here is an op-ed I wrote for this week’s Mail & Guardian (South Africa).
REALITY AND COPENHAGEN
On the outskirts of Copenhagen, in a massive, featureless exhibition centre next to a single giant, iconic wind turbine, the future of the world is being decided. Or so we’re told.
The Bella Center is the heart of the 15th Conference of the Parties, or COP15, the climate conference where an international deal on curbing the output of greenhouse gases – and the vast amount of money that will be needed to accomplish that – is supposed to be decided.
COP15 at Bella fits the image of a large, but ordinary, conference or trade show.
And the negotiations going on inside are very large, but otherwise ordinary. There’s an alphabet soup of negotiating blocs – the LDC bloc, the G20, the G77 + China, AOSIS, EU and so on. Each bloc tries to hold together, big countries bully small ones, small ones fight back. There are prolonged arguments over single lines of text and a lot of repressed emotion.
Washing over the whole show is a river of ever more impressive numbers – how many millon hectares of forest are burned annually, how many gigatons of carbon are emitted, how many hundreds billions of dollars will be needed to save us and how many heads of state are coming into town – is it 129 or 130?
It all looks and sounds very important.
But only two very simple numbers really matter here, and only two parties really need to be negotiated with.
The first number is the number of degrees Celsius the atmosphere is going to warm. The second is the atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration – in parts per million — that will determine those degrees C of warming.
The negotiating parties that can’t be avoided are two very experienced, battle-hardened bruisers called Physics and Chemistry.
The tough thing about Physics and Chemistry is that they don’t actually negotiate. They tell you what you can do, where you can stand, whether you’re going to live or die and that’s that. Discussions with Physics and Chemistry are over before they’ve begun.
Atmospheric science institutes have spent hundreds of millions of dollars figuring out what the physics and chemistry of global warming are, and what this means for the planet’s ecology and us. After all, if your opponent wins every time, it’s wise to figure out the rules by which she operates so you can arrange your life accordingly.
The scientific understanding of global warming, like that of everything else, is constantly progressing.
A few years ago, when the last Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report was released, an atmospheric carbon concentration of 450 parts per million (ppm) was considered the safe upper limit. This would lead to two degrees C of warming above pre-industrial levels averaged out over the whole globe.
A note in the report* says that 2 degrees C of warming averaged over the whole globe means between 3 and 4 degrees C for much of Africa, a vastly changed climate to the one we’ve adapted our agricultural and living systems to. In short, a disaster (hardly anyone picked that up).
The latest climate science tells a grimmer tale. Many top climate scientists now believe that an atmospheric carbon concentration above 350ppm (which will likely lead to 1.5 degrees C of average global warming) will get the whole planet into the danger zone.
We’re currently at 390ppm, already over the limit, and need to drop greenhouse gas output extremely fast.
Somehow 350ppm and 1.5 degrees C – the targets our best scientists say we should be aiming at – are becoming lost in the torrent of numbers gushing though the Bella Center. On the table is a 2 degrees C maximum warming goal, but the offers of carbon emission reductions being put forward will actually lead an astonishing 770ppm atmospheric carbon and 3.9 degrees C global warming by 2100 according to MIT scientists tracking the Copenhagen talks.
Because the Bella negotiators think they’re negotiating with each other, not with Physics and Chemistry, they’re approaching these climate talks the same way as talks about trade tariffs on steel or suspender belts. They think it’s all about compromise; after they’ve argued like hell and exhausted themselves, they cut a halfway deal and go home.
Reality, in other words, has left the building. The parties at COP15 are negotiating as if the atmosphere is a mere concept on a draft policy paper.
The good news is that reality is living outside. We’re seeing the rapid growth of huge global alliances of people standing up for climate science and justice. Groups like the one I’m currently working for, 350.org, are supporting countries that understand the gravity of the situation, and growing our voice in the media.
It’s going to be a long, hard fight, and we might (all) lose. But if Africa is to survive and prosper, we have to get involved. ENDS
*REFERENCE: Contribution of Working Group I to the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, Chapter 11, Regional Climate Projections, page 866-867
President Nasheed of the Maldives’ speech at the Klimaforum tonight. The Klimaforum is the ‘alternative’ Copenhagen climate summit venue. He’s the first head of state to arrive in Copenhagen for the climate negotiations and also has a really progressive, science-based position on climate — so he’s getting a lot of attention. 350.org, the amazing campaign I’m doing some media liason work for at Copenhagen, laid on the stage and called out their supporters to give him some love. None of us walked away disappointed.
Nasheed spoke to a packed audience of (I estimate) more than a thousand people and was mobbed by dozens of journalists as he left the stage. A very calm, upright person, he made a great impression (he was a journalist and a democracy rights activist/political prisoner before becoming President).
Here are a couple of my images of Nasheed. They’re not great art, but what the heck — it’s fun to see what this diminutive great man looks like. They’re copyrighted by me, so don’t use them w/out my permission. I wanted to post my audio recording of his speech here but WordPress has gone all buggy and won’t upload audio files tonight er, this morning, actually. It’s 01:32 and I need sleep!
well, my post from two days ago about Lumumba Di-Aping has gone huge — thousands of hits on this site and many more over at 350.org’s updates blog, where it appeared in slightly shortened form. It’s been marked up as the 76th most popular post for 10 December in the WordPress top 100 ranking!
I’m unable to follow up with such a huge scoop today, having been in an office furiously working away at a press release for 350.org‘s African climate awareness events this weekend, but I have been Twittering energetically. I tweet only what I think is current and useful, not random nonsense, and am pretty well plugged in to a number of networks at this Copenhagen climate conference, so if you’re interested in climate issues and the COP15 confab you’ll find my Twitter stream at www.twitter.com/adamwelz. (After the confab my Twittering will revert to being about more general enviro issues, birds and birding, and the odd other interesting thing.)
In between typing sessions I managed to squeeze out for a lunch sandwich, and stumbled into a small square holding some of the climate-related exhibition stuff that’s all over this city at the moment.
Climate wonks are fond of saying that the Chinese symbol for ‘crisis’ also means ‘opportunity’. I have no idea if that’s true.
What I do know is that the English words ‘climate crisis’ translate into ‘branding opportunity’.
It’s quite incredible how many big names have used what is probably the biggest threat to a stable future for us all to promote their brands. There’s the giant Hopenhagen campaign that is all over town, sponsored by, among others, Siemens, Coca-cola and Carlsberg beer. (Siemens, having been handed down the largest corporate fine in US history not so long ago — for massive and systematic global bribery — doubtless has some major image-polishing to do. I have no idea what fizzy drinks have to do with climate change — maybe they want to take the CO2 out of the atmosphere and put it in cans?)
The square I found my lunch sandwich in had a groovy Polar Bear skeleton sculpture made of bronze that had been set inside a Polar Bear-shaped iceblock, which was now melting. Great symbolism I guess, but the Panasonic ads all around the pedestal made any gravitas it once held, vanish. Save the climate — now buy a cheap video camera, dammit! Eish.
On the other side of the square was a mysterious golden box that informed us that Brad Pitt was (singlehandedly?) going to save the planet. I looked through the windows and all I saw was a messy office inside with no Brad. Perhaps he was hiding under the desk?
Peculiar. But perhaps not any more peculiar than the things going down in the serious negotiation environment at the giant Bella convention centre at the edge of town, where, if the waves of quiet, serious climate denialism emanating from most country delegations don’t get to you, the high-volume version from the nutty Lord Monckton might.
Maybe it’s just lack of sleep, but this bit of silly of youth climate activism made my day!
The leak of a so-called ‘Danish text’ that would sideline the UN in future climate deals is reverberating around the Copenhagen negotiations. (see http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/dec/08/copenhagen-climate-summit-disarray-danish-text)
Today I witnessed an unexpected and extraordinary outburst of candour from one of the key players in these negotiations — Lumumba Di-Aping, Sudanese by birth and chief negotiator of the so-called G77 bloc (which mostly consists of poor countries).
I attended an ad-hoc meeting in a meeting room of the Bella Center attended by about 100 African representatives of civil society and a few African parliamentarians (among them Lance Greyling, an MP from South Africa) this afternoon. The meeting was called at short notice and its agenda was not announced. After a few minutes of introductions Di-Aping was given the floor to speak to fellow Africans. Requests were made by organisers to turn off all microphones so as not to record what was going to be said, although Di-Aping made a point of turning his on, saying half-jokingly “they are probably listening anyway”.
He did not start his speech immediately. Instead he sat silently, tears rolling down his face. He put his head in his hands and said “We have been asked to sign a suicide pact.” The room was frozen into silence, shocked by the sight of a powerful negotiator, an African elder if you like, exhibiting such strong emotion. He apologised to the audience, but said that in his part of Sudan it was “better to stand and cry than to walk away.”
Once he had composed himself, Di-Aping launched into an eloquent and direct attack on the apparent subversion of the climate negotiation process by certain developing countries, the leaked so-called “Danish” agreement that has become the talk of the conference. Since I did not feel it appropriate to stand up and video the proceedings, I live-tweeted what I could (www.twitter.com/adamwelz).
Speaking in measured tones, Di-Aping first attacked the 2 degrees C warming maximum that most rich countries currently consider acceptable. Referring continuously to science, in particular parts of the latest IPCC report (which he referenced by page and section) he said that 2 degrees C globally meant 3.5 degrees C for much of Africa. He called global warming of 2 degrees C “certain death for Africa”, a type of “climate fascism” imposed on Africa by high carbon emitters. He said Africa was being asked to sign on to an agreement that would allow this warming in exchange for $10 billion, and that Africa was also being asked to “celebrate” this deal.
He then went on to forthrightly address the weakness of many African negotiating delegations, noting that many were unprepared and that some members were either lazy or had been “bought off” by the industrialised nations. He singled out South Africa, saying that some members of that delegation had actively sought to disrupt the unity of the bloc. He said that civil society needed to hold its negotiators to account, but warned of a long and difficult struggle for a fair climate deal (words to the effect of ‘you have no idea of the powers that are arrayed against you’, spoken in the tone of someone who has spent years interacting with these powers.)
He said that people all over the world had to be made aware of what a bad climate deal means for Africa (“I am absolutely convinced that what Western governments are doing is NOT acceptable to Western civil society”).
He explained that, by wanting to subvert the established post-Kyoto process, the industrialised nations were effectively wanting to ignore historical emissions, and by locking in deals that would allow each citizen of those countries to carry on emitting a far greater amount of carbon per year than each citizen in poor countries, would prevent many African countries from lifting their people out of poverty. This was nothing less than a colonisation of the sky, he said. “$10 billion is not enough to buy us coffins”.
Obama, he said, would probably be brought to Copenhagen to ‘sanctify’ this deal. “What is Obama going to tell his daughters? That their [Kenyan] relatives’ lives are not worth anything? It is unfortunate that after 500 years-plus of interaction with the West we [Africans] are still considered ‘disposables’ “. “My good friends… we’ve got to get together and fight the fight.”
Di-Aping accused a group of US industrialists behind an organisation called the Climate Works Foundation of being behind the efforts to sideline the process and African countries, noting that rich governments did not want to pay the true cost of climate change or confront their own citizens with the urgent need to change their lifestyles.
Calling the current deal that was being proposed “worse than no deal”, he called on Africans to reject it — “I would rather die with my dignity than sign a deal that will channel my people into a furnace.” Africans had to make clear demands of their leaders not to sign on. He suggested a couple of slogans: “One Africa, one degree” and “Two degrees is suicide”
Di-Aping’s speech crystallised the room into action. A demonstration was immediately planned, and a few minutes after its end the people in the room converged on a central point in the Bella Center and began chanting and shouting — attracting a storm of media interest. (Di-Aping later addressed a formal press conference where he repeated some the points made in the African meeting, apparently no less eloquently but far less emotionally.)
Some commentators have suggested that the leak of the so-called “Danish” proposal will not significantly affect the progress of the talks here. After witnessing Di-Aping speaking to the African group, I am not so sure. It’s becoming increasingly clear that many rich countries are seeking a deal that falls well short of what the vast majority of current science indicates we need to do to avoid extremely damaging climate change, and that representatives of people in poor countries are becoming increasingly fed up at their ongoing marginalisation by the rich governments. The divide between the civil servants and NGO managers lazily discussing career options on the train across Copenhagen and those that have grasped the urgency of climate change is becoming more apparent.
With clear, credible voices like Di-Aping’s articulating the frustration of so many, are we seeing a fracturing of the Copenhagen process? Is this conference, which seems to be trying so hard to be just another ‘normal’ conference, with ordered meeting halls, name tags and too many glossy brochures floating around, going to turn into something really historic and interesting?
A note: Di-Aping mentioned in his speech that he was named after the famous Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba, even though he was Sudanese (“My parents were Lumumbist”). Patrice Lumumba was of course murdered after asserting himself too strongly against western powers, and replaced by the famously corrupt but US- and Belgian-friendly Mobutu Sese Seko.