Durban's big issue: climate change kills people

Thursday, December 15, 2011 • Sonali Fernando


As the dust settles in Durban, South Africa, after a marathon round of stoppage-time talks last weekend, climate change observers are assessing the result. The jury is still out on whether to hail the outcome a victory from the land of political miracles or a spectacular missed opportunity.


The conference’s indubitable success was the decision of the United States, India and China – the world’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, responsible for 48.5% of the carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere every year – to embark in good faith on a process that will eventually result in a legal deal  encompassing every country on earth. India had resisted the EU’s insistence on a “legally binding” contract, proposing instead a more ambiguous “legal outcome”. But an extraordinary eleventh-hour deal struck by two powerful women – European Union Commissioner Connie Hedegaard and India’s climate negotiator Jayanthi Nataraj – broke through an impasse that had made it all but certain Durban would be a toothless tiger.

The clincher was a verbal compromise that both parties could live with: “an agreed outcome with legal force”. But how legal is legal? The fact that the terms have yet to be worked out and that the agreement will not come into effect until 2020 has rung alarm bells. The world still faces the likelihood of a 3-4 degree rise in temperature – a scenario that could leave vast tracts of the planet uninhabitable, deforested and depopulated, according to the respected Tyndall Centre, unless drastic further measures are taken immediately.

In the meantime, the EU has agreed to a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol – the treaty that commits industrialised countries to stabilising their emissions of harmful greenhouse gases – which is set to begin immediately after the first commitment period expires in 2012 and to last for at least five years.

Clapping with one hand

Climate change specialists are clapping with one hand: as ACT Alliance climate change advisor Mattias Söderberg says, the targets for carbon emission cuts that countries will submit in May 2012 are likely to be far less ambitious than those of the first commitment period – and based on political expediency rather than the dictates of science.

Rather more promising was the decision to get the Green Climate Fund up and running next year. The fund aims to raise US $100bn by 2020 to enable developing countries to adapt to existing climate change and establish models of social and industrial progress that do not rely on high carbon consumption.

But if there was one message that cut through all the horsetrading on carbon emissions and the ornate nuances of this annual gabfest, it was the heartfelt pleas from those countries for whom destructive climate change is a daily reality, not some dystopian future – especially the negotiating blocs known as the Association of Small Island States (AOSIS) and the Least Developed Countries (LDC).

The human face of climate change

In one session, amid the flowery Victorian preambles and set-pieces that still characterise UN debates in 2011, the negotiator from Cape Verde delivered a poignant allegory. The real story of the sinking of the Titanic, he said, was that, just a short while before its tragic end, the great cruise ship had struck a small boat whose passengers were calling out desperately for help. Those on board the Titanic knew a collision was inevitable unless they acted, but the captain said that the engines were working too hard and the vessel could not be stopped. So the Titanic continued on its inexorable path, dispatching the little boat and its passengers to certain death. And then the Titanic hit an iceberg.

“That little boat is us”, he said, “the victim of the big countries of the world, the Titanics.” He pointed out that rising sea levels catalysed by climate change meant that many islands in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans – including the Cape Verde archipelago – would soon disappear: “If this meeting can do nothing for the islands of Africa, the LDCs, if we continue business as usual, we will face the same fate as Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands. They are facing the end of history.” And, according to his parable, the developed world would soon follow.

His words chimed with ACT’s message to the COP in insisting that world representatives look at the human face of climate change by recognising the devastation it wreaks on the poorest people on earth. The message underpinned the alliance’s policy stance and its visual materials (see box below), which showed a range of people with the slogan ‘climate change kills me’.

Climate change kills people

The facts are brutal. According to the Climate Vulnerability Monitor, 350,000 people die every year because of disasters caused by climate change. Floods, droughts, scarce rains and landslides are not abstract meteorological events. They are sources of devastating misery and loss to millions of people around the world. Even without a predicted new temperature rise of 1-2 degrees taking effect, many of the world’s poorest people stand to lose everything they have – their homes, possessions, livestock, jobs, security and even their lives – because of climate change.

ACT delivered its direct and uncompromising message – that combating climate change is an issue of justice for the world’s poor – around the COP17 talks, whether in the inner sanctum of one-to-one meetings with government delegates or at rallies on the streets of Durban. Along with batches of policy briefs articulating the alliance’s three advocacy positions – on low carbon development, climate finance and adaptation – ACT’s 16-strong delegation took a wide range of t-shirts, name-badges, folders, leaflets, posters and postcards. Most popular were the placards that showed portraits of people, young and old, male and female – many of them directly affected by climate change – with the slogan ‘Climate change kills me’.
The tough and uncompromising message attempted to cut to the chase. The layers of meaning – I hate climate change, climate change is a joke – deliberately resonated with another meaning: climate change can also kill.

In the end the photographic portraits mingled with the real people carrying them, as though a virtual village had been drafted into the rally. The message was prominently visible worldwide on BBC television and on the BBC website in a video and photographs.

It also made the front page of a leading South African paper, the Sunday Tribune, and in an optimistic article by The Hindu newspaper, which has a circulation of 1.6 million.

The images featured in the top spot of IRIN, the United Nations' award-winning humanitarian news website, read by a million people daily, and also landed up in the Finish government’s global development site, which featured the ‘Climate change kills me’ image first in its photo portal from Durban. Meanwhile, a number of civil society organisations, such as ActionAid, picked up the images as mastheads for their own views. In a blog ‘Different languages, same message’, the words were deemed particularly resonant.

Greenpeace in Finland also got the idea as did Catholic relief and development network CAFOD. The images captured the attention of bloggers around the world, from a magazine and news portal in Italy to North America, where it ended up in the Climate Connections blog run by the Global Justice Ecology Project, and from Thailand to South Africa.

Photographs sprang up around the Internet on Flickr here and here. And on a Twitter portal, the IMC Africa pages and a gallery by Church of Sweden.

OneWorld’s impressive, comprehensive coverage of the entire event included an image showing the numerical strength of the rally – with a mix of placards announcing that it was Time for Climate Justice (the campaign supported by ACT members and ecumenical advocacy group Aprodev) and Climate Change Kills Me.

This was a proper rally – noisy, forthright, creative and expressive. And the ecumenical contingent distinguished itself with an eminently recyclable new form of street activism – the political 'cry-in'. It could not have been more apt: a young woman representing Mother Earth wailed, beating her breast, and a crowd spontanteously gathered around her in a chorus of mourning.