UN Climate Conference:The Durban Disaster

By Anne Petermann and Orin Langelle

This year’s UN Climate Conference of the Parties (COP-17) in Durban, South Africa, nicknamed “The Durban Disaster,” took the dismal track record of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to new lows. At one point, it appeared that the talks might actually collapse, but a small cabal of 20-30 countries held exclusive closed-door talks over the final days to create the Durban Platform, which carbon analyst Matteo Mazzoni described as “an agreement between parties to arrange another agreement.”

The details of the platform will not be completed until 2015 and will not be implemented until 2020, leading many to charge that the 2010s will be the lost decade in the fight to stop climate catastrophe. Pablo Solón, the former Ambassador to the UN for the Plurinational state of Bolivia, summed up the negotiations this way: “The Climate Change Conference ended two days later than expected, adopting a set of decisions that were known only a few hours before their adoption. Some decisions were not even complete at the moment of their consideration. Paragraphs were missing and some delegations didn’t even have copies of these drafts. The package of decisions was released by the South African presidency with the ultimatum, ‘Take it or leave it’.”

Nnimmo Bassey, chair of Friends of the Earth International, similarly condemned the outcomes: “An increase in global temperatures of four degrees Celsius permitted under this plan is a death sentence for Africa, small island states, and the poor and vulnerable worldwide. This summit has amplified climate apartheid whereby the richest 1 percent of the world have decided that it is acceptable to sacrifice the 99%percent.”

Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the North America-based Indigenous Environmental Network, went even further, calling the outcome, “climate racism, ecocide, and genocide of an unprecedented scale.”

The UN, on the other hand, trumpeted the success of the conference at “saving tomorrow, today.” One of the great achievements touted by Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UNFCCC, was the renewed commitment to the Kyoto Protocol (KP): “…countries, citizens, and businesses who have been behind the rising global wave of climate action can now push ahead confidently, knowing that Durban has lit up a broader highway to a low-emission, climate resilient future.”

Nature magazine took direct aim at this assertion: “It takes a certain kind of optimism—or an outbreak of collective Stockholm syndrome—to see the Durban outcome as a significant breakthrough on global warming…. Outside Europe…there will be no obligation for any nation to reduce soaring greenhouse-gas emissions much before the end of the decade. [Durban] is an unqualified disaster. It is clear that the science of climate change and the politics of climate change, now inhabit parallel worlds.”

The Third World Network concluded that the Durban Platform “provides for the ‘great escape’ from the Kyoto Protocol.” In fact, less than 24 hours after the Durban negotiations ended, Canada became the first country to formally withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol. “Kyoto, for Canada, is in the past,” stated Peter Kent, Canada’s Environment Minister. Even while Canada was a signatory to the KP, its climate emissions skyrocketed due to the tar sands giga-project in Alberta.

While “legally binding,” the Kyoto Protocol’s goal of decreasing global climate emissions 5.2 percent below 1990 levels was unscientific and totally insufficient to mitigate climate change. But even these modest goals have gone unmet. Since it went into force in 2005 (eight years after it was ratified), global emissions have steadily increased. But the extension of the Kyoto Protocol for one more year kept alive the carbon markets, which had been on the brink of collapse due to the financial crisis and an oversupply of carbon credits.

On December 12, the Financial Times quoted Abyd Karmali, global head of carbon markets at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, that extending the dysfunctional Kyoto Protocol was a “Viagra shot for the flailing carbon markets.” Two days later, when the EU carbon market dropped to a record low, Reuters quoted one carbon trader stating, “It’s clear that Durban didn’t help and Canada’s announcement of its Kyoto Protocol withdrawal tells you what little countries think about international agreements.” This sentiment was echoed by the Philippines-based Peoples Movement on Climate Change: “Kyoto is essentially a corpse surviving on life support. With Japan, Russia and Canada joining the US [in rejecting] the Kyoto Protocol, its second round will cover just…15% of global emissions.”

Another significant roadblock to just and effective climate action is the Durban Platform’s text on trade. It ignores the historical responsibility of free market capitalism in causing the climate crisis by requiring climate-related decisions to be compliant with the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO). The text is unequivocal: “the WTO is the competent body for multilateral trade rule-making and Parties which are members of the WTO have the responsibility to respect their WTO obligations when they adopt measures to address climate change…. Measures taken to combat climate change, including unilateral ones, should not constitute a…disguised restriction on international trade.”

As with the WTO, the UNFCCC has focused on the free market as a panacea. Their prioritization of voluntary market-based solutions has earned the UNFCCC nicknames like “the WTO of the Sky” and the “World Carbon Trade Organization.” Janet Redman of the Institute for Policy Studies explained the UNFCCC fixation on market-based solutions at a Climate Justice Now! press conference: “Banks that caused the financial crisis are now making bonanza profits speculating on the planet’s future. The financial sector, driven into a corner, is seeking a way out by developing ever newer commodities to prop up a failing system.”

The focus on market-based climate strategies has led to growing outrage and civil society action against the climate COPs. As a result, the UNFCCC is moving their next round of talks from South Korea, where they were originally planned, to Qatar.

The Greatest Land Grab of All Time

A new scheme developed by the World Bank called “Climate Smart Agriculture” is designed to introduce soils and agriculture into the carbon market as part of the REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) package. Rachel Smolker of BiofuelWatch explains the concept: “Climate smart agriculture will put a dollar value on the carbon in dirt so it can be sold on the market, and polluters can buy dirt offsets that will allow them to continue to pollute. Climate smart agriculture is a resource grab of monumental proportions. For those who can afford it—the financiers, fund managers, speculators and banks— markets in dirt will be a field day…. And if the trade in all that dirt is used as an excuse for ongoing pollution, we shall all soon be toast.”

In a press release, La Via Campesina, the largest global peasant farmer’s movement, denounced this as a scheme by the agro-industrial complex to tap into climate-mitigation profits and stated that: “Peasant agriculture is the way to feed people with healthy food and at the same time to guarantee a balance in the ecosystem and on the farm. The logic of carbon markets and trading should not be allowed to enter into agriculture.”

REDD has been hotly contested since it was first introduced into the climate mitigation package at the 2007 climate talks. Every year since, REDD has been pushed by those who wish to use the world’s forests as carbon offsets and protested by Indigenous Peoples and forest dependent communities that face potential forced relocation if their forest homelands are “protected,” under the REDD scheme.

Those that stand to benefit argue that REDD just needs a few safeguards to make it work, but others like the Indigenous Environmental Network insist that REDD must be rejected. Berenice Sanchez of the MesoAmerican Indigenous Women’s Biodiversity Network explains, “the supposed safeguards are voluntary, weak, and hidden. REDD-type projects are already violating Indigenous Peoples’ rights throughout the world.” In Durban, the Global Alliance of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities Against REDD and for Life issued a press release on December 6 calling for an immediate moratorium on REDD, stating, “REDD threatens the survival of Indigenous Peoples and forest dependent communities and could result in the biggest land grab of all time.”

The alliance further warned that if expanded, “REDD [would] promote the privatization and commodification of forests, trees, and air through carbon markets and offsets from forests, soils, agriculture, and could even include the oceans. This could commodify almost the entire surface of Mother Earth.”

But REDD is not a threat only to communities in Southern countries where REDD projects are planned. Because REDD allows industries to purchase carbon offsets, it enables them to continue polluting communities in Northern industrialized countries. For this reason, communities impacted by REDD in both the North and South have joined forces to oppose REDD.

Kandi Mossett, of the Indigenous Environmental Network, explained how REDD impacts her community, “I grew up on a reservation [in the U.S.]. We are watching our people die. Heart attacks, cancers, asthma. Everybody is being affected by the dirty industries on the reservation—industries allowed to continue polluting because of REDD. I can’t tell you what it’s like to keep going to funerals when the coffins are getting smaller and smaller.”

Global Forest Coalition hosted a seminar in Durban on forest conservation and REDD, which released a statement highlighting the findings of recent studies that forest restoration and protection hinges on “recognition of Indigenous territorial rights, autonomy, traditional knowledge and governance systems; land reform, food sovereignty and sustainable alternative livelihood options.”

The People Speak Out

Social movements and peoples’ organizations planned a series of parallel events and protests during the two weeks of the UN climate COP. Occupy COP 17 held daily general assemblies across the street from the Climate Convention. At its opening Assembly on November 28, Occupy COP 17 released a statement: “Here in Durban, where Nelson Mandela cast his first vote and Gandhi held his first public meeting, we’re putting out an invitation to anyone who wishes to have their voice heard: to join a dialogue of how to ensure the present culture of 1 percent of the world’s population does no injustice to the future of the 99 percent.”

On Sunday, December 4, tens of thousands took to the streets. Labor marched side by side with farmers; banners addressed issues from waste incineration to Indigenous Peoples’ rights. The march stopped at the climate convention center where it was addressed by a series of speakers. Virginia Setshedi, a water privatization activist from Soweto, hosted the event and initiated impassioned calls of “Amandla” to which the crowd responded “Ngawethu” (power to the people).

The second week of the negotiations saw increased levels of protest and heightened reactions by UN Security. On Monday, December 5, UN Security tried to obstruct a permitted protest by the Global Alliance of Wastepickers. Security told them they could not display their signs and banners because they had not been pre-approved. The wastepickers held their protest anyway, dumping bags of garbage, then sorting it for recycling to demonstrate how wastepickers around the world eke out a living by salvaging recyclables from the trash to keep them out of landfills or incinerators. The wastepickers were part of a delegation organized by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives.

On Wednesday, December 7, the first day of the high level negotiations, six members of the Canadian Youth Delegation were “debadged” and ejected for doing an action inside the plenary against Canadian Environment Minister Peter Kent. According to the Globe and Mail, “As [Kent] was speaking, six Canadian activists stood up and turned their backs on him in silent protest. They wore T-shirts saying: ‘Turn your back on Canada’ and ‘People before polluters’.” They received a round of applause.

In a statement about their protest, the Canadian youth said, “The actions of this government put the future of our country and our generation in danger. We won’t take that sitting down. As long as Canada is promoting industry over human rights, we will never see the climate agreement the world needs. It’s time to leave Canada behind.”

But it was not only UN security that conspired to suppress protest. On December 9—on what was supposed to be the final day of the negotiations—a contingent of young activists organized by Greenpeace and 350.org held a rally in the foyer of the plenary where negotiations were taking place. The Occupy-inspired rally of several hundred activists lasted for hours. After two hours or so, Will Bates from 350.org explained to the group that he and others had arranged with UN security for the protest to be allowed to leave the building and continue just outside where people could carry on as long as they wished. There was vocal opposition to this suggestion. People could feel the power of being in that hallway and were unhappy with the idea of leaving. But the mostly male leadership refused to cede control. “If you choose to stay,” Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace, warned, “you will lose your access badge and your ability to come back into this climate COP and any future climate COPs.” The question was posed about how many people planned to stay and dozens of hands shot up. The leadership then warned that anyone who refused to leave would be debadged, handed over to South African police, and charged with trespass.

In response a young South African man stood up and spoke out. “I am South African. This is my country. If you want to arrest anyone for trespass, you will start with me.” He then led the group in singing Shosholoza, a traditional South African folk song sung by migrant workers in the South African mines. The hallway resounded with the workers’ anthem.

When the occupation still refused to budge, Naidoo, who seemed determined to control the message of the protest, said, “Okay. I have spoken with security and this what we are going to do. We will remove our badge [he demonstrated this with a grand sweeping gesture] and hand it over to security as we walk out of the building. No one will be able to accuse us of trying to disrupt the negotiations.”

In response, Anne Petermann, co-author of this article said, “I have been attending these COPs since 2004. They are controlled by the 1 percent. I say, occupy the COP.” At that point, Petermann sat down on the floor and was joined by a dozen other people—mostly youth, including Keith Brunner and Lindsey Gillies, two members of the youth delegation and accredited by the Global Justice Ecology Project.

A young woman named Karuna Rana from the small island of Mauritius off the southeast coast of Africa also sat down, saying, “I am the only young person here from Mauritius. These climate COPs have been going for seventeen years. And what have they accomplished? Nothing. My island is literally drowning and so I am sitting down to take action—for my people and for my island. Something must be done.”

At that point, Naidoo told the occupiers, “When security taps you on the shoulder, you have to leave. We are going to be peaceful, we don’t want any confrontation.” He then led a group of protesters down the hall, handing his badge to UN security. Those who remained sitting on the floor were then taken by security, one by one, down the hallway and out of the building. Brunner and Petermann linked arms until security forcibly removed all of the media that remained. A group of reporters, including Amy Goodman and the crew of Democracy Now!, were pushed up the adjacent staircase against their will, out of view of the protest.

“They’re all yours,” said the UN security officers who then left. The South African police then loaded the activists into a police van and dropped them off at the “Speakers’ Corner” across the street, site of the Occupy COP 17 general assemblies.

The contentious negotiations went on until Sunday morning when the Durban Platform was officially adopted over the protests of many Southern countries. For many climate justice activists, this was the last nail in the coffin of the UNFCCC, which had made it abundantly clear that profit trumps survival. The action had been an empowering and inspiring contrast to the lifeless convention center where the most powerful countries of the world played deadly games with the future.

What Comes Next?

The UNFCCC was a product of the first Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. This coming June, a new global Earth Summit is planned. This “UN Conference on Sustainable Development,” also to be held in Rio, is being called “Rio+20.” The official agenda is the transition to a global “green economy” and reform of the institutions charged with sustainable development. According to Jim Thomas of the ETC Group, “Far from cooking up a plan to save the Earth, the summit could instead be a deal to surrender the living world to a small cabal of bankers and engineers. Tensions are already rising between northern countries and southern countries [and] suspicion is running high that the ‘green economy’ is more likely to deliver a greenwash economy or the same old, same old ‘greed’ economy.”

The focus on the creation of a new “green economy” is effectively diverting attention from the real root causes of the ecological and social crises we are facing today. It is a rehash of the old argument that capitalism can be reformed and made responsible. But the proponents of the “green economy” take this position to an even greater extreme by claiming that the “services” provided by nature (clean air, pure water, etc) should be given an economic value. This would allow them to be bought, traded, or offset in order to “raise funds for conservation.”

As Thomas points out, however, “Indigenous Peoples and social justice movements who have fought against land displacement brought about by REDD+ are particularly alarmed that the same commodification approach is now being proposed to extend to soils, oceans, and more.”

The expansion of the free market into every corner of the natural world is receiving significant pushback. Organizations from around the world are mobilizing for Rio—some to try to influence the talks from the inside, but even more are focusing on a parallel Peoples’ Summit for Social and Environmental Justice Against the Commodification of Life and Nature in Defense of the Commons. This parallel summit is to be held simultaneously to and in the same city as Río+20. It is calling for the mobilization and coordination of struggles across the planet toward the development of a Permanent People’s Assembly.

According to organizers, this Assembly will “give voice to the women and men, young and old, who are resisting daily the advance of a development model that is by definition unsustainable: a model whose predatory inhumanity is trying to subject every aspect of life to the dictates of the market, always putting the profits of a few ahead of everyone’s buen vivir or well-being, while simultaneously trying to hide behind a green-washed face.”

Regarding how to address climate change effectively, Shannon Biggs of Global Exchange argues for a people’s approach that addresses the big picture: “As long as it was accepted that climate change is the problem, it made a lot of sense to turn to international institutions like the UN as the driver for change. In this sense, the utter failure of Durban can be quite freeing—if we choose it—because it means we can actually address root causes of climate change—our cultural and legal traditions of dominating the Earth for profit.”

“I am feeling very optimistic,” said Wahu Kaara, coordinator of the Kenya Debt Relief Network. “We are the people that sustain life. COP 17 has seen the death of the corporate climate conspiracy. Now we need to begin writing a new history and constructing a new world that values life and that stops the sale of life for profit. They have drawn the line. We can’t continue this way. We have to begin to walk in the direction of life—and the death of the corporate climate conspiracy is the first step in that walk.”


Anne Petermann is the executive director of Global Justice Ecology Project and the North American Focal Point for Global Forest Coalition. Orin Langelle is the co-director/strategist for the Global Justice Ecology Project and a photojournalist. Photo 1 & 2: Protests at UN Climate Conference; photo by Lagelle/GJEP. Photo 3: Christina Figueres, exec secretary of UNFCCC speaks to crowd at the Day of Action; photo by Langelle/GJEP. Photo 4: Anne Petermann and Keith Brunner just before being removed from the Climate Conference; photo by Langelle/GJEP. Photo 5: Security officer tries to stop photo taking; photo by Jeff Conant/GJEP-GFC. Photo 5: Tom Goldtooth from Indigenous Environmental Network; photo by Langelle/GJEP.