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Dispatches from Durban: Lessons for Climate Negotiators from Africa Then and Now

I touched down in Durban, South Africa, on Sunday night met by a cool tropical breeze. Since I arrived in this large port city, I’ve been thinking about Africa, which serves as a powerful backdrop for this year’s annual climate conference.

Like many places I’ve visited, especially among developing countries, there is great diversity to the surroundings. The convention center is large and modern. Nearby you find industrial buildings, shopping malls, and hotels – and lots of people in a city pulsating with life. Today, the UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon, Dr. Jane Goodall, and many international leaders will be participating in a high-profile event focusing on deforestation and the green economy. The event will honor the legacy of Wangari Maathai, the great environmentalist and woman’s rights advocate, who passed away earlier this year. Maathai was the first female Nobel Prize laureate, awarded in 2004, after her years of fighting for the protection of forests and women’s empowerment.

As negotiators look to forge an international agreement to address climate change, the words from her Nobel Prize speech resonate strongly:

In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other.

That time is now.

(Credit to TIME magazine reporter Bryan Walsh for pointing out this line in his obituary of her.)

Africa is experiencing firsthand the impacts of climate change. In East Africa, for example, nearly 70 percent of people rely on agriculture and livestock for their livelihoods. Over the last two years, severe drought in the Horn of Africa has helped push around 13 million people into a state of crisis, according to Oxfam. These extreme weather events – bringing both more rains and more droughts – are expected to increase in Africa as climate impacts worsen.

Yet, at this moment, there is uncertainty if the negotiations in Durban will meet even the modest expectations that many people had set for it. While there has been some movement on the key pillars of a package – including advancing the Cancun agreements, the Kyoto Protocol, and a long-term legal agreement – there have been setbacks as well.

As always, there are many reasons for the slow pace; the issues are complex, the geopolitics are challenging, and negotiators are looking for leverage points. On the more positive side, the European Union has been trying to forge a deal around the future of the Kyoto Protocol, while China has stated that it could be open to a future legally binding agreement (though details remain fuzzy). Others, including the United States, have not yet offered much in the way of concrete solutions.

The problem is that the world cannot afford to wait. Report after report has shown greenhouse gas emissions rising at an alarming rate. Yet another example came out this week, when the Global Carbon Project confirmed that carbon dioxide emissions rose by a record 5.9 percent in 2010. That’s at least the fourth authoritative report on rising greenhouse gases in recent weeks.

The connection between rising emissions and our changing planet has been well documented by the world’s leading scientific authorities. And there seems to be increasing recognition of the connection between extreme weather and other climate impacts. As CNN recently reported, “While climate change is predicted to get worse, it is not a hypothetical problem that will occur in the distant future.” (See their related slideshow, here.)

Such dynamics call for global solutions.

World powers such as the United States, European Union, China, and India can forge common ground around solutions that recognize the urgency of the challenge and increase the stability of the planet. They need to respect each others’ views and needs, along with addressing the needs of other nations like those in Africa and the small island nations.

As my colleague Edward Cameron noted earlier in the week, the clock is ticking. With only a few days left, a successful outcome here hangs in the balance. Whether or not the full package of agreements comes together, it’s essential to move forward with specific elements, such as long-term climate financing, greater international accountability and transparency in reporting emissions, and the legal form of a future agreement. We also need a real plan about how to resolve remaining issues that may not be worked out here.

This may not be enough, but at least we need negotiators to stay the course.

Africa has a long history of overcoming extreme hardship, defying the odds, and persevering despite deeply rooted challenges. Africa’s heroes like Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Wangari Matthai exemplify what is possible when people are committed to an issue and don’t accept failure as an option.

One would hope that leaders in Durban will do the same.

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