Wednesday, November 30, 2011

So what is RINGOs?

Moravian College first attended the U.N. climate conferences in 2009 at COP15 in Copenhagen. We were very green (in the sense of not knowing much about the complexities of how the UNFCCC functions or how crazy COP meetings could be). We quickly learned that tickets to special events were distributed through focal points or constituency groups. Subsequently, we requested to join RINGOs – the Research and Independent Non-governmental Organizations constituency group.

According to their website (, RINGOs is comprised of “organizations engaged in independent research and analysis aimed at developing sound strategies to address both the causes and consequences of global climate change. They form a constituency in their own right to contribute to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), in a parallel way to ENGOs (Environment), BINGOs (Business and Industry), LGMAs (Local governments and municipal authorities) and the IPOs (Indigenous peoples organizations).” The newest constituency group, YOUNGOs, is the focal point for youth groups; my son Corey has been actively participating with this group over the past two years both as an individual from the Moravian College delegation and representing Inconvenient Youth (

During meetings of the UNFCCC the RINGOs gather every other day to discuss the developments of the negotiations. We had the first meeting at COP17 on Day 2. Individuals in the group represented a wide range of countries, organizations, and fields of expertise. The latter range from geologists interested in carbon capture and sequestration, economists who consider things such as finance issues associated with negotiations (such as the Green Climate Fund) and carbon markets, missionaries, experts in peaceful dispute resolution or climate justice, and environmental lawyers. In this meeting, I was surprised to learn that I was the only one who does anything related to ecology and climate change or works in conservation.

In just two days, I have already noted a much stronger emphasis on climate justice by most in attendance -- a focus sharpened by the severe storms that hit Durban the night before the opening of the conference. Climate/gender issues seems to be a new theme this year. But I am quite surprised that conservation and biodiversity are themes that have now been marginalized. There is talk of water (but for people and agriculture) and there is talk of energy ranging from (cough) clean coal to carbon sequestration to biofuels to some renewable energy alternatives. But habitat and non-human species are certainly not front and center.

In the RINGOs meeting, the following were identified as key things to follow over the two weeks in Durban:

- Adaptation (not in the ecological sense)

- Carbon capture and sequestration initiatives

- Carbon markets

- REDD (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation)

- Technology transfer (from those who have to those who don’t)

- The fate of the Kyoto Protocol and any future legally binding agreements as opposed to a deregulatory “pledge” (and trust) system with less accountability and no penalties for noncompliance. There have been comments by both Canada and the U.S. to the effect that it is “time to put Kyoto behind us”, largely due both to the extent to which China has developed since that international agreement (it is now the largest emitter of GHGs; but not per capita – that honor belongs to us) and the loss of political will in North America to commit to legally-binding GHG emission reductions and financial assistance to those countries experiencing the impacts of climate change.

- Clean Development Mechanisms (CDM) and the associated funding

- The formulation of the Green Climate Fund – a concept first conceived in Cancun

- The possible creation of an Annex C – that moves the Kyoto Protocol out of the U.N. framework – as a move to save it.

These are complex issues, so if you have questions, let me know!

An agreement out of Durban!

Well - not the type we all hope for in terms of mitigation or adaption.
COP18 will be held in Qatar.

From the Guardian:  "...Qatar is a huge energy exporter and, as an oil-rich state, has one of the world's highest per capita emissions."  Hmmm.

Fossil of the Day Award - Day 2

On day 2, my son Corey accepted the Fossil of the Day 2nd place award on behalf of the United States  Canada has been the 1st place winner two days running.

The Mitigation Gap

At COP16 in Copenhagen two years ago, negotiators had proposals on the table that essentially found a 2° C increase in temperature acceptable. To put this into perspective, for January through October, 2011, the global combined sea and land surface air temperature was 0.4 °C ± 0.1°C above the 1961-1990 annual average according to the World Meteorological Organization. The 1961-1990 range is the current international standard period for the calculation of climate averages even though that average is higher than a century ago. When a 2° C increase in temperature is put into various models, it becomes apparent that the predicted associated sea level rise from this amount of global warming could lead to the demise of several small island nations. Thus, the slogan at COP16 quickly became 1.5 to stay alive.

The United Nations Advisory Group on Greenhouse Gases in 1986 reported that warming “beyond 1°C may elicit rapid, unpredictable and non-linear responses that could lead to extensive ecosystem damage.” Yes, the U.N. had groups working on climate change 25 years ago. (And those of us in academe think change comes slowly!) But then again, the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius predicted that warming (albeit without the other complex aspects of climate change) would occur back in 1896. The cause? The release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from the burning of coal. Arrhenius' greenhouse law, not surprisingly, was met with criticism. Some things never change. Like contemporary atmospheric scientists (most notably Stephen Schneider and James Hansen), Arrhenius published a book aimed at the general population on the topic of climate change. Translated to English, the title was Worlds in the Making. Arrhenius predicted that the extent of warming would be sufficient to prevent future ice ages, that weather in many parts of the world would be more pleasant (remember, he was from Sweden), and that warmer climates were needed to grow sufficient food to feed the rapidly increasing population! The world population at the time was about 1.7 billion.

But I digress. Because of the growing calls for climate justice for all people including the poor and marginalized, discussions in Cancun at COP16 both recognized the need for deep cuts in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in order to limit global average temperature increases to 2° C, but the Parties also agreed to consider targets that would keep warming to 1.5° or lower. This would require developed countries (those with the largest carbon footprints) to adopt targets with at least 25 to 40% below 1990 levels by 2020. The Parties agreed to consider a more ambitious target of greater than 40% reductions at COP18. The 2020 timeline is important given the U.S. latest position that any significant agreement to mandate GHG emissions is not likely until 2020. Ironically, many poorer countries have goals of being carbon neutral by 2020-2021! (For example see and

For the first time at this meeting, I heard reference to how much “carbon space” is left in the atmosphere (about 1000 gigatons or Gt). According to Martin Khor of the South Centre, at current rates of emissions, it is predicted that we will exhaust this space within 15 to 20 years. I should also point out that all of the models with “business as usual” (current GHG emission levels and rates of increase of emissions) predict that we are headed for much higher global average temperature increases (4 to 9° C). According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), climate pollution must be about 12 Gt lower per year by 2020 to have a reasonable chance of keeping warming below 2° C and about 14 Gt lower to keep temperature rise below 1.5° C. At COP15, developing countries pledged more than 5 Gt worth of reductions – with finance, technology, and capacity building support from developed nations. Developed countries have offered less than 4 Gt of reductions and there are many loopholes in the accounting measures. (A short article on this topic can be found at It is this difference between what is on the negotiation table (at least prior Durban) and what the science says that is referred to as the “mitigation gap” or the “Gigaton gap”.

But with a population that continues to grow and has higher demands for resources including energy and meat (i.e. livestock and, therefore, methane), with Canada announcing that it will pull out of the Kyoto Protocol, and with the United States indicating that they won’t or can’t agree to significant cuts at this point (and prefer 2005 as a base year and expect China to make major concessions), I suspect that this mitigation gap will widen rather than shrink.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

What is at stake in Durban?

By the afternoon of the first day at COP17, two mantras for the conference seemed to have already emerged: 

  1. “It always seems impossible until it is down.”
  2. Durban must not be the burial ground for the Kyoto Protocol.”
I attended a side event (panel) sponsored by the Third World Network (TWN) that focused on the question of what Durban must deliver.  I picked up a handout entitled: “At stake in Durban: A climate deal for the 1% or the 99%?”  Sound familiar? 

Earlier in the day, José María Figueres, former President of Costa Rica and brother of Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretariat of the UNFCCC had this to say:

“…the now growing global Occupy Wall Street movement is a sign of frustration felt by many given we are not addressing their economic needs; so with respect to climate, maybe we need an Occupy Durban, a sit-in, by the delegations of those countries that are most affected.”

Many of the speakers during the panel spoke about various provisions needed to achieve a low carbon economy – details of which I will elaborate on in subsequent posts.  What struck me, however, was how many times the United States was referred to as a “special case” and sometimes with the work “basket” in between special and case.  On almost every provision, the U.S. is seen as an entity that has not shown leadership, has reneged on its responsibilities, and perhaps worse, as a bully hell-bent on delaying or hijacking the multilateral negotiations.  Our country is accused of trying to dismantle the current agreements, even though we are the only developed nation that did not sign and ratify the Kyoto Protocol.  
The analogy between the disastrous deregulation of the banking industry and the subsequent need for a bail-out was made to our trying to deregulate “the climate regime” (the existing framework).  Only for climate change, no one is quite sure what the bail out would need to be except that some will suffer more and suffer earlier than others.  Throughout the semester, I have told my students that from the perspective of many other countries, everyone in the U.S. is part of the “1%”.  This is certainly the sentiment here in Durban.  (Actually the U.S. population is a little over 4% of the world’s 7 billion people and about 14% of us live below the poverty level according to

The panelists questioned our democracy given the dysfunctional nature of Congress and the power of corporations (“the polluters” as they were frequently referred to) on the decision making process.  I heard today from the head of Greenpeace International that every Congressman in Washington has 3 lobbyists paid for by the fossil fuel industry.  I don’t know if this is true or not, but think of the subsidies for fossil fuels (listen to a recent story on this issue from NPR at, the power of the oil, coal, and natural gas industries in our country, and all the influence of the Koch brothers and it doesn’t seem like an exaggeration.

There is discussion of moving the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol (post 2012) out of the UNFCCC framework – solely to keep the U.S. from stalling the process any longer and blocking an agreement that will finally start to have true impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and provided funds to developing countries for climate change adaptation.

Today, on Day 2 of COP17, the U.S. received 2nd place in the “Fossil of the Day Award” given by the Climate Action Network International.  From the press release:

“It is one thing for certain governments in Durban to be complacent about the urgency of global climate disruption.  It is another issue to be complacent when their respective countries are the main culprits, such as the United States who is the worst historical climate polluter.  But yesterday, the United States position degraded well beyond complacent by rationalizing the collective mitigation targets as in keeping with what climate scientists say is needed to avoid global disaster.

Referring to the fact that he himself was an IPCC contributor, Jonathan Pershing, the U.S. Deputy Special Envoy, said yesterday that ‘there are an infinite number of pathways to staying below 2 degrees.’  And yet, the U.S. has managed to avoid all of them.  Pershing nonetheless argued that the current targets are sufficient enough through 2020.

There is scientific consensus about anthropogenic climate disruption, the urgency to have an emissions peak to avoid runaway global warming, as well as the gross inadequacy of pollution targets.  The United States is either in denial about the science, or is trying to thwart justified pressure to improve its own ambition.”

How’s that for a scathing commentary?  This comes on the day that scientific reports show that 2011 is the warmest La Nina year on record and the 10th highest on record.  The 13 warmest years on record have occurred in the 15 years between 1997 and 2011 (See  This year, we also had record lows for sea ice volume, numerous extreme weather events around the planet including a record number in our country – by June (before the hurricanes and tropical storms wreaked havoc on the northeast).  Part of a natural cycle or are we reaching a tipping point? 

Monday, November 28, 2011

Day 1 Pictures

If you are interested in pictures from COP 17, they can be found here:

COP17 Day 1

The 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP17) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) began today in Durban, South Africa. These conferences typically begin with a high level plenary of the Parties (official delegates for each party nation who signed onto the original treaty), the press, NGOs (non-governmental organizations), and IGOs (intergovernmental organizations).  In other words, there is some procedural business such as formally electing the COP president to preside over the meetings, and a welcoming ceremony with some local entertainment and lots of speeches by the dignitaries on the stage.  More on that in a minute, but for now, suffice it to say that this event falls short of the opening ceremony for the Olympics in terms of entertainment value. (IMHO)

Anyway, I somehow managed to secure one of the limited admit tickets for NGOs through the constituency group or focal point that Moravian College is part of -- RINGOs (Research and Independent Non-Governmental Organizations).  These surprisingly coveted tickets don’t necessarily guarantee access as the U.N. and South African security forces can sometimes decide that a section is full (even if it is not) or that your credentials are not sufficient.  This is not unique to this venue; I first experienced this at COP15 in Copenhagen in a major way.  But today I made it through along with other RINGO representatives from Amsterdam and South Africa.  (There were a few others, but these are the two that I sat with – both of whom worked with universities and had an economic focus in their work vs. my ecological/climate adaptation/climate justice/educational interests.)

As I settled into my NGO seat which, of course, had an obstructed view, I was wishing that I had my binoculars along so that I could actually see the front stage instead of watching things on one of the large screens.  But I had the feeling that binoculars would have gotten me singled out as suspicious and promptly removed from the venue.

The emcee of sorts was the Daughter of the Province. (I learned from my South African peer means daughter of the king of the province; Durban is in Kwa-Zulu Natal Province.)  I didn’t catch her name so looked up her father Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu on good old Wikipedia thinking I would find her name.  It turns out that this Zulu king has 27 children and several wives!  After entertainment by African drummers, the talks were supposed to start, but South African President Jacob Zuma was delayed.  At least part of this delay was due to photo-op sessions; the ceremony resumed about an hour later.  An awkward situation for any emcee.  And from my perspective, rather rude to all the delegates convened in the room.

The session began with a memorial statement read by a delegate from Mali for Mr. Mama Konaté, Chair of the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) and the National Focal Point of Mali who died unexpectedly.  The transmitter that allows me to hear an English translation (I don’t know French) turned out to have a dead battery, so I can’t share any details.  Outgoing COP16 President Patricia Espinosa Contellano reflected on the outcomes of the sessions in Cancun last year and what has been worked on since. She spoke in Spanish so I caught the gist of what she was saying, but decided I had better get a new transmitter, even if it meant facing security again. 

Ms. Espinosa called for the election of Ms. Maite Nkoana-Mashabane from South Africa as the COP17 president.  Of course, after risking the wrath of security, her comments (available at, and the subsequent ones by Ms. Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC (, were in English.  Both of these statements were essentially optimistic about the upcoming negotiations that will occur over the next two weeks (you can read the details if interested). 
The majority of the morning speakers talked about a transparent and inclusive process, balanced and fair outcomes based on science, multilateralism, environmentally-sound decisions, equity, and honoring international commitments.  Ms. Nkoana-Mashabane also spoke of the pre-COP17 conference on the Impact of Climate Change on Women held in honor of all the females in leadership roles in the UNFCCC process.  Judging from a review of the side event topics, climate change and gender promises to be an important theme this year.  (Last year, I wrote about the emerging voice of the indigenous peoples calling for climate justice and their right to have seat at the negotiations table.)  She expressed the need to operationalize the Cancun agreement, including the Adaptation funds, and to do “what we need to do now and determine what needs to be done in the nearest future.”  I was pleased when she noted that this needed to be done to honor the work not only of the aforementioned late Mr. Mama Konaté, Chair of the SBSTA, but also that of Wangari Maathai, who also recently (and unfortunately) died too early from cancer.

Ms. Figueres (a Costa Rican native and a wonderful “product” of Swarthmore College by the way) invoked Nelson Mandela and South Africa’s struggle for freedom including in her comments repeated references to a quote from Mandela “It always seems impossible until it is done.”  Appropriate comments for the difficult, if not impossible, task at hand.  In her typical classy form, Ms. Figueres started and ended her comments with Zulu phrases, and included some aspects of the click language of the Bushmen.

The next speaker was the Vice President of Angola whose comments were focused on a common African platform, efforts that Angola has taken since ratifying the Kyoto Protocol in 2007, and the need for COP17 to develop an agreement that would lead to a low carbon economy that was based on scientific data and not just economic models.  He ended with a call to save humanity, protect the planet, and maintain a commitment to sustainability.  Just a few notes about Angola from UNICEF (  54% of the population lives below the poverty line of US$1.25 per day; the average life expectancy is 48 years; only 38% of the population has phones, and the female literacy rate (ages 15 to 24 years) is 65%.

The President of Chad and acting head of the Economic Community of Central African States spoke next.  I was expecting more of the same, but instead of speaking positively about the outcomes of Cancun (COP16), he said that there had been no solutions coming from Cancun, “but only a story of saving face.”  Ouch!  He went on to refer to the G20 countries as “big polluters of the planet” and the critical need to protect Chad Lake, the last bulwark for the basin of Congo which is the second largest green lung of the planet.  This lake apparently has less than 10% of its former surface area and should be a concern for all countries.  As the speaker noted, if the lake is lost, it would be a threat to the ecological balance of the world, not just the countries that share a border with the lake and the millions of people who depend on it.  The accusations were indeed a deviation from the normal celebratory tone of the opening session, but, in a way, I appreciated the raw honesty.  As I was to learn later, this frustration with developed nations, especially the United States and Canada, and to a lesser extent, the European Union, would be voiced again in much stronger terms (the subject of a future post).  For now, you can get a sense of this in this report from the Huffington Post (

After this, I had a hard time concentrating on the remarks of His Excellency, President Jacob Zuma of South Africa. You can read them at

Several speakers noted the vulnerability of Africa.  This point was underscored by the storms that ravaged the province last night, leaving in their wake 800 destroyed homes, flooding, and at least 8 deaths.  I know that this represents an extreme weather event, but it was a dramatic force of nature reminding each of us of our personal vulnerability.  Those of us from the U.S. are well aware of the large number of extreme weather events that hit our nation this year resulting in billions of dollars of damage and the loss of many, many lives.  So the challenges are immediate and immense and the week promises to be interesting. 

You can follow the negotiation and meeting details at, or if you prefer, listen to the snippets on NPR or read biased perspectives from your favorite media source.  One suggested piece is found at ).  I am always checking to see how much (or how little) coverage is given the the COP meetings in the U.S. You can also get a sense of how important this meeting is to South Africa from Ms. Nkoana-Mashabane’s address on the occasion of the launch of “50 Days to COP17/CMP” at a sports stadium back in October (

Signing off for now,



Today marked the beginning of the UNFCCC COP17/CMP7, which stands for the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 7th Session of the Conference of the Parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties (CMP7) to the Kyoto Protocol. The convention is being held in a convention center and exhibition hall in downtown Durban, South Africa.

Bikes available free-of-charge for delegates
After riding the conference shuttle to downtown Durban this morning, I headed to the meeting of the Youth Non-Governmental Organizations (YOUNGO). YOUNGO's governing body is a "spokescouncil" that meets at these morning meetings. A spokescouncil meeting consists of the attending youth organizations each of which is represented by a single spokesperson or "spoke." The spokes sit in a circle and the rest of the organization sits directly behind this front person. The spokes are the representatives of each group or organization who suggest ideas, ask questions, and vote throughout the meeting. During the meeting, the various youth groups discussed briefings to the negotiators as well as various actions and programs throughout the day. At this particular meeting, about 15 organizations with a total of close to 100 youth were present.

YOUNGO Spokescouncil meeting

"Spokes" discussing a vote with their groups
After the meeting, the youth involvement continued. At a side event discussing the politics of the parties negotiating at Durban was well attended by the youth constituency. Later on, the Canadian youth climate delegation held a press conference to present their new jackets (in the style of NASCAR) sporting the logos of oil and gas companies to the Canadian negotiators. None of the invited negotiators were in attendance. Although this press conference was mostly a joke, the youth highlighted an important issue slowing the climate negotiations: nations like Canada are working to do what is best for the oil industry and other powerful and rich corporations rather than working to protect the people and environment.

The press conference held by the Canadian youth delegation was poking fun at the Canadian negotiators, but was treated as a legitimate press conference at the UNFCCC

The "big oil" jackets
As a result of Canada's work against the climate negotiations, this country was awarded both first and second place in the Fossil of the Day award, a prize given to the countries that have had the greatest negative impact on the progress of the climate talks. Although Canada received the award, other countries such as the United States and Japan also made statements that they will not agree to a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol (which expires in 2012). Unless these countries can realize that they should be focusing on what is best for the people they represent rather than the large, profitable industries, the climate negotiations in Durban will not develop agreements necessary to effectively continue international discussions on climate change.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

From the pre-COP17 Interfaith Rally in Durban

"This is the only home you have… if you destroy it, it’s finished with you as it will be finished with us. For your own sake, you who are rich, we are inviting you, come on the side of right. "

Desmond Tutu's message as the COP17 talks begin.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Moravian College at COP 17

In less than a week, the UNFCCC COP 17 begins in Durban, South Africa. This year, the Moravian College delegation will be attending the first week of the negotiations. Be sure to check this blog for updates and photos throughout the week.

For more information on the meeting, visit the host country website: