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Durban climate conference: a bitter disappointment

This article is over 12 years, 7 months old
The Durban climate talks have offered little or nothing, writes Jonathan Neale. Now is the time for climate activists to take their message into the new radical movements
Issue 2283

The United Nations climate talks in Durban, South Africa, have ended. Evil has been done on a scale that is hard to grasp.

Delegations from the governments of the world have been meeting each year to negotiate an agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Along the way many countries signed up to the Kyoto protocol, which came into force in 2005.

Kyoto called for small emissions cuts. It was riddled with market loopholes. The US government refused to sign. Kyoto did not cover developing countries. So under Kyoto global emissions rose faster than ever before. But at least it was an attempt.

Kyoto is due to expire in 2012. Durban was the last chance to extend and deepen an international agreement to limit climate change.

Instead, the governments of the world have agreed that negotiations will continue until 2015—and that the agreement decided then will come into force in 2020. This is a delay of nine years that comes on top of 17 years of inaction before the Durban talks.

By 2020 we will have to cut back from much higher levels of annual emissions than today. And there will be much more carbon dioxide stored in the atmosphere. Yet 2020 will only be the start of a gradual reduction in emissions that will take many years.

That’s assuming there is any action in 2020 at all. But the delay decided at Durban is a signal from the 1 percent that climate change does not matter. It makes action in 2020 less likely.

Nnimmo Bassey, chair of Friends of the Earth International, said, “Delaying real action until 2020 is a crime of global proportions.

“This means the world is on track to a 4 degrees Celsius temperature rise. The richest 1 percent of the world have decided that it is acceptable to sacrifice the 99 percent.”


The consequences will be severe. The effects of climate change have accelerated in the last two years. Many places in Africa have seen drought. The most spectacular this year is Somalia. And drought has moved down into northern Ghana, northern Kenya and northern Uganda.

In other areas climate change brings torrential rains that the land cannot absorb. Bangkok in Thailand is the first great city to be flooded. In neighbouring Cambodia half the country is under water. Most people have had no help at all. They have lost their homes and crops.

This is now. And the pace of change will increase, deepen and spread over the next nine years. At some point in the future we face the prospect of runaway climate change, with disasters in many countries at the same time.

Next year the climate talks will be in Qatar, a country with one of the highest rates of emissions per person in the world. It is a dictatorship with no rights for activists to organise or demonstrate.

Instead, the international circus will move to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil in June. Twenty years after a UN conference in Rio decided governments had to do something about climate change, a “Rio+20” summit and NGO festival will congratulate capitalism on delivering a “green economy”.

Durban will make it harder to campaign for climate action. As the UN process runs down, most big environmental and development NGOs are accepting that governments will not act, and turning their energies elsewhere.

Friends of the Earth International and other organisations in the Climate Justice Now network are honourable exceptions.


Since the economic crisis began, each part of capitalism, each corporation and country, has been competing with each other part. They are all afraid of being the next to go bankrupt.

And it will cost money to cut emissions. To stop climate change we need massive spending on wind power, solar power, refitting buildings, public transport and much else. Globally it will take at least 100 million workers at least 20 years to do the work that needs to be done.

For the workers of the world, that could be a new industrial revolution. It could give many of us work and dignity. But for the 1 percent, it is a cost they do not want to pay.

The South African campaign for One Million Climate Jobs was very impressive in Durban. It organised wide support from unions, a good presence on the streets and a conference attended by 500 people. Britain’s Campaign Against Climate Change has a similar campaign here, and the idea is spreading to other countries.

I have lost track of the number of times people from NGOs and official parties have said to me, “We cannot wait for the revolution to do something about climate change.” But now I feel that if we wait for their system to stop climate change, we will wait forever.

The revolts in Egypt and the Arab world have shown what mass uprisings can achieve. Strikes in Europe are transforming trade unions. The Occupy movement in the US has made equality central to the political debate in the most powerful country on Earth.

We have to absorb the meaning of Durban. This is a time for bitterness. But as the movements from below spread and grow in confidence, people may begin to believe that we can do something about climate change.

But they will only believe that if climate activists and environmentalists take the issue of climate into the new resistance.

Jonathan Neale is the author of Stop Global Warming—Change the World, available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Go to

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