Durban climate summit: sellout, revolt

February 7, 2012

“2020 is too late to wait!” rang out the words of Abigail Borah, a 21-year-old college student/activist from Vermont. She was interrupting U.S. climate negotiator Todd Stern’s speech at the latest yearly UN climate summit, held this time in Durban, South Africa, Nov. 28 to Dec. 11. Her passionate intervention, drawing applause from many delegates, cut through the happy face Stern tried to paint over three decades of U.S. sabotage of any effective international action since the 1992 Earth Summit.

The Durban summit was as devoid of real accomplishments as the previous ones. On paper, targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions are totally inadequate. In real life, the emissions keep growing at a faster rate. After a temporary recession-caused dip in 2009, emissions rose by a half billion tons of carbon in 2010. Scientists pointed out that even the non-binding pledges that nations have made are not enough to prevent a rise of 2°C, which in itself is considered dangerously high by leading climatologists like James Hansen.


One day after Durban ended, Canada announced its withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol, which had once been hailed as a milestone. The U.S. never ratified it, and Japan, Russia, Australia and New Zealand declined to make any commitments for a proposed extension after Kyoto expires this year.

While doing nothing to protect humanity’s future, the industrialized countries did, as always, carefully protect the markets for emissions permits, and promote land grabs, dispossession of inhabitants, and capitalist industrialization of forests and farmland in the name of saving the climate. Especially pernicious is REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), which allows multinational corporations to claim tradable credits for “preserving” forests so that they can continue to pump carbon into the air.


Against this, a Global Alliance of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities against REDD+ was formed. Indigenous peoples and small farmers have long been fighting land grabs made in the name of biofuels and environmental protection. As Berenice Sanchez of the Mesoamerica Indigenous Women’s Biodiversity Network pointed out, “The UN climate negotiation is not about saving the climate, it is about privatization of forests, agriculture and the air.”

Similarly, small farmers organized in Via Campesina denounced Durban’s “opening of the doors for agriculture to be included in the carbon markets,” and the continuing industrialization of agriculture as opposed to peasant-based agro-ecological agriculture.

In the summit’s host country, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa issued a statement rejecting market-based solutions to climate change, and pointing out the “need to link our struggles around climate change with global anti-capitalist struggles.”


The summit preparations themselves illustrated this linkage. The shackdwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo started Occupy KwaMashu to claim housing for 31 families illegally evicted by the municipality of KwaMashu (having previously been evicted due to the 2007 World Cup) so they would not make the town “look bad” for the summit. They also started Occupy Hillary and Occupy Pinetown for people forced out of homes in other areas near Durban. Solidarity came from Occupy COP17, which held protests and daily general assemblies during the summit.

A number of other protests took place, including a march of 5,000 on Dec. 3 calling for climate justice. Over 150 people were thrown out of the conference hall after various actions, including Occupy-style people’s mic communications.

What this latest summit made clear yet again is that, while the rulers and their political representatives only push us toward climate catastrophe, a human solution can only come from below.

–Franklin Dmitryev

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