It’s cold here. Well, cold by Durban standards. By northern hemisphere standards, it’s mild. Shirtsleeve weather, but Durbanites and the local media are full of tales about the last six weeks of rain. The Mercury, one of the local papers, reports that the weather gods are having sport with COP 17. There were worries that the big opening parade through the centre of town today would be a soggy affair. But the weather held and the band marched on. What it will be like tomorrow when Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu speaks in a packed stadium is still, well, up to the weather gods.
Tutu, a leader in the long struggle against Apartheid, is calling for world leaders to reach a fair and legally binding treaty. He’s not alone and, unfortunately, the science is a lot more definitive than are the world leaders who direct the negotiators here in Durban.
While the negotiating band marches on, the evidence mounts that we need to take action -- and that we’re running out of time to do it in.
Back in 2007, the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change pointed to the obvious fact that the world’s climate was changing because humans were pumping too much carbon dioxide and other heat trapping gases into the atmosphere. The time to act was now.
When negotiators couldn’t come up with an agreement, they pulled together the Bali Action Plan which laid out milestones that were to lead to a binding agreement in Copenhagen in 2009. The Bali Action Plan was responding the Fourth Assessment Report that stated “warming of the climate system is unequivocal.” It also said delaying the reduction of emissions “significantly constrains opportunities to achieve lower stabilization levels and increases the risk of more severe climate change impacts.” Translation: Acting sooner is better than delaying.
When that train went off the rails, world leaders cobbled together the so-called Copenhagen Accord. That document salvaged the negotiating process and it limped towards Mexico in 2010.
In Cancun last year, with expectations low, the Cancun recognized that, “climate change represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet” and made some small steps.
Each year, it seems tiny steps forward are made when great strides are needed. In between there is jostling and manoeuvering by countries that appear to be uninterested in reducing emissions -- and the latest excuse is that the world economy could not withstand the “shock” of cutting emissions. But as Sir Nicholas Stern pointed out in his landmark 2006 study, acting sooner rather than later will reduce the economic cost substantially. As economics has come to embrace climate science, subsequent studies have reinforced this message.
Meanwhile, a study in Nature has determined that year-round Arctic sea ice, which plays a major role in keeping the planet cool, is disappearing at a rate not seen in the last 1500 years.
What it means to both the Arctic and the globe is unknown. Said one researcher: "What we are experiencing at the moment seems to be very exceptional…. This means that we are entering into the world which has no equivalent in the past."
In his speech on Saturday, Desmond Tutu branded climate change a “huge, huge enemy” that imperils the common home of humanity and threatens rich and poor alike.
After the battle to end apartheid, he said, the next focus must be climate change. Tutu is an example, like Nelson Mandela, of how individuals can make a difference. The moral imperative behind the drive to defeat apartheid is similar to that efforts to combat climate change. Both have strong moral bases, and both are fundamentally about justice and human rights.