9 Bits and Scenes at a Global Huddle on a Grave Crisis

(Antonio Scorza/AFP/Getty Images)

'Difficult to Overstate the Gravity of This Moment': UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon

Nature's Edge Notebook - Durban Diary #2

DURBAN, South Africa - UNFCCC/COP-17 (The UN's annual global summit on global warming.)

At this huddle of humans from around the globe trying to deal with the great climate problem they've caused (but that nobody meant to happen) you're pelted by a steady barrage of beautiful ideas, terrible worries, dark failures and bright successes.

You pick up hope in sparkling pieces, and desperate struggle in every other anecdote.

Here's a quick list of nine selected bits and scenes this reporter has encountered so far.

They began as soon as we got off the plane at the Durban airport and shared a taxi with a coordinator of research at Sweden's Upsalla University.


All packed in together as our cheerful cabbie took us through rolling South African hills toward the shore of the Indian Ocean, we listened as Carmen Medina, a specialist in clean energy, told us that for five years now, an entire village near Lysekil, Sweden, has drawn all the electricity it needs from the waves just offshore.

Generators are run by underwater canisters that bob up and down on the constant surging swells. This pilot project, she reports, has proven to need little maintenance and has "small ecological impact and relative inconspicuousness in the scenery," as she wrote later in an email that included links to technical websites like www.el.angstrom.uu.se/, which has graphics in color and words in Swedish.

The constant exchange of information, verbal and graphic, by electronic pocket gadgets is a leitmotif of this convention of hopeful problem solvers.


Wake-up tea at the hotel next morning was accompanied by heart-wrenching news on TV of severe drought around Kenya's Lake Turkana. The ancient way of life there has already been decimated by a lengthening and deepening drought. Famed paleontologist Richard Leakey remarks in the report that the early humans whose bones were found there also had to struggle with natural climate change. The reporter said scientists believe the current unnatural climate change is coming far faster than our antecedents ever had to deal with, at a speed impossible for many farmers now to keep up with, so they've left, searching for a living somewhere else.


On the car radio as we drive along the shore to the Convention Center with a dozen big ships bobbing at anchor out in the sunlight waiting to unload at Durban's port, a commentator says, "What we need fundamentally is a price on carbon - it would create the pressures of market scarcity and start to drive a meaningful carbon market." The goal of having a worldwide "closed loop" on a price for carbon emissions still eludes the negotiators at these global climate summits.

Any global agreement to make it "no longer free to put carbon in the air" still appears years off. Negotiators here from major carbon emitting nations talk of 2015 or 2020 before there's a binding agreement.


On the Convention Center's bright and airy curving mezzanine balcony where hundreds of journalists from around the world, thinking in dozens of languages, work at their keyboards in the most pleasant "Press Room" I've ever known, I pick up some illuminating news from Jamaica, the island nation just off the southeast corner of my own, the United States.

At the computer terminal to my left, Carol Francis, the quiet and business-like Programmes Manager for RJR Cable Jamaica, tells me her compatriots take manmade global warming seriously because of sea level rise, present and imminent.

"Our beaches are going," she says. "In Negril, some hotels are already sandbagging the beaches to try to maintain them."

When, mindful of the many flat "small island nations" now facing total obliteration beneath the rising waves in coming decades, I say that "At least your country has some mountains,' she responds with quiet shock.

"Most of our infrastructure is on the coast - Kingston, our capital, and hotels, airports, towns," she says.

She begins to tell me of specific "projections" that are circulating among businesses in Jamaica for when, within 30 or 40 years, large scale migrations must be under way going inland, upslope, or, she half-jokes, "maybe we'll come knocking on your door in America."


Later, some surprising good news about deforestation of the Amazon from the U.S. correspondent for the journal Nature, Jeff Tollefson, who briefly uses the same computer terminal on my left. The annual rate at which the Amazonian jungle is being cut down has reached an all-time low.

"It may be one of the most successful conservation stories we've seen… if it continues," he says, and shows me a graph of satellite data he says is trusted by scientists. "This success makes a huge difference in Brazil's carbon emissions, as well as in protecting biodiversity." he says. Deforestation releases vast amounts of long-stored carbon gases.

"It's getting harder to believe this is not partly because of a serious commitment by the Brazilian government to stop deforestation," Tollefson tells me, referring to the skepticism with which scientists met earlier claims by Brazil of declining rates.

Half an hour later, when I come back from doing a few quick interviews, Tollefson has already posted his news on the Nature News Blog for the world to read.  The dramatic graph based on the satellite data explains itself, the words are in Portuguese, but will eventually be available also in English on the World Wide Web.


U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon suddenly appears on the large monitors scattered around the convention center. He's over in the immense assembly hall, opening the high level plenary segment of this conference.

First, he says what everyone here is thinking: "The ultimate goal of a comprehensive and binding climate change agreement may be beyond our reach - for now."

Then he delivers a forceful speech underscoring the sense of current negotiations - that pragmatic solid steps are building the basis of such an agreement within a few years.

"It would be difficult to overstate the gravity of this moment," he declares.

"Without exaggeration, we can say the future of our planet is at stake - people's lives, the health of global economy … the very survival of some nations," he says.

"The science is clear," he says. "The World Meteorological Organization has reported that carbon emissions are at their highest in history and rising. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change tells us, unequivocally, that greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by half by 2050 if we are to keep the rise in global temperatures to 2 degrees (centigrade) since pre-industrial times."

Those standing around the monitors and listening closely scribble a few notes and go back to work.

Reports leaking out of negotiations for the past few days have spoken of China and Europe being the leaders, the pace setters, in figuring out how the world might manage all this.

Chinese negotiators have made public statements that they may soon be ready to commit to absolute carbon limits (as opposed to emissions reductions only as a percentage of their GDP) which they have never done before.

It is also widely known now that the China is aiming for primacy in carbon-free high-tech and energy production.

The United States has lost prestige as a leader in the fight to curb manmade global warming ever since Congress voted down legislation a year ago that would have put limits on carbon emissions.

Achim Steiner, executive director of the U.N. Environmental Programme has recently gone on the record with ABC News saying that the European Union is now tending instead "to look east - including to China" in calculating how productive competitive carbon markets and other climate policy may be shaped.


I make a first visit to some of the many booths and displays set up here by different non-governmental organizations and nations.

Within a few minutes I speak to representatives of Japan, Ukraine, Malawi, Bangladesh and Malaysia, and learn once again that each nation has its own problems, prospects and contributions in facing the fast-growing climate crisis:

  • Japan operates the only orbiting satellite now monitoring the carbon dioxide emission down on earth - the polar-orbiting GOSAT, relied on by all nations. (The rocket carrying a similar satellite launched by NASA a few years ago failed to achieve orbit.)  Japan also has the world's oldest forestry preservation program, begun 1300 years ago, and is now advising Indonesia in land-use and forestry management. Indonesia is the world's third largest greenhouse gas emitter because of deforestation and the draining of wetlands for agricultural use.
  • Ukraine is still burdened with obsolete machinery from USSR days, and so is focusing on improving energy efficiency as the first and most obvious way to cut its carbon footprint and save money.
  • In Malawi, severe drought is persisting. The old climate cycles that have brought relief in the past seem out of whack.
  • The first sentence of an "Information Brief" flyer for low-lying Bangladesh is stunning in its concision of suffering: "The direct impacts of climate change on industry are mainly instantaneous damage, through flooding and cyclones, and secondly damage over time, through increased salinity and loss of land." Bangladesh is a country inured to such disasters and has been newly assured by the world's climate scientists that they will now come with increasing frequency.
  • Malaysia is proud that almost all of its new and lucrative palm oil agriculture has been established on already cleared land, much of it former rubber plantations. Malaysia's pledge at the Rio global environment conference 20 years ago was to keep 50 percent of its land forested. Currently it's at 62 percent.


At a late afternoon event held in the immense plenary hall and sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon introduces a program moderated by British economist Lord Nicholas Stern. It launches the "Momentum for Change Initiative" celebrating the example of 10 programs produced by public-private partnerships that help people manage climate change - new means of illuminating houses without electricity by funneling sunlight indoors using discarded plastic bottles; new designs and programs to help capture rainwater; new insurance schemes for farmers that kick in whenever the temperature goes above a certain point, thus predicting drought; new micro-credit for putting more solar panels in villages.


Amidst the surging crowds of journalists on deadlines, delegates on orders, and activists on missions, this reporter feels the need for a hot chocolate… and walks over to the nearby mezzanine cafe with its pleasant outdoor terrace. The building is still abuzz with "side events" by organizations from around the world, displaying new ideas.

Sipping the frothy brew out on the terrace in the twilight as I look down on the gaggles of people talking, explaining, pondering, and writing, I recall a comment I first heard from climate scientist Richard Somerville some seven years ago when I first started focusing on the global warming story.

"Remember," said Somerville, "Mother Nature always bats last."

I reflect, in the cooling dusk, that in this deadly game, it now feels like we're already somewhere in the middle innings.