As the United Nations climate talks in Durban progress, they are becoming increasingly combative, offering a soft preview of the kind of political atmosphere destined to prevail in a world where agriculture in vulnerable regions of the planet begins to succumb to catastrophic drought and flooding. The United States and Canada have drawn intense criticism here during the first two days of the conference.
Participants lamented Canada’s new status as a “laggard country” when that nation’s conservative government announced its plan to quit the Kyoto Protocol, which it called a thing of the past. And, to almost no one’s surprise, people inside the conference halls and out on the streets joined together in labeling the United States “enemy number one” for the way it is wielding its vast global influence in the service of intransigence, backpedaling and obfuscation. A top South African religious leader Tuesday called the high-profile climate-change skepticism of many U.S. leaders “immoral.”
At a well-attended briefing Tuesday morning held by NGO umbrella organization Climate Action Network, Bishop Geoff Davies, executive director of the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute, highlighted what he saw as the contradiction inherent in the fact that the people of the United States are deeply religious but also alienated from the responsibility faith demands to address suffering tied to climate-altering pollution.
“The US is a nation of great faith, of Christian commitment. We find it extraordinary that they are behaving like this. We find it immoral,” he said when a Turkish journalist asked what additional pressure could be brought to bear on the world’s lone superpower. “Environmental destruction is a sin against God. We say to faith groups in the U.S.: You’ve got to recognize your responsibilities to combat climate change.”
At a press conference on Monday, Greenpeace Executive Director Kumi Naidoo said the U.S. government was criminally confusing the interests of corporate polluters with the interests of its people.
“The US delegation is not only betraying the people of the world but they are betraying the American People,” he said, calling on President Obama to “Get here and get with the program or move aside.”
The future of the Kyoto Protocol is the main question of the negotiations because major developing nations are demanding the treaty continue if they are to participate in any future climate-change agreements.
The protocol, signed in 1997 and meant to take effect in 2005, set up tiers of countries that were supposed to cut greenhouse gas emissions by specifically tailored rates. The plan was supposed to cut annual emissions to a rate 5.2 percent below 1990 emissions levels by 2012. The treaty failed spectacularly to meet that goal, with CO2 emissions alone now up to a reported 30 billion metric tons, or a third more than were emitted in 1990.
The United States is leading efforts to delay any new legally binding agreement until 2020. So far, the countries of Europe as represented by the European Union, are the only developed nations willing to sign on to extend the Kyoto Protocol, but they’ll do so only if the United States and other big polluters like China and India agree to a new pact that would take effect by 2020.
Jim Leape, director general of World Wildlife Fund, called the negotiations “a huge failure of ambition on the part of governments.” He said that a delay in ratifying the Kyoto Protocol would be “binding ourselves to a 4-degree world.”
Scientists say that, at today’s warming-emissions rate, the global planet temperature is on course to rise by 4 degrees Celsius and they say that temperature would bring dramatic challenges to the way we presently live, causing the desertification of much farmland, widespread crop failure and major glacier loss.
Leape felt the need to point out to North Americans that climate change is not just some exotic problem for faraway lands but a domestic problem as well, whether or not politicians and corporate leaders care to admit it. He reminded reporters that 47 of the 50 U.S. states declared weather-related emergencies last year. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists warn that extreme weather conditions will only increase in frequency and intensity as the planet warms.
Some analysts say that, given the political and business realities of the contemporary world, the annual meetings– known as the COP conferences (the meeting in Durban is COP17)– with their focus on emissions reduction, detract from other more realizable goals. Paul Danish, writing in the Boulder Weekly, offered a typical example this week, arguing that, at this point, focusing so much attention on cutting emissions is a fool’s errand. “Global warming is a done deal,” he wrote. “[T]he conference should really be focused on learning to live with global warming and finding ways to adapt to it.”
Photos of the Global Day of Action in Durban by Adrienne Russell and Matt Tegelberg.
Reporters often ride along on police vehicles outside the conference.
South Durban is the toxic hub of South Africa and citizens there are demanding industry clean up the region and make efforts to limit waste.
Protesters here are strongly tying the right to secure freedom of information to the issue of climate change. Without access to data, corporate and industry interests can avoid accountability, they say. In South Africa, freedom of information has been threatened recently by a bill that attaches stiff prison sentences to unauthorized possession of classified information.
Reporting from Durban by Adrienne Russell, associate professor of communication at the University of Denver. Her most recent book, Networked: A Contemporary History of News in Transition was published by Polity Press this year.