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Are Durban climate talks worth the bother?

South Africa

With climate talks set to open Monday, African civil society activists are alarmed. The Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zewani, who is the spokesperson for the African Union, is credited with saying that Africa will be ‘flexible’ in the negotiations.

This announcement would considerably weaken the hands of African negotiators who have taken a strong stance against the failure of developed countries to deliver on their moral and legal obligations for climate action.

Besides the highly vulnerable small island states, Africa is really set to be worst hit by catastrophic climate change. The impacts are already here: droughts and famines have raged in the Horn of Africa; a rise in unusual rains and floods; increased desertification. It is also uncontested that Africa will experience heightened levels of temperature increases above global averages, further compounding the damage.

These ominous predictions set the scene for the 17th round of UN climate talks, or ‘COP17’, due to open in Durban, South Africa, next week. The city itself sits under a thick cloud from its coal fired plants. Last year, South Africa’s public electricity company, ESKOM, received a huge loan from the World Bank to build one of the largest coal fired power plants in the world.

The World Bank is embedded in the financial architecture of climate change, and the inherent contradictions of South Africa’s energy policy in this vulnerable continent make it the ideal host for the contested COP17 talks.

The general feeling among people coming to Durban – official and non official – is that COP17 will not deliver anything significantly different from what came out of the ineffective negotiations last year in Cancún, Mexico.

Little surprise then, that some activists are wondering whether to bother engaging at all. On Wednesday I attended a fascinating debate at Dirty Energy Week hosted by Friends of the Earth South Africa, where a panel considered whether there was any point in civil society groups turning up.
Many feel that climate talks sap a lot of energy and only set the stage for catastrophic climate change in Africa and around the world.

The other side argued that if civil society does not engage with the UN talks, then that space would certainly be taken up by polluters and by those who see climate change not as a crisis but as a business opportunity, such as carbon traders.

Others characterised the continued participation of civil society at the UN talks as a manifestation of the ‘Stockholm syndrome’ where the kidnapped marries the kidnapper and would not see an open door of escape even if  the door were wide open and unguarded.

Bobby Peek, Director of Friends of the Earth South Africa, sees the fight stretching far beyond the talks themselves. He compares the struggle against climate change to the mass efforts that saw the defeat of apartheid in South Africa.

‘Once again our communities need to organize, mobilise,’ he said. ‘We need to  help build a new just and sustainable world that puts the interests and needs of ordinary people and communities first.’
The question is not so much whether COP17 will deliver an acceptable climate agreement, but whether the peoples’ uprisings in the world will echo in Durban. Are politicians prepared to listen to the demands of the people or will they only hear the  polluters?

Will this be a Conference of Parties, or will it be a Conference of Polluters? Will carbon trading and its accompanying array of market mechanisms run rampant? Will the so-called Clean Development Mechanisms (CDM) be finally seen as Corporate Development Mechanism, Corrupt Development Mechanism or Crimes Development Mechanism?

Nnimmo Bassey is Chair of Friends of the Earth International.

Nnimmo will be blogging for the New Internationalist throughout COP17, which runs from 28 November to 9 December.

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