I’m sitting in the now-vacant breakfast room of my Durban hotel, using the Wi-Fi that doesn’t quite reach my room on the 19th floor and watching the clouds roll over the Indian Ocean. From across the room, I can hear the staff gathering for what must be their monthly staff meeting. After what I suspect are the usual congratulations for meeting the hotel’s monthly guest quotas, a manager strides forward to give the group a special presentation.
“As you all know,” he says with distinction, “the COP Conference will be here in Durban next week. Now what does COP stand for? It is not mean policeman” – the staff leans forward attentively now – “no. COP stands for the Conference of the People.” This man now has my complete attention, and I turn my chair subtly forward as I try to suppress my growing smile. “They are here in Durban to discuss climate change. And what means climate change? Climate change means that in 50 years it will be so hot our children will have to walk around in space suites.” The staff nods very seriously. “The grass will die so we won’t be able to graze our cattle and goats, and the ocean [currently about 100 meters from the hotel’s entrance] will reach to reception. So they are here,” he continues, “to do a very good work for us. For our children, and the world. A very important work.”
I’ve been thinking about that speech for the past three days while reflecting on my first week here in Durban. My role here is to support the International Institute for Environment and Development (iied) staff as they assist the Least Developed Countries (LDC) with their preparatory meetings the week prior to the UNFCCC COP 17, which actually stands for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change 17th Conference of the Parties. As an American – a fact I’m quickly learning to conceal at all costs – climate change, though personally important, has always been an issue held at arms’ length. I live in a country that can afford, both figuratively and literally, to endlessly quarrel over the issue’s legitimacy, delay action politically, and in the mean time adapt to anything the changing climate may throw our way.
The LDC group cannot afford such luxuries. As stated by Saleem Huq of the iied in the LDC’s final preparatory meeting, “What is the difference between an increase of 1.5 degree Celsius and 2 degree Celsius? Scientifically, this is difficult to determine, but two things are sure: 1) Poorer, vulnerable people in developing countries will suffer more than those in rich countries; and 2) A great divide exists between the damages the two groups will face. In developing countries, climate change is affecting poor peoples lives and livelihoods, while the damages that occur in rich countries (damage to infrastructure, etc.) are merely economic costs. There is a big difference between lives and economic loss, and as temperatures increase so will the divide between these damages.” People in the LDCs are dying due to climate change. And they’re dying now.
To this end, Ministers and representatives of governments from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America and the Pacific meet in Bangladesh earlier this November. The group calls itself the Climate Vulnerable Forum, and represents nineteen countries that self identify as the countries most vulnerable to climate change. According to Richard Black of the BBC, these countries feel vulnerable as a result of several types of projected climate impacts, including rising sea levels; increased separation of weather into more concentrated wet periods and dry periods; and a greater occurrence of extreme weather events such as hurricanes, floods, heat waves and droughts. The Climate Vulnerable Forum was established to drill in the message that whole nations stand to be wiped from the map should the world not reduce its climate change causing greenhouse gas emissions.
At COP 17, the LDCs - many of whom are members of the Climate Vulnerable Forum – will call for strict emissions reductions. Currently, the LDC’s opening statement for COP 17 calls for “Kyoto Protocol Parties to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by at least 45% below 1990 levels by 2020 and at least 95% below 1990 levels by 2050 in order to ensure GHG and aerosol concentration below 350 ppm CO2 equivalent and temperature rise of below 1.5C.” Furthermore, as the LDCs have repeatedly stated, “the need and urgency to agree on the second and subsequent commitment periods of the Kyoto Protocol is now. This is the last opportunity for us to preserve the one and only existing rule based system that we have.” They continue to stress the urgency of agreeing upon a second commitment period in Durban and of elaborating upon measures that will avoid a gap between commitment periods. For LDCs, “There is no alternative to a legally binding agreement if we are serious about preventing dangerous climate change.”
My first week here in Durban has opened my eyes to many things, but the most important has been the dire, tangible impacts of our changing climate. Though I smiled at the hotel manager’s small mistakes, his thesis was not only correct but crucial for the world to understand - and far better, might I add, than most US citizens could muster. COP 17 needs to define a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol and establish a legally binding treaty. The people of the world must heed the mandates of the LDCs and most vulnerable. As a citizen of the United States, we cannot allow more people to die due to our reluctance and inaction. We must all come together to complete this very important work!