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Three Issues to Watch During the Durban Climate Summit

The issues on the table in Durban are huge.

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How sparse? A group of German students were the first contributors to the adaptation fund, donating €131.09 in 2009 after throwing a fundraiser at their school. After that stunt, some embarrassed governments began making contributions to the adaptation fund. But many nations remain shameless. The fund has collected around $160 million a year, a far cry from the billions needed to prepare countries for even the lowest levels of climate impacts.

Among climate campaigners, there’s a hope that holding the negotiations in Africa will help draw attention to the need for transferring money from rich countries to poorer ones. “Having the negotiations on the continent of Africa – one of the continents deeply impacted by climate change – should help remind government representatives of the real reason for gathering in Durban, South Africa,” says Ilana Solomon of  ActionAid. “That is to say, it’s not about politics and it’s not about maintaining the status quo. It is about real people whose lives and livelihoods are threatened by a global crisis they did little to create.”


If – somehow – a critical mass of countries comes together and agrees to binding agreements, the question becomes: What amount of greenhouse gases should we be cutting?

A growing number of scientists are following  NASA’s James Hansen in saying that the most ambitious international targets – 450 parts per million of atmospheric CO 2 – would create more warming than anticipated. Hansen and others say we should be shooting for 350 ppm. The opening of the Northwest Passage may only be a precursor to accelerating warming.  Penn State climatologist Richard Alley says ice sheets are melting “100 years ahead of schedule.” The takeaway: Even a strong agreement might not be good enough to halt runaway climate change.

Despite these three daunting challenges, campaigners, at least in public, are staying upbeat. Steve Herz of the Sierra Club says: “An essential outcome of the Durban meetings is agreement on the rules that will govern the Green Climate Fund that was established in Cancun. There is no good reason why such an agreement shouldn’t be reached, and failure to do so would be a major setback.”

In short, the upcoming show in Durban will have all the dramatic elements of the last couple of derailed negotiations, but with the looming expiration of the Kyoto Protocol and dire science and weird weather bringing more urgency than ever before. Hopefully – if the wave of democracy cresting around the world washes up against the bureaucratic and sedentary international climate negotiations – we might find some more hope in the warmer parts of the world, where fears of the impacts of climate change keep rising.

And if not? Well then get ready to pack your bags for Rio de Janeiro, where the roadshow is scheduled to meet in June 2012, 20 years after the whole process was started.

Climate activist, social entrepreneur, and online journalist Richard Graves is founder and director of Fired Up Media, a project of Earth Island Institute.

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