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Challenging climate apartheid

In downtown Durban, the climate negotiators have settled into their beachfront hotels, ready for the official UN climate negotiations starting Monday. Already, voices speculate about cracks in the existing negotiating blocs. Will the developing countries  hold together all the way? Will the so-called emerging economies flex individual muscles?

But as the technical negotiations begin, I want to focus instead on two events last weekend that moved me deeply. Both communicated the people’s desire for climate justice. The first was a speech by Pablo Solón, Bolivia’s former chief negotiator.

‘We are here to fight genocide; we are here to fight ecocide,’ he said, speaking at the Kwa Zulu Natal University, home to civil society in Durban during the talks. ‘We refused to endorse the Cancún agreement because we would not agree to join those causing genocide.’

He was addressing an animated crowd who had gathered to greet the Caravan of Hope. The caravan – organized by the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance – rode through ten African countries from 9 to 25 November. The journey started in Burundi and passed through Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe before entering South Africa with two million signatures demanding climate justice, which were collected along the way.

The second inspiring event of the past week was the ‘We Have Faith’ rally at Durban Kings Stadium. Here Archbishop Desmond Tutu warned those who think they will survive when climate change reaches tipping point and spins out of control, that they were fooling themselves.

Tutu said that although some people may ‘go first’, others will also be sure to be hit. Most of the speakers in the stadium that day expressed their hopes that negotiators and political leaders will step up to the plate and do the right thing.

And what would the right thing be?  As Solón told the Caravan, if the Cancún agreement and its non-binding pledge-and-review system stays, then the world can be expected to warm by as much as 4 to 7 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. If that happens, Africa will be cooked.  

A speaker reminded the rally of a saying of St Francis of Assisi who had urged, ‘Let us begin, brothers, for until now we have done nothing.’ Another speaker noted that though the prospects are tough, Mandela had once said, ‘it is impossible until it is done.’

Archbishop Tutu reminded everyone that there is only one human race and that we are designed to live in community, caring about one another. He stressed the truth of the African concept of Ubuntu – that our humanity is wrapped up in the humanity of the next person.

Will those entering the talks today take heed of any of these wise words? Some believe that only loud protests outside will remind representatives that climate change negotiations are not a carbon stock exchange. Right now there are signs that demonstrations will be held throughout the conference. And it is worth remembering that South Africa is seen as the land of possibility. The fact that a determined resistance by the people overcame apartheid keeps echoing in discussions here.

Some go as far as seeing the reluctance of the developed countries – those historically responsible for most of the emissions in the atmosphere today – to take real action on climate change as a form of apartheid. Apartheid against Mother Earth; apartheid against the poor; against farmers, fishermen, women and children.

At the last two UN climate conferences the whiff of cash somehow stimulated poor countries to endorse agreements that were patently not in their interests. Some wonder if the Durban conference will see again see Africa and Small Island States being sold for thirty pieces of silver.

There was singing and dancing  for the Caravan of Hope and the ‘We Have Faith’ rally. In Durban dancing and singing can signify or ignite anything. Whatever that is, I have my dancing shoes at the ready.

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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About the author

Nnimmo Bassey a New Internationalist contributor

Nnimmo Bassey is a published poet, head of Environmental Rights Action, Nigeria and Chair of Friends of the Earth International. He also runs Oilwatch International.
Bassey’s poetry collections include We Thought It Was Oil But It Was Blood (2002) and I will Not Dance to Your Beat (Kraft Books, 2011). His latest book, To Cook a Continent (Pambazuka Press, 2012) deals with destructive fossil fuel industries and the climate crisis in Africa.
He was listed as one of Time magazine’s Heroes of the Environment in 2009 and won the 2010-Right Livelihood Award also known as the ‘Alternative Noble Prize.’

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