The image of Nero fiddling as Rome burned -- albeit apocryphal -- has stuck as the metaphor for willfully irresponsible government. Government representatives, gathered at climate change talks in Durban, South Africa, have been fiddling for the past week. Of the hundreds of closed-door sessions, official meetings and informational seminars, all that's come out so far is cacophony. By the looks of it, they plan to fiddle right through to the end, wasting one of the last opportunities to respond in time to a threat that affects not only their societies, but the entire planet.
With only a few days to go, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced the obvious on December 5th, telling delegates, "It may be true, as many say: the ultimate goal of a comprehensive and binding climate change agreement may be beyond our reach -- for now."
As for the burning, the climate change deniers have -- finally -- lost the scientific debate. Reports from the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change, the UN World Meteorological Organization, the UN Environmental Program, and others confirm that the planet is already experiencing the worst-case scenarios of early predictions, showing the hottest decade on record and extreme dangers in the most vulnerable regions of the world.
But the deniers' message on global warming -- 'don't sweat it' -- has won the agenda-setting race. In the United States, especially, conservatives heavily backed by the fossil fuel industry have created a domestic political environment to do nothing. It's no longer politically acceptable to talk about climate change in apocalyptic terms. The term "global warming" has been replaced by the neutral "climate change," while concern about the planet has decreased in inverse proportion to the increase in the earth's temperature. The sense of urgency that once characterized the debates has slipped into complacency, despite the fact that in 2010, global emissions went up 6 percent.
There's also a global consensus on what has to be done to get off this suicidal course. Emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases must be cut back immediately. For all its faults and omissions, the Kyoto Protocol brought developed nations responsible for the historic accummulation of gases into a binding legal agreement to cut emissions. The United States failed to ratify the agreement. Now Canada, Japan, and Russia want out, and prospects for renewing the agreement when the current period runs out in 2012 look dim, to say the least.
World governments limped into the Durban talks with a new global economic crisis weighing heavily on their shoulders. This has bumped climate change down the ladder of global priorities -- a particularly convenient situation for oil companies and polluting industries. The argument is that current economic conditions preclude significant action on curtailing global warming.
Bickering has ensued over who will sacrifice competitiveness in the international economic system in order to deal with climate change. U.S. negotiators insist that China and other developing countries exempted from the binding rules of Kyoto should be included in a binding agreement, noting that China is now the number-one emittor of CO2 in the world. Yet the United States has blocked any move toward a binding agreement in favor of a voluntary "pledge and review" system of national commitments without sanctions.
China shook things up on Monday when its representative vaguely indicated willingness to join an international binding agreement. According to reports, South Africa, Brazil, and India made similar statements. These countries have insisted on a "common but differentiated" approach to emissions cuts. The Chinese government released ambitious national goals shortly before the conference. If the Chinese are serious about these goals, the country should have no problem with joining an international agreement on mandatory cuts. If it were to do that, and the European Union at least maintains if not improves on its current commitments, the United States would be practically isolated in blocking multilateral action.
Fourteen major international environmental groups became so frustrated with the U.S. position at the talks that they issued a statement reading, "America risks being viewed not as a global leader on climate change, but as a major obstacle to progress."
Global South Sings Different Tune
Observers note that the U.S. team has refused to consider real action before 2020, and U.S. Deputy Special Envoy for Climate Change Jonathan Pershing said as much on Monday. African environmentalist Nnimmo Bassey interviewed on Democracy Now!, had one thing to say about that: "Eight years is a death sentence for Africa."
Bassey recently published a book on Africa and global warming with the telling title, To Cook a Continent. Civil society organizations gathered in Durban have presented many testimonies on the effects of climate change on small farmers, poor people, women, indigenous peoples, and other groups not represented in official talks. Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, of Via Campesina, told the Americas Program, "The situation is really serious, because in Haiti we have six months of drought a year, and when there isn't drought, there are floods, so agricultural production is declining." He added that under present conditions, it will only get worse.
Bolivia took a lone stand against the agreement to disagree at last year's climate talks in Cancun. That heavily impacted Andean country hosted the Cochabamba Peoples' Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in April of last year. It offered a series of solutions that reject carbon markets and other market-based mechanisms, while supporting small farmers, agroecology and "the Rights of Mother Earth" -- a paradigm that views the planet as a unitary system of which the human race is but a single aspect.
Oddly enough, as Durban heads toward even more dismal results than Cancun, Pablo Solon, Bolivia's former ambassador to the UN and a leading world figure in the fight against climate change, found hope in the long view.
"It would be an illusion to think that through these processes we're going to arrive in the short term at a declaration that changes the paradigm of western civilization that has placed man at the center of a development model. What we're saying is you can't just put humanity there, you have to put all of nature," he said in an interview.
Durban, like Cancun, in the end will be mostly just another global showcase for this clash of worldviews. As nations continue to view the issue as a trade-off between saving the earth and saving the economic system, there is some hope in the long view.
To build on that hope, one of the most important steps will be to broaden the focus from once-a-year meetings in high-carbon conference centers, to the fields, communities and town halls where alternatives are already growing and a stronger political consensus can be built from the bottom up.