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RP Siegel headshot

Durban Climate Talks: What’s At Stake?

Words by RP Siegel

When UN climate chief Christiana Figueres kicked off the Durban Climate Summit this week, she told those assembled that a commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions was "the defining issue of this conference." She went on to quote former president Nelson Mandela, who said, speaking of the great struggle he led his people through, "It always seems impossible until it is done.”

Ten points for the positive attitude, but the challenges are daunting. For starters, the US, according to a letter sent to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from sixteen organizations including Greenpeace, NRDC, Oxfam, UCS and the WWF, appears to be an “obstacle to progress.”

The cry was taken up by members of the EU who said that America was “overlooking the facts,” and not honoring its promise to cut carbon emissions. Indeed they have a point. Carbon emissions in the US, which failed to ratify the Kyoto protocol, rose by 3.9 percent in 2010, which happened to be the warmest year on record. Meanwhile, the Europeans and other developed countries that ratified Kyoto, achieved their target of reducing their emission by 8 percent below 1990 levels.

So why is the US holding back?

Chief US negotiator Todd Stern told NPR that, “There's not going to be a legally binding treaty coming out of Durban because, again, we - the United States made a submission for a legally binding agreement in April of 2009, but that was a submission that was based on all the major players, not just the developed countries, but China and India and Brazil and other big players, all being bound in a common agreement. Those countries are not prepared to do that at this point.”

In other words, we’re not going to budge until China does, too. Sounds a bit like a couple of stubborn and spoiled little kids.

Yes, it’s true that according to Kyoto, China is considered a developing country, and as such, is exempted from making the same kind of commitments that the 1992 agreement would have bound developed countries like the US and European nations to.

And, you have to admit that calling China a developing country is a bit like calling Dolly Parton a developing young woman; after all they are now the number one carbon emitting country in the world (followed closely by the US).

So while our negotiators might have a valid point here, having this standoff at this point in time, is a bit like arguing over who gets into the life boats while the Titanic is sinking. The only difference is, nobody gets off of this ship.

Meanwhile, according to the World Meteorological Organization, greenhouse gases are at their highest levels ever, and Fatih Birol, Chief Economist of the International Energy Agency says that, “If we do not have an international agreement, whose effect is put in place by 2017, then the door to [holding temperatures to 2C of warming] will be closed forever.”

So my question to our leaders is, shouldn’t we be taking the high road here?

I mean, the US is currently holding the entire world hostage to the impending threat of irreversible and devastating climate change, unless we get our way with China. How much different is that from what the Republicans did when they held the whole US economy (and by extension, the world economy) hostage by refusing to raise the debt ceiling unless they got exactly what they wanted in concessions?

Except that while fallen economies can be rebuilt in years or decades, fallen ecosystems might take centuries or millennia. So, if it was morally repugnant when the Republicans did what they did, with the tea party’s swords at their backs, it is far worse than that in this case, with so much more at stake. Besides, at least the Republicans' hostage-taking was driven by misguided conviction.

There is only the lack of conviction here. The US seems to be stalled out at the point of “what is politically possible.” President Obama has not told us whose swords are at his back, though we can surely guess.

Is this the message that we will pass on to future generations, who will be left to pick up the pieces of the devastation we have left behind? “We tried our best, but it was not politically possible.” Is this the America that has held the respect of the world for two centuries?

I truly hope that Amory Lovins is right when he says we can do it without the government’s help, because our government has shown itself to be worse than worthless when it comes to making the kind of tough decision that the world is so desperately looking to us to make right now. What we need here, is not equivocation, not compromise, not a balanced blending of opposing views, but  clear, definitive, positive action. This problem is bigger than all the quibbling and squabbling, all the tax breaks, all the opinion polls, political favors, campaign contributions and power struggles. This is about the continuation of life on the planet. Hello! Is anybody home? Can we get your attention over here please?

Meanwhile, Occupy Durban protestors gathered outside of the proceedings, bringing the voice of the people into the picture. A “We Have Faith” rally was also held, featuring Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who said that those who think they will survive when climate change reaches a tipping point and spins out of control, were fooling themselves.


[Image credit: Nnimmo Bassey at the We Have Faith: Friends of the Earth International: Flick Creative Commons]


RP Siegel, PE, is the President of Rain Mountain LLC. He is also the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water.  Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


RP Siegel headshotRP Siegel

RP Siegel (1952-2021), was an author and inventor who shined a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work appeared in TriplePundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, Grist, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering,  Design News, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, Environmental Science, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Eniday, and engineering.com among others . He was the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP was a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 53 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP was the winner of the 2015 Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week blogging competition. RP passed away on September 30, 2021. We here at TriplePundit will always be grateful for his insight, wit and hard work.


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