February 27th 2012. So what is the state of our journey early in 2012? Perhaps we can begin with Durban – the UN climate fest officially known as the Durban Climate Conference, the 17th Conference of the Parties, or COP17. It took place in South Africa, November 28 to December 9, 2011. There were about 25,000 participants split more or less equally between formal participants (the Delegates) and informal ones (the reps of NGOs, businesses, consultants, and general hangers-on, plus the press). I do not know where they all stayed, but most of the delegates stayed in very nice hotels, with generous per diems and Business Class air travel to and from their home cities. Think of all the carbon (the Irish Times estimated it as high as 25,000 tons). And that does not count the carbon in the hot air from all those sessions, deliberations, consultations, interventions, and just plain meetings. Quite a significant environmental cost. What did Durban accomplish? Well, the most important accomplishment was an agreement to meet again in 2015, at which time there will somehow have evolved a plan that all delegates can agree on, a plan that will begin to curtail our production of CO2 starting in 2020. Given that this process has been under way since 1992 when the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was opened for signature by countries at the Earth Summit in Rio, and given that there have been 17 major meetings since COP1 in Berlin in 1995, and numerous supplementary meetings along the way, I would not call that outcome a rousing success. In fact, that decision to do nothing to derail ‘business as usual’ for another decade has just made a number of futures that were possible in October, no longer possible, because the concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere will have increased from 393 ppm to about 550 ppm and the task of pulling it back down towards 350ppm just got a whole lot more difficult. Of course, what I call it does not matter. Here is what the organizers called it.
The United Nations Climate Change Conference, Durban 2011, delivered a breakthrough on the international community’s response to climate change. In the second largest meeting of its kind, the negotiations advanced, in a balanced fashion, the implementation of the Convention and the Kyoto Protocol, the Bali Action Plan, and the Cancun Agreements. The outcomes included a decision by Parties to adopt a universal legal agreement on climate change as soon as possible, and no later than 2015. The President of COP17/CMP7 Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said: “What we have achieved in Durban will play a central role in saving tomorrow, today.”
I think not. The problem, of course, is that countries are not engaging in climate talks in a belief that they have to come together to solve a critical problem. They are engaging to ensure that their individual interests are protected. They are treating this environmental crisis just like any other dispute among nations, looking for compromise, seeking common ground, doing what politicians always do. Unfortunately, nature cannot compromise, and in any event, the really bad stuff is not going to happen for a few years yet, so none of the present delegates need worry that it will occur on their watch.
This long-term, gradual nature of the impacts of our environmental crisis is a major impediment to dealing with it. As humans, we are not well designed for dealing with problems that arise slowly but eventually become serious. Evolution has built us to jump out of the way of the sabre toothed cat or the cave bear, not to avoid sitting down at the foot of the advancing glacier. Based on present trends we are facing a world in 2050 with a radically different climate, serious shortages of food and water, diminished life expectancies, heightened risk of pandemic diseases, vastly degraded ecosystems on land and at sea, and the elimination of at least 20% of all species alive on the earth today. And yet, as many people say, 2050 is still 39 years away. Much can happen in 39 years, and we have more immediate problems to deal with. Unfortunately, the lead times for solutions to the environmental crisis are not the short ones we have been used to in solving past crises – periods of weeks, months, or at most a couple of years. Our civilization is an aircraft carrier not a skiff. It is headed for the rocks and it cannot change direction quickly. Those who steer it need to be changing course now if we are to avoid those bad things coming in 39 years.
But those who steer this particular aircraft carrier answer to many pressures. Of these, the most overwhelming pressures come from individuals, corporations, multinationals, and nations themselves, that are having current economic success, and therefore have political influence. And none of these are interested in altering the circumstances that currently give them success – to do so would risk economic suicide, altruistic perhaps but not personally rewarding. And so the oil and coal corporations resist any moves that might curtail use of these fuels; the timber magnates and the fishery cooperatives resist changes that might curtail their rates of extraction, the countries whose economies depend upon trade in raw materials do everything they can to ensure their trade continues and expands, the major manufacturers resist regulations that will increase their unit costs, and the local politicians fight to avoid anything that might lower employment, reduce opportunity, or impede the particular economic engines that keep their districts thriving. Meanwhile those without power, the poor, the dispossessed, the weak nations barely getting by, and the individuals with creative new ideas that could help build the new economies in a changed world struggle to be heard.
In truth, these less powerful are being heard more than they used to be. Many of them were among the informal participants at Durban, trying to get visibility or stake a claim for their ideas. Our expanding communication channels make it more possible than ever before to get opposing views out. The real task, however, is getting them listened to and understood, because there is more than enough noise to bury quiet voices. Still, one of my main reasons for optimism about our future is that I know that people can act very quickly once they change their minds, and I am confident that sometime soon, someone or some group of people is going to succeed in getting minds changed about the environment. It may take a creative act that grabs attention for more than the requisite 15 seconds, or it may be a modest catastrophe that finally drills down into sufficient numbers of minds that this crisis is really real. Neither happened in Durban although the short speech by Anjali Appadurai may have come close. Listen to her, and reflect.