Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, again

A version of this post was published in the Adelaide Advertiser and the Newcastle Herald on 17 December 2011.

While the world’s governments were in Durban, once again de-laying action on climate change, at another part of the African continent children in Kenya were taking matters into their own hands.

In the absence of a legally binding treaty committing all major emitters to verifiable emissions reductions in line with the science, the highest priority now must be ensuring poor and vulnerable communities in developing countries are better able to cope with a more variable climate, harsher droughts, higher floods, failed crops, more intense cyclones and an increasing disease burden.

The adaptation need is already great and it will only grow.

While governments are talking about climate change, children are already doing something about it: they are pioneering adaptation in their schools and local communities.

I recently visited a project in Kenya where the organisation I work for supports the establishment of environment clubs in primary schools. The students participate in workshops where they discuss concepts like “vulnerability” and “disaster”; learn about the current and likely future impacts of climate change and develop school and community adaptation plans which they then work to implement.

These inspiring children are taking matters into their own hands.

They develop school gardens and are already experimenting with drought-tolerant crops and sustainable agriculture. They collect discarded plastic bags and are weaving them into colourful shopping baskets. They make cleaner-burning briquettes for cook stoves from coal ash and waste paper. They are developing the kinds of locally relevant coping strategies needed as the climate changes and impacts intensify.

Another example, closer to home, is a project we are implementing in Timor-Leste to help children manage the risks of present climate hazards and be better prepared for future climate change impacts. The project has had astounding results. Not only are the children able to articulate the ways in which they and their families can adapt, they have also reached out to nearby schools that are not part of the project and atarted sharing resources.

The project initially targeted 6000 children in 50 schools but, due to efforts of teachers and students, more than 12,000 children in 118 schools now have access to risk-reduction resources and an increased chance of coping with the world they will face as adults.

All this while officials from their governments and ours stayed up three nights running in Durban to nut out a new way to tackle climate change only to agree to disagree.

With the United Nations climate change conference in South Africa now over, delegates have headed home to face their constituencies. They will no doubt put a positive spin on the outcome, but the fact of the matter is they have, once again, snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

In the final hours of the conference, two weeks of disagreement built to squabbles that reached fever pitch. The EU, backed by the least-developed countries and small island states, was calling for legally binding emissions reduction commitments from all major emitters, including China and India. Those two countries rebelled against the suggestion, with Indian Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan saying: “Am I to write a blank cheque and sign away the livelihoods and sustainability of 1.2 billion Indians?” China’s lead negotiator, Xie Zhenhua, then asked the developed countries: “What qualifies you to tell us what to do? We are taking action. We want to see your action.” The deal finally reached is much less ambitious than the one that was initially on the table. And much less ambitious than the one required to ensure the world stays within the crucial two degrees of warming the science tells us will minimise the chances of major impacts.

That said, the world’s governments did two positive things last Sunday: they admitted there is an “ambition gap” that current pledges, even if achieved, are not strong enough to limit future warming to the two degrees threshold. They also managed to reach agreement to reach agreement on binding targets for all major emitters.

Sadly they also voted unanimously to do nothing about either until at least 2020.

Even then, it remains unclear whether countries will be legally required to actually do anything.

The Durban Platform refers only to development of “a new protocol, another legal instrument or agreed outcome with legal force”.
Inter-governmental wrangling over what form this will take and to whom it will apply will take up much of the next four years, the time frame countries have given themselves to come up with something to replace the Kyoto Protocol.

All this in the face of mounting evidence that time will have run out before this new agreement, whatever it may be, has a chance to come into force.

Perhaps I should take comfort. Even if world leaders can only agree to disagree, children see that there is a problem and they are trying to do something about it. Children are incredibly resilient and knowledgeable. They see to the heart of the matter and, with a little encouragement and some tools, can effectively respond to the crises we create for them.

They have much to teach us, if only we had the time to listen.

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