How the World Listens to the World on Climate


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…  and a US student grabs the world's attention …

Nature's Edge Notebook - Durban Diary

DURBAN, South Africa - COP-17

THE PLENARY SESSION   (Plenary, adjective: … 2. Fully attended by all qualified members: a plenary session of the council. from Latin: plenus - full.)

What's going on here?

It's simple.

People from virtually every country around the planet - all of them grappling with the same horrendous borderless problem - have gathered in one immense room to listen as each in turn tells of the specific troubles and efforts back home.

Most also suggest how they should all share in dealing with it.

That isn't so simple … and at times seems impossible.

That's because of the great gap between what the major emitters are suggesting they might do to cut greenhouse gases and what climate scientists say must be done to avoid the "worst effects of climate change" - a euphemistic generalization for various projections of massive suffering later this century from drought, flood, famine and displacement.

Each delegate taking the podium is dignified, proud, diplomatic … and intense. They've been meeting every year for 17 years about this problem, but it is only getting worse - everywhere - and coming faster than scientists were projecting even a few years ago.

Variations of the ancient human cry, "That's not fair!" weave in and out of the presentations.

One devilish fact of man-made global warming is that most of the gases causing the problem have been emitted by the richest countries that suffer the least from it .. .in fact gained greatly from the industrial revolution that caused it … while the poor countries, where people suffer the most, have emitted the least, and in some cases none, of the excess heat-trapping gas.

"The Plenary," as it's called, is in a hall with a soaring ceiling so high it seems nearly out of sight.

Long straight row upon row of white desks have signs for each country, as in the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York.

Each place has microphones and headsets.

Up front, there's a wide dais with a podium.

Each speaker is projected onto big screens on the wall behind it, so facial expressions are clear to see … and each (limited to three minutes, but some go over by 10 minutes or more) is translated into seven languages by interpreters in the enclosed glass-fronted  booths lining the side of the room that have signs indicating which number on your headset gives you the language you want: 1 for English; 2, French; 3, Russian; 4, Spanish; 5, Chinese; 6, Arabic; 7 (various); 8, Japanese; 9, Italian.

The daylong series of report after report from around the world has a cumulative effect.

Here's a quick glimpse of a period of 45 minutes in the early afternoon when the successive speakers scheduled to speak at the podium were from - in this order - El Salvador, Benin, Kiribati, Greece, The U.S.A., Chad, and Saudi Arabia.

  • El Salvador's Environment Minister, Herman Chavez, spoke to the delegates from around the world of "our persistent collective failure" (meaning all humanity's) to deal with this well- known and accelerating crisis - a note of frustration often heard from all quarters at this climate summit.  He also used a phrase heard here from other small nations: "Even though our contributions to global emissions are negligible. …" He said El Salvador still wanted to try whatever means it could for mitigating - cutting - its tiny carbon emissions while trying to adapt to whatever warming could not be avoided.
  • Benin's minister of Environment, Blaise Ahanhanzo-Glele, spoke, as do many developing countries, of the need to keep pushing for nations to have "common but differentiated responsibilities" - the persistent request for fairness made by poorer countries who suffer the most but did  the least to cause the problem.
  • Environment minister of the 32 atolls and one coral island of the Republic of Kiribati, Amberoti Nikora, - whose nation has already started to disappear beneath the waves - warned everyone in the giant hall that "No matter where you are, you will not escape the consequences of climate change." He also said, "Our survival is at stake and we cannot wait any longer." Referring to the talk at past annual climate summits about richer countries putting together a fund to help those nations most severely hit, he said "One year has passed, and my country is still waiting."
  • Minister of Environment, Energy and Climate Change for Greece, George Papakonstantinou, talked of the deep recession back home and spoke of the failures of his own country to have made proper plans for handling its money - to its great current embarrassment. He made a stately plea to all countries not to make the same mistake in handling the well known realities and consequences of climate change.
  •  As the U.S. State Department's chief climate negotiator, Todd Stern, stepped to the podium, a woman stood up in the back of the hall and started declaiming in a high and strident voice that "I am scared for my future!" and "You must take responsibility to act now!" and "2020 is too late for me!" (Stern and others have spoken of 2020 as a possible date by which there must be binding legal agreements among all nations for greenhouse gas reductions.) Two uniformed U.N. guards walked quickly over to her. The moment they reached her, she stopped, and the hall of delegates from around the world broke into applause. As the guards escorted her out, right past where this reporter was standing, she took off the conference ID pass around her neck and gave it to one of them. I asked her name: "Abigail Borah," she said, as I followed her out, and spelled it out for me and other journalists now following her. She said she was with a group called  United States Youth.  Within a few hours, there were postings on the Internet saying she is "a sophomore at Middlebury College majoring in environmental science with a focus on conservation biology" as well as news stories and a YouTube clip of the incident. After Todd Stern spoke about America's commitment to a "green fund" to help poor countries hit by climate change and cited other steps Americans are taking to cut carbon emissions, he too got a round of applause, though not as sustained.
  •  Landlocked Chad's minister of Environment and Fisheries, Mahamat Okormi (Lake Chad has shrunk greatly in recent decades), told everyone of worsening wind storms back home and again struck the note of unfairness - that "those who have been polluted the most have been polluted by the majority, not the minority" - a comment that also elicited some applause.
  • Saudi Arabia's representative was its minister of petroleum, Ali Al-Naimi. He said that his country was pursuing alternative energy, "especially solar,"   and also spoke of the importance of developing "CCS" - the "carbon capture and sequestration" technology, which many coal and oil companies say should be able to allow nations to keep burning fossil fuels because they could then capture its carbon emissions and bury or sequester them underground. This notion still has only a few pilot projects testing its viability, and is considered by critics a smoke screen allowing planners to think fossil fuels may continue  to be used safely.

More than a hundred countries are scheduled to speak "in plenary" before the climate summit ends.

At a separate news conference, AOSIS - the Alliance of Small Island States - presented officials from Domenica telling of unusual flash floods in their mountains, and from Fiji saying people there had been complacent about accelerating sea level rise because of their volcanic mountains … until they realized that most of their habitation is on Fiji's shores.

"People around the world call our islands paradise, one of them said. "But they go home after their vacations. They don't live there."

Here is a short video in which Micronesia's Ambassador to the U.N,. Nakayama, describes the total obliteration his Pacific and cultural home now faces, at:

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