to be the Chancellor of Germany by the time he's my age.
Or Esther, who developed a toolkit on climate change for young people in her home country of Nigeria. Her work took her to rural schools, where she helped set up climate change clubs. She also runs what she describes as the best blog in Africa.
Or the group of kids from South Africa who are leaders of their school's climate change clubs. They spoke about their school gardens, their recycling projects, and their efforts to raise money to install solar panels on their school roofs.
Or Jordan and Curtis, cousins from Nunavut in their early 20s. They came to Durban with a strong message for world leaders: climate change is devastating their northern home.
Jordan and Curtis spoke about how the snow is arriving later and melting sooner in Canada's far north. They also spoke about how melting Arctic sea ice is hurting polar bears, which rely on ice floes for shelter, hunting and breeding. As a result, hungry polar bears have been turning up at the town's garbage dumps in search of food.
The young men have spent time documenting the effects of climate change on their community through films and blogs. Their work focuses on Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (the traditional knowledge) of Elders. In preparation for the UN conference, Jordan created a film titled Experiences of Climate Change from Inuit Elders.
"I have a grandpa who likes to talk a lot," Curtis said. "We're not scientists but we know our land."
The examples go on and on. If I listed all of the brilliant work young people are doing to draw attention to climate change, I could fill a book. If these are our future leaders, the world is in good hands.
As for me, something wonderful happened on the last day of the conference. I had helped organize a high-level briefing for youth with Christiana Figueres, the head of the UNFCCC. More than 150 young people came out to hear Christiana talk about the status of negotiations and answer their questions. I was up on stage, moderating the event. We were running out of time but Christiana announced that she would take one last question. Neva, of the UK Youth Climate Coalition, was the first person whose arm shot up in the air. I pointed to Neva and she leaned forward to speak into the microphone. She explained that she wanted to make a comment rather than ask a question.
"On behalf of the youth, I just want to thank Sarah for all of the great work she's been doing. We appreciate her efforts." And then the youth delegates raised their hands in the air and wiggled their fingers in silent applause (clapping is so last century). I was so touched I almost started crying.
I gave Neva a hug afterward and told her that her comment was like a knife through my heart (in a good way). All of it, all of the sleep deprivation, the over-caffination, the frustration, all of it made worthwhile by one touching comment. It was nice to be appreciated but it was even better to have spent those two weeks giving love to the youth and getting love back. It was a moment that will stay with me forever.
Toward the end of the conference, many of the youth said they felt like they had been riding an emotional roller coaster. They vacillated between feeling inspired by the possibility of a better world and frustrated with the low level of political will to make that happen. Still, they realize a lot of the work happens between conferences, that climate change is not something the world tackles only once a year for two weeks.
Climate change is urgent but urgency does not mean panic. It means continuous, patient action to change the world, which is exactly what these wonderful young people are working hard to do. And that should give all of us hope.
You can check out the rest of the photos from Durban on my flickr page.