Climate comment: 24 months to shift global public opinion

Over the next fortnight RTCC will be focussing on the global climate negotiations and examining ways to ‘raise the ambition’ of the talks.

In the first of a series of articles, Luke Hughes, Campaigns Officer of the UK’s Youth Climate Coalition, reflects on Durban and charts a course for future talks.

Luke was part of a team of 11 the UKYCC sent to Durban to follow the COP17 talks

Since I’ve come back from Durban, where I was a UK Youth Delegate to the UN climate negotiations, friends and family have been asking me, ‘So how was it?’

I have no idea what to say.

On the one hand, I met hundreds of young people from around the world, experienced South Africa, and co-wrote a speech with 55,000 views on YouTube and a mention on the New York Times website.

I talked to senior negotiators from the UK, Ireland and the US. At 3 am on a Sunday morning, exhausted, hungry, dishevelled, and barefoot, I had a surreal chat with Chris Huhne at the back of a conference hall. Which was all pretty cool.

On the other hand, the conference itself was a disaster. Actually, that’s not true: in the world of global climate politics, it was a resounding success. The show stayed on the road! The UNFCCC lived to fight another day!

Even the life support machine (the EU’s support) for the Kyoto Protocol wasn’t switched off!

Add to that a Green Climate Fund and China, India, Brazil and South Africa being brought in from the cold and into the comforting warmth of a decision that uses the word ‘legal’, and you’ve got an impressive set of results for a Conference of the Parties (or ‘Polluters’, as the more radical elements of civil society insist on calling them).

Why, then, in that final, tumultuous plenary session, was there derisory laughter from the back of the room when the COP President pronounced that, ‘We have indeed saved tomorrow, today’? The answer is that the world of global climate politics is far removed from the needs of the real world.

As my brother (who happened to be on the US youth delegation) wrote: “Let me be clear: this was not enough. Not even close. This was meeting expectations lowered beyond all expectations. Rescuing defeat from the jaws of worse defeat.”

A hollow victory

If we sit in our floating cities in the year 2200 and begin to document what the hell went wrong all the way back at the turn of the millennium, Durban will be a footnote to the story of the failure of multilateralism.

This wasn’t a Rio, a Kyoto, a Bali or a Copenhagen. Durban was a Poznan, a Cancun. It wasn’t a make-or-break moment, it was a ‘let’s scrape something together and keep our heads down’ moment.

Take the US – in the year before a presidential election, America’s negotiators had to tread a careful line. Do what the world needs them to do, and Obama gets pasted as a Solyndra-hugging job-killer by the pragmatic, stick-that-in-your-pipeline-and-smoke-it Republicans.

Stall too much, and a significant portion of Obama’s support base gives up. As it appears, Todd Stern and Jonathan Pershing (the US top dogs) trod this line beautifully – they even, apparently, high-fived at the close of play.

While keeping Obama in power is surely the best option for the environment, we can’t wait much longer for American leadership on this.

After all, December 7th 2011 was the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, when America stepped up and led the way in fighting the biggest threat the world faced.

Today, we again need their money, their workforce, their innovation, their skills and their political power. Let’s hope that it doesn’t take another Pearl Harbor to get them onboard.

Five years to avoid catastrophe

So while Durban won’t feature, the end of 2011 will still go down in the history of climate change as a significant moment. COP17 marked the point when, arguably, we crossed the line between acceptable procrastination and catastrophic lethargy.

Take the International Energy Agency’s analysis that we have five years to sort out the problem. Or the Royal Society paper that says if we’re serious about fighting climate change we should accept a short-term economic recession.

Or the IPCC’s proclamation that extreme weather events are indeed going to go up. Or the decision that 2°C no longer distinguishes ‘acceptable’ from ‘dangerous’, but ‘dangerous’ from ‘very dangerous’ climate change… yet we’re still pointing at 4°C.

Such is the magnitude of the threat we now face, and we realised it in 2011. We need to do something about it in 2012. Qatar must, somehow, be a Kyoto, and a Kyoto that actually delivers.

So when people ask me how Durban was, I fumble for an answer.

The only thing I can say about Durban is that it made me sure of one thing: if we’re going to solve climate change, we need the biggest shift in global public opinion since the abolition of slavery, and we need it in the next 24 months.

That sounds scary and impossible, but it can’t be, because it’s the only solution that’s commensurate to the scale of the problem we face.

Luke Hughes is Campaigns Officer of the UK’s Youth Climate Coalition. He’s also on the organising committee for this weekend’s Oxford Climate Forum

COP17 VIDEO: Tom Youngman from UKYCC explains why he believes the Kyoto Protocol is worth saving.

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