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Darwin Comes to Durban: Overcoming "Survival of the Fittest" Mentality at UN Climate Talks

This recent Bloomberg headline sums up just about everything that's wrong with the UN climate negotiations, which get underway in Durban, South Africa tomorrow: "Saudis Seek to Ensure Climate Talks Won’t Hurt OPEC Oil Income."

Addressing climate change by definition requires countries to look beyond their national self interests, but in practice, a Darwinian "survival of the fittest" mentality has taken hold. And by "fittest" I mean major emitters from both developed and developing countries that apparently have all but stitched up an agreement amongst themselves to delay new binding international climate action until 2020.  (BBC)

If they succeed, this would be a scandalous abrogation of duty and a breach of the public trust. "Shocking and irresponsible" is how Grenada's Minister for the Environment described it.  

In the most optimistic scenario, existing pledges amount to roughly half of what we need to stave off catastrophic climate change -- now is the time to ratchet up ambition, not dial it down.

Excuses for inaction are as threadbare as an old carpet.

The global financial crisis?  The International Energy Agencysays that for every dollar we don't invest in clean electricity now, an additional $4.30 will have to be spent later to deal with the consequences of our increased emissions.  In fact, a recent global survey by Ernst & Young of more than 300 business leaders from large multinational corporations found that 83% think an international climate agreement is needed, and more than half saw measures to combat climate change as a business opportunity.

Large developing countries not doing their fair share?  Not true. China, for example, is the world's leader in the green energy race and is running cap and trade pilot projects in several regions. (Reuters) In the meantime, the Chinese are making dramatic improvements in energy efficiency per unit of GDP (20% in the last five years).

US foot dragging?  This is a favorite, for the obvious reason that it's true. There is simply no excuse for the way the US behaves in the negotiations given their decade of inaction following the Bush Administration’s opt-out of the Kyoto Protocol. But even this is not sufficient cause for inaction. The US is like a schoolyard bully who derives his power from the classmates who enable him. If the rest of the world moves forward together, the US will have to come on board eventually or risk being left behind.

But if some of the largest developing countries are now forging an unholy alliance with rich country foot draggers, all in the name of avoiding binding international commitments, we are in even more serious trouble than I thought. Consider this sobering headline from the Hindustan Times the other day: "India, US on Same Page on Climate Talks." As one observer suggests, the battle lines may no longer be drawn between rich vs poor countries, but strong vs weak.

It's bad enough that the world's major carbon emitters are planning to kick the climate treaty can down the road once again, but it's even worse to pretend it doesn't matter, as some have suggested. Achim Steiner, the UN's top environment official has dismissed this suggestion out of hand: "The world has no option but to reach a binding agreement. If we don't have a global agreement, we become captive to the narrow self-interest of countries who only see the competitive advantage rationale in whether to act [on emissions] or not.” (Guardian))

This is not to say that bottom-up action isn't important -- it's crucial, and it's happening. Tcktcktck is co-hosting an event in Durban with the Maldives and several other countries who are collaborating in the Cartagena Dialogue. Titled "Positive Energy Club," it will showcase the low-carbon transitions of countries such as the Maldives, Denmark, Sweden, Costa Rica, Colombia, Malawi and Samoa. These countries will share their experiences not as a means of demonstrating an alternative to a legally binding agreement, but specifically to shore it up. Successful experiences on the ground increase the likelihood that countries will show greater ambition in the negotiations. By emphasizing the positive benefits to be gained from the low-carbon transition, these countries help build momentum.

It remains to be seen over the next two weeks whether a chorus of ambition and solidarity will drown out the ominous Darwinian drumbeat. Here are three things governments can do to start putting things back on track:

1)  Adopt a strong second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol which currently includes emission reduction targets only through 2012. It's the only binding climate law we've got.
2) Adopt a mandate to conclude negotiations on a more comprehensive legally binding instrument covering all countries (respecting differing responsibilities for countries at different stages of development) as a matter of urgency.
3) Get the Green Climate Fund up and running, with sufficient funding for adaptation and low-carbon development.


Kelly Rigg is Executive Director of the Global Campaign for Climate Action

Photocredits:

Greenpeace / Tcktcktck raise a wind turbine at dawn in Durban, South Africa, to send a message of hope for the latest round of UN climate change talks © Greenpeace / Shayne Robinson

The Daily Durban is covering the UNFCCC Climate Talks in Durban, SA. Daily Kos environmental writers welcome collaborators from 350.org, the Global Campaign for Climate Action, Post Carbon Institute, Oxfam, WiserEarth, tcktcktck, Transition US, Ecoequity, and environmental artist Franke James. During the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17), Daily Durban will also share content from the People's Conference C17 and Occupy COP17.

Visit Earthship COPernica for updates, archives, and access to background, edutainmenet news updates, social media resources, live stream links and video casts throughout the two weeks.

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