DOHA, Qatar — Less than a month after Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, I arrived in one of the Middle East’s wealthiest enclaves to cover the United Nations’ 18th annual climate conference.
Doha reminded me of an American suburb with its SUV-clogged traffic jams, trophy homes and sterile shopping malls that had sprouted up in the past 40 years thanks to the oil and natural gas wealth that has flowed into this petro-monarchy, making it the highest per capita carbon emitter in the world. The pudgy face of Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, emire of Qatar, is plastered on everything and protest is largely forbidden. A Qatari poet critical of the regime was sentenced to life in prison just before the conference began, though hundreds did gather for a march calling on Arab countries to take the lead in the climate talks.
The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change’s annual Conference of the Parties (COP) is meant to provide a forum for nearly 200 countries to establish a successor agreement to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the international treaty that set binding obligations on industrialized nations to reduce their carbon emissions. The United States has flouted Kyoto from the beginning and I was skeptical that this would change. Still, it seemed plausible that second-term Obama — after referencing the “destructive power of a warming planet” in his re-election night acceptance speech — might seriously commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, starting with a productive role for the United States at COP18.
YOUTH IN ACTION
Skipping bureaucratic plenaries, I began most of my mornings with a visit to the youth spokescouncil. Participants included Amanda Nesheiwat, a 23-year-old climate change activist from Secaucus, New Jersey, as well as a delegation of college students from Taiwan (one of many island nations represented), and several women wearing hijabs, which emphasized the earnest look in their eyes. Each day the youth fanned out to engage with thousands of conference delegates about their future.
“I don’t want to wait until another disaster for more people to realize that our choices shape the future children will inherit,” Nesheiwat said.
As the prospects for a strong deal dimmed, some countries began to respond. Naderev “Yeb” Saño, part of the Philippines Climate Change Commission, tweeted, “The youth will be the difference here in Doha. We’re near the end of the first week. History in the making.” Then Typhoon Bopha — a category 5 storm — struck the Philippines with 161 mile per hour winds, landing unusually close to the equator. Amidst a growing storm toll — more than 900 dead, tens of thousands homeless — Saño made a tearful, impatient plea for his colleagues to do more.
“The outcome of our work is not about what our political masters want. It is about what is demanded of earth’s seven billion people. I appeal to all: Please, no more delays, no more excuses. Please, let Doha be remembered as the place where we found the political will to turn things around, and let 2012 be remembered as the year the world found the courage to do so, to find the courage to take responsibility for the future we want. I ask of all of us here, if not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here, then where?”
UP IN SMOKE
Ultimately, COP 18 failed to deliver any reduction in carbon emissions that are warming the planet and in turn causing the extreme weather that is becoming the new normal. “The truth is that there is nothing in this deal which can keep emissions from going up as opposed to down,” is how Samantha Smith of the World Wildlife Fund summed it up.
Yes, the Kyoto Protocol was extended another 8 years for the 191 member countries who account for 15 percent of the world’s emissions. But no new emission cuts were agreed to by the largest polluters: the United States and China. A new accord called the Durban Platform that would set emissions goals for all nations remains vaguely outlined, with industrialized nations pushing for voluntary targets. Betraying a lack of urgency, the agreement won’t take effect until 2020.
“The coal industry won here, the oil industry won here,” said Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists, reacting to the failure of the Doha talks. “This wasn’t an environmental or science-driven discussion. This was a trade fair.”
That is because the talks assume the establishment of a global carbon credit market, as outlined in the Kyoto Protocol, as a way for polluting countries to offset their emissions by purchasing credits from those with some to spare, or from projects that generate carbon offsets, such as a wind farm. This market is currently unregulated, and in some cases, corrupted. About the only impact such schemes have had so far is to divert financing for making the transition away from fossil fuel dependence, thus locking in future emission increases.
The failure of the Doha talks signal how the United States and other powerful nations put their own economic interests — which are deeply intertwined with the existing fossil fuel driven economy — ahead of any desire to keep the planet from becoming uninhabitable. The only solutions that capitalism can entertain to the climate crisis are ones that allow for the ever-greater accumulation of profits.
As Claudia Salerno, the top climate negotiator for Venezuela puts it: “The first thing that countries need to understand when they want to succeed in this process is to understand that this is not an environmental process.” Salerno told Democracy Now! that developed countries “want to create mechanisms that will allow them to buy the right to pollute to a certain level and then to exchange, among them, their rights to contaminate the land.”
Meanwhile, the COP still lacks an agreed-upon mechanism to finance clean energy in developing countries, or even to fund poor nations already adapting to damage incurred by climate change. Much of the $100 billion industrialized nations pledged at the 2009 COP-15 in Copenhagen was actually re-purposed aid countries had already promised before. Still, various estimates put the total disbursed in the last few years at about $30 billion. This comes as New York and New Jersey requested about $60 billion in federal aid just to recover from
The significance of delaying structural change is overwhelming. Even if just the fossil fuel industry’s current reserves were burned, this would cause the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere to soar to 500 parts per million. This is well beyond the current level of 391 ppm and would move us far away from the goal of reducing carbon dioxide levels to 350 ppm, which is what scientists say we have to hit to avoid likely runaway global warming.
“The United States and President Obama have to answer this question very clearly: What does he want his legacy to be? Does he want his legacy to be that the United States was a country that had a huge historical responsibility and that actually stepped up to lead the rest of the world?” asked Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International, as the conference drew to a close. “Or are they going to send a message that U.S. democracy is [the] best democracy money can buy and the money that buys the democracy is in fact oil, coal and gas. That is what is at stake here.”
Renée Feltz is a producer at Democracy Now!