Finishing Off the Business in Durban – Developing Country Perspectives

by Anjali Appadurai

It was my good fortune to be invited to a high-level cocktail party by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) Green Economy Initiative on Friday night. Pavan Sukhdev, head of the initiative, was speaking on the negative effects of meat production on our food systems, but his speech was almost drowned out by the vast number of people who were too busy chatting and munching on steak kebabs to listen. At first I wondered if there was any value in an event where people were more focused on the delicious food and fountains of free alcohol than on the actual issues themselves, but I decided to give it a shot. I was the only person from my delegation at the event – indeed, among only a few youth. I didn’t know anyone, so I had nothing to lose by perching myself at a table and introducing myself to whomever was there. I was pleasantly surprised by how well I was received as a total stranger in their midst, and I realized that these events are very important for bringing delegates and civil society together on the same platform where they can connect at a human level. My night out resulted in my gaining an array of different perspectives from delegates and NGOs from developing countries, helping me to knit together a more comprehensive picture of what these negotiations look like at all levels.

I spent a long time talking to a member of the Zambian delegation. He was a lovely man who took an interest in the US student perspective I offered. I happened to be reading a booklet on the Kyoto Protocol flexibility mechanisms when he approached me, and in our subsequent conversation every time he mentioned the US he would point at the booklet. He was not a big fan of the mechanisms because he felt that they evade the idea of climate change being a “global problem”, instead letting it be a problem that countries could try to pass off to one another. He told me a story: “Say I want to cook some chicken,” he said very seriously. “I want to cook some chicken but I come and cook it in your house. I make a lot of smoke then I come back to my house and eat the chicken. Now whose smoke is that, yours or mine?” I had to laugh since the story was actually quite a good representation of current market-based mechanisms that many countries pose as a solution to the problem. He lamented the fact that countries cannot pull it together and accept that the problem of climate change should transcend international politics. He also commented on the amount of corruption that occurs within the system (and the recent Wikileaks evidence on how the US allegedly offered economic aid to countries who needed it in exchange for support on the Copenhagen Accord sadly proves him right), saying that the IPCC is probably even downplaying the possible effects of climate change for political reasons. And lastly, he offered a stellar perspective on the role of youth within the negotiations. He promised that next year in Durban there would be more African youth, since youth participation is one of the most important parts of this process. As I took my leave of this fine gentleman I couldn’t help but marvel at the difference in perspective between countries’ delegates , and how this man’s perspective on the global nature of the climate change problem is something sorely lacking in other areas of these negotiations.

I made friends with two young people from Uganda. They were here with an NGO that focused on the rights of indigenous populations. Their view on the US was rather dismal; they told me that since I was studying in the US I had better support all the US policies and actions or else I might find myself suddenly without a US visa to return to the country. They firmly believed that such corruption and coercion occurs on a daily basis within the US. They were also convinced that we students in America are “reading the wrong books”. In order for us to have a truly global perspective, they said, we should “read more books of a different sort”. Books from Indian scholars, African Scholars, Middle Eastern scholars. The economic and social principles that are perpetuated by the books we read are one-sided and potentially harmful to the future of international relations, they said. I took this all in and was grateful that I go to COA, where we are actively encouraged to “read different books,” question everything and scrutinize the perspectives we are taught in the classroom. The thing that these young men were most certain about, however, was that we are going to “finish the business in Durban.” Without a doubt, they said, the African Group intends to finish off this struggle for climate justice in Durban. If we fail, then that is the end of the UNFCCC, they predicted darkly. Prior to this, I hadn’t heard much hope for Durban, so it was good to see some passion and certainty with regards to COP17, which will hopefully yield some direct results from the small steps achieved in Cancun.

Next I spoke to two members of the Cambodian delegation. One was in charge of mitigation and GHG inventory, the other of adaptation. Their perspective was fascinating. Cambodia is an LDC very much dependent upon Japan for foreign aid. With Japan’s recent refusal to comply with the next commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, Cambodia is placed in a difficult position. When I asked them about their position on the KP, they repeatedly expressed confusion and kept saying “we don’t know, we don’t know, it is difficult.” I asked them if Japan’s position on the KP influenced their own, and although they wouldn’t answer explicitly, all they said was that they were heavily dependent upon Japan. It was a rather saddening example of how many countries are held to certain policies under the weight of economic losses or gains. I shouldn’t have been amused, but it was rather funny that as we were talking about these very serious issues in the realm of international climate politics, these two Cambodian men could not stop smiling! It must be a Cambodian thing to be very polite and smile all the time. One of them then gave me a great analogy for the current status of the KP: “You know movie Titanic?” he asked me earnestly. “You know when the boat is sinking, the musicians keep on playing.” He made violin motions and said, “They keep playing until the very last minute” and burst into giggles. I had to laugh at this, for – just like the Zambian delegate – my Cambodian friend had accurately summed up thirteen years of the KP saga.

This blog post is far too long to recount subsequent conversations with a delegate from Ghana, two NGO representatives from Kenya and various observers from the US, but I will close with my last and most hilarious encounter of the night. On the bus home, I collapsed, exhausted, in the seat and attempted to process the conversations of the day. A young man from Namibia was about to pass me, but stopped. I must have been wearing a grumpy expression, because he asked me almost indignantly, “What’s wrong with your face?” With that great conversation starter, I was introduced to four members of the Namibian delegation, young men who were representing their country at the negotiations with humour and wit. It was in this final conversation that the true scope of the difference in perspective between developed and developing countries hit me. The difference is cultural, ideological and communicative in nature – not just political. At one point in our conversation, I asked about the position of the African Group and whether they thought that the AG has a stronger voice in this year’s negotiations. One of them replied sadly, “There is no understanding in these negotiations. If they could see what we cry for, what we need on this continent, there would be some outcome.” That made me wonder about different ways we could think about starting to bridge the non-political barriers between countries. What if there was greater cultural understanding? Greater understanding of place, values and motivations in other countries? I suppose that the fact that the negotiations are held in a different country each year contributes to that, but I find myself realizing that we need different forms of cross-country communication than simply the carefully-crafted national statements in the plenary sessions. My Namibian friends were also adamant about the future success of the Durban COP17. They immediately cheered up when we began talking about it, and they spent the rest of the bus ride telling me how Africa was going to really “bring it” next year. “Durban is going to be the end,” they told me. “If nothing happens there, it is the end of the UNFCCC and also of Africa. Africa will exit from the whole business.” One of them joked “If nothing happens at Durban we will cancel all flights out of the country. Then we’ll see how serious these people get,” and burst out laughing. I don’t think it a bad solution, actually. Maybe what we need in these negotiations is a nice cozy heart-to-heart between country delegates in order to bridge the gaping abyss between what I’ve seen of developed country perspectives and those of developing countries. My exposure to perspectives from several African and Asian countries that night allowed me to see how great this gap really is, and forced to me to reflect upon how we must go about lessening it.

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