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Durban Diary: The Waiting Game

December 9, 2011 ·

As the doors on government meetings swing shut, Janet ponders whether our future will be one of ecological stability or planetary chaos.

NGO events: part of COP17 waiting game. Photo by WWFCOP17. It’s 2:30pm in Durban, South Africa, and I’m rushing back and forth from meeting to meeting in the convention center waiting for the final plenaries of the UN climate negotiations to start.

There’s a particular arc to the climate negotiations I’ve noticed – at least in the last five that I’ve attended. The first week is a lot of meetings with government delegations to discuss the issues we’ve been following all year, meetings with our colleagues to figure out our strategy for getting what we want out of the climate talks. NGOs release their reports, advocacy groups try to crank out suggestions for countries’ to introduce in the official negotiating sessions. There are lots of side events, panel discussion, receptions with free wine and eats.

In the second week there’s a bit of a lull, the doors on government meetings swing shut on most conversations and we’re left waiting outside meeting room doors trying get a scrap of paper here and a snippet of intelligence from a friendly government there. 

By midway through the second week the high level ministers start arriving. Security gets tighter. Actions by youth, indigenous people, activist groups pop up here and there and are quickly shut down by the UN secretariat. Generally there are marches ‘outside’ that very few on the ‘inside’ even hear about (the exception was, of course, the demonstration by hundreds of thousands of people in Copenhagen in 2009).

By the time you reach the end of the second week, there’s a palpable sense of frenzy in the air. People are running back and forth in the halls waiting for some thing to happen. Anything.

But you wait.

And you wait. And you wait. And you wait. 

Eventually, after all the deals have been struck behind close doors, poor countries have sold their future for a handful of magic beans, and the US is duly satisfied that nothing agreed upon will upset its position at the top of the economic food chain, the negotiations resume.

Then governments make statements, deliberate various versions of draft decisions, and release a significant amount of hot air until around 2am. In a final crescendo, countries start lining up like well behaved infantry ready to get behind any solution that brings an end to the talks so they can get the hell out of here and go to bed.

And then that’s it. We go back to our hotels exhausted wondering why our governments won’t take the climate crisis seriously enough to do anything meaningful to stop it. We try to convince ourselves that there are ‘hooks’ all over the decision taken that will help us reduce greenhouse gas emissions either at home or multilaterally, or that there’s way to use the final outcome to raise some money for those communities who are already reeling from drought, floods, landslides, heat waves, wild fires, and sea level rise.

So that’s where I am right now. Sitting on the floor, tied to an electrical outlet to power my computer, waiting for the plenary doors to open, and wondering if my government – or any of the other governments present here – will do anything of consequence to make sure our future is one of ecological stability instead of planetary chaos.