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U.S. Falls Short At U.N. Climate Conference

(Earthjustice attorney Erika Rosenthal represented the organization at U.N. climate talks that wrapped up Sunday in Durban, South Africa.)

The first U.N. climate talks held on African soil ended in the wee hours of Sunday with important progress in several key areas – preserving the Kyoto Protocol, launching negotiations on a new more comprehensive accord, and advancing work on transparency, finance and technology transfer – but fell gravely short on reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. Of course, bringing together nations with wildly divergent visions of the future and views on responsibility for climate change to forge a deal is an extraordinary challenge. We have only to look at our own Congress’ inability to come to agreement.
The symbolism of holding the talks in Durban resonated deeply throughout the final hours. Delegates noted that the seeds of Mahatma Gandhi’s struggle for peaceful non-violent change were first planted in Durban. And South Africa’s foreign minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, continuously drove home to delegates that ministers had come to common ground through the indaba process, and that they should take decisions in the spirit of ubuntu
Indaba refers to the tradition of important gatherings where people come together to address problems that affect them all, and where everyone has a voice in the attempt to find common ground and a way forward. Through a series of indabas on the big picture – i.e. how all the pieces of the Durban package would fit together, or in the language of western negotiators, that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed – the South African team helped facilitate consensus. 
Ubuntu, the African philosophy of interconnectedness, was frequently invoked to drive home to negotiators that what they do affects the whole world.  And at one of the tensest moments in the early hours, when the most vulnerable and least developed countries questioned whether the international democracy of the climate talks could ever work, Minister Nkoana-Mashabane reminded parties that South Africa’s democracy was a product of international solidarity, exhorting countries like the U.S. and Canada that supported the anti-apartheid movement to be their better selves once again.
Any description of the Durban Package will be rife with qualifiers. The Kyoto Protocol, a critical part of the climate regime, was preserved – importantly keeping its accounting rules and compliance procedures alive as models to inform future agreements – but without key countries, without further commitments on emission reductions and with major loopholes. The structure of the Green Climate Fund  to help poor countries adapt to the inevitable impacts of climate change and move to a cleaner, low-emissions energy future was agreed, but it remained empty with no plan to fill it with the $100 billion pledged by Secretary Clinton in Copenhagen two years ago. And negotiations for a new, more comprehensive agreement that would include major emitting developing countries like China – something the science has told us was necessary to have any chance of staying below a 2 degree C temperature rise – was launched, but at best will only come on line in 2020. 
Scientists around the world have repeatedly warned that the delay to 2020 puts the planet at great risk of irreversible damage from rising temperatures. Last month, the International Energy Agency  projected the world was on a path to a 6 degree Celsius temperature rise by century’s end, and the World Meteorological Organization confirmed global warming is heading for a threshold that could cause irreversible changes.  The Durban talks did nothing to put the world onto a path to stay below the 2 degree rise agreed to by the nations of the world as necessary to avert dangerous climate change. Corporate voices once again won out over those of vulnerable citizens and communities around the world. 
So, even as the world agreed to critical steps forward – negotiating a new global accord with legal force; agreed on procedures to increase transparency so that we can better measure, report and verify the emissions reduction actions that countries pledge to take; and, creating funds and mechanisms to help poor nations adapt to inevitable climate change and get access to green technology to help them leapfrog to a cleaner energy economy as they develop – we have done nothing to slow the growing rate at which we  pump more global warming pollution into the atmosphere each year.  We are indeed playing with fire, risking locking in temperature increases well above 2 degrees C.
In the global effort to reduce greenhouse gas pollution, largely from fossil fuel combustion, the United States has shown a dismal lack of leadership.  The spirit of ubuntu has been sadly missing from our country’s politics for over a decade now.  The failure of the U.S. government to develop its own plan to address greenhouse gas emissions continues to be the greatest obstacle to a strong global agreement to address the problem. 
Americans are fair-minded and expect our nation take as much of a role in reducing greenhouse gasses as we have had in producing them. The role the U.S. played in Durban ran painfully counter to that expectation. But there is still a way forward – our landmark Clean Air Act, which has successfully reduced air pollution across our nation, can be used effectively to reduce global warming pollution as well.  Earthjustice, along with allies in communities, non-governmental organizations and Congress, will redouble efforts to achieve emissions reductions domestically under current law, in the hopes that by the time the climate talks convene again next year, we can proudly point to our spirit of ubuntu, codified in domestic emissions reduction standards.