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 http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/00000.html).

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 http://www.npr.org/2011/11/16/142364037/solyndra-highlights-long-history-of-energy-subsidies), 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 http://tcktcktck.org/2011/11/2011-marked-by-high-temperatures-low-sea-ice-wmo-report/).  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? 

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