Moving beyond the Durban disaster - it's time to mobilise

Friday, December 16, 2011 - 15:02

We, the US climate community, have, by and large, become so dazzled and distracted by the prospect of a climate treaty that we have overlooked the one thing that can really create lasting change: social movements so fierce and unforgiving that policy makers have no choice but to take meaningful climate action.

Since my first UN climate summit in Bali in 2007, I, like many of my colleagues in the US climate movement, have become engrossed in how to build a climate agreement to protect our planet and its people. We speak of targets and timelines. We discuss the nuances of ‘should’ versus ‘shall’ of a protocol versus a legal outcome. And while these nuances are important in the context of international negotiations, we are failing at the bigger quest of winning hearts and minds and mobilizing the American public around the climate crisis.

There are good reasons why we have focused on the international climate negotiations (via the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC) as a key vehicle for change. The UNFCCC presents an ongoing and ready-made process in which to focus our advocacy efforts and to demand action from our leaders. And, the UNFCCC is possibly the only forum in which the United States government hears and feels outrage about its lack of commitment to and ambition on climate change—outrage that it should be hearing from its own citizens.

At the international negotiations, the US could potentially be embarrassed and isolated into action, or so we thought...

Despite the fact that virtually all major successful social justice struggles have been won through public mobilization (often resulting in treaties, legislation or other legal achievements), it seemed easier and faster to focus energy on global negotiations rather than on domestic movement building. But after the disaster of Durban, we, the climate community, must face our own painful reality. We are losing, and we will continue to lose unless we drastically change course.

In Durban, countries agreed to spend the next three years negotiating a new global agreement on climate change. Countries are to complete the new round of negotiations by 2015 in order for the “protocol, legal instrument or legal outcome” to come into effect in 2020.

We don’t have that kind of time.

The tragedy of the Durban agreement is that countries will now enter into years of negotiations on a new global agreement while obligations from the 2007 Bali climate conference and the 2010 Cancun climate conference remain woefully unfulfilled.

Those who will lose most from this delay, of course, are poor countries and communities that are already facing the impacts of climate change. For people in those countries, eight years of inaction may mean the difference between life and death.

The choice is now ours. We must continue to engage in the process of international negotiations, making sure that any new agreement equally upholds principles of equity and environmental integrity. But at the same time we must invest massive energy and resources into building our movements and mobilizing social and political action to demand more from our leaders. Our leaders are failing us, and we are allowing them to fail us.

The time for outrage, the time for action, the time for change is now.