Monday, November 28, 2011

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,



  1. Thanks for inviting us into the conference through your post. Nice introduction. Highly informative.

  2. Reading about the conference is 10x more fun with your commentary! Can't wait to hear more!!