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Crisis Time in Durban

World leaders are stalling on climate action at the 2011 Climate Summit in Durban, South Africa. What needs to happen to get things moving and make a change before it’s too late?
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durban lion by oxfam

2000 children gathered to form the image of a lion roaring for climate action on a beach in Durban, South Africa

Photo courtesy of Oxfam International

The U.N. climate talks desperately need a crisis. For the last 10 days, negotiations here in Durban, South Africa, have made little progress on the fundamental challenge these talks were set up to confront: how the world can come together to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Instead, the pace of negotiations has been set by the one country the rest of the world should be turning their back on: the United States.

The U.S. never signed the Kyoto Protocol, the only legally binding international agreement designed to reduce emissions, but it is allowed to take part in the negotiations in a separate track dedicated to securing a long-term climate agreement. After President Obama's election, the international community had high hopes the new administration would bring a new sense of ambition and commitment to talks.

Scientists have stated over and over that in order to avoid catastrophic climate change, emissions must peak by 2015 or 2020 at the absolute latest.

Instead, the only thing the U.S. brought to the table was a wrecking ball. Rather than standing out of the way and letting the rest of the world get on with setting up an international architecture to facilitate cutting emissions, stopping deforestation, and investing in renewable energy, the U.S. has spent the years since Copenhagen attempting to systemically dismantle the U.N. process.

Highest on the U.S. hit list is the Kyoto Protocol, an imperfect treaty (thanks in large part to U.S. recalcitrance), but currently the best instrument in the global climate toolbox. Next on the list is the very idea of legally binding commitments—the U.S. would prefer a "pledge and review" world where countries make their own voluntary commitments and then report out on what they've decided.

Here in Durban, however, the U.S. has taken on an even more insidious role by pushing a proposal that the international community adopt a "mandate" to negotiate a new climate treaty that will take effect in—wait for it—2020.

This isn’t just a delay, it’s a death sentence. Scientists have stated over and over that in order to avoid catastrophic climate change, emissions must peak by 2015 or 2020 at the absolute latest. (For a closer look at the scientific reasoning, read David Roberts.)

"If you're not willing to lead, get out of the way."

It is especially callous and cold-hearted for the U.S. to be pushing the 2020 timeline here in Durban. Africa is already seeing the devastating impacts of the climate crisis, from the deadly drought still ravaging the Horn of Africa to terrible flooding, including here in Durban where heavy rains killed at least eight people just last week.

But instead of being recognized as yet another delay tactic from the world’s biggest historical emitter, the 2020 timeline seems to be gaining traction here at the talks. Brazil and India have vaguely expressed support, China has made cryptic comments about the proposal, and the European Union has yet to stand up clearly and strongly against the delay. If the talks here in Durban are allowed to simply stumble to the closing gavel, there's a chance that the U.S. proposal could become the new mandate for the U.N. climate talks.

If African nations stand up to the U.S. and are backed up by Brazil, India, and the E.U., there’s a chance that the world can save Kyoto, beat back the 2020 delay, and set a mandate for new agreements within the next year.

It’s time for a crisis moment. The world has successfully stood up to the United States at the U.N. climate talks before. On the final day of the talks in Bali in 2007, delegates actively booed Bush administration negotiators over their repeated attempts to hold up progress. Finally, the delegate from Papua New Guinea challenged the U.S.: "If you're not willing to lead, get out of the way." Minutes later, the U.S. negotiators relented and allowed a deal to move forward.

Civil society needs to do everything we can to create a similar crisis moment here in Durban. If African nations stand up to the U.S. and are backed up by Brazil, India, and the E.U., there’s a chance that the world can save Kyoto, beat back the 2020 delay, and set a mandate for new agreements within the next year or by 2015 at the latest.

The world stood up to the U.S. in Bali, it can do it again in Durban. In the words of a South African freedom-fighter-turned-president, "It's always impossible until it’s done."


Jamie Henn co-founded 350.org, where he serves as Communications Director and East Asia Coordinator.

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