February 6 2012
Marko Lazin, BSILR '13
Unions were not present at the initial formation of the United Nations Conference of Parties (COP). Its premier purpose is to assess progress in dealing with climate change and to further develop protocols for the United Nations Frame Work Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which mandate updated emissions standards. This has meant that unions have been largely excluded from the climate change negotiation and policy development process, yet some of the most unionized sectors worldwide are those in energy (and energy related) industries; this is where the Global Labor Institute (GLI) steps in.
Working with Sean Sweeney and Lara Skinner at COP was an eye opening and invaluable experience. In conjunction with the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), GLI hosted several seminars and discussions for (international) trade unions which focused on how labor organizations can participate in the climate change discussions without being part of the UN COP delegation. These will be the people who are most significantly and directly affected by almost any decision (or lack thereof) made at the COP.
I did not have clearance in to the highest security negotiations, but I was fortunate enough sit in on several delegations and panel discussions. I had been a part of my high school’s Harvard Model United Nations team, so it was really amazing to see the real process happen in front of me. This being said, an unsavory truth became evident almost immediately; climate change was not the top priority at the conference. It seemed that politics and taking sides happened before any significant headway was made on a climate change agreement. All of the passion that one would expect from a delegate who was trying to promote an international climate change mitigation agreement seemed to get lost in the drab decorum. After having this disheartening realization, I didn’t attend many other negotiations.
Where the negotiations’ disheartened me, the non-governmental organization did the opposite and inspired me. There were hundreds of businesses, research institutes, socio-cultural organizations, youth organizations, unions, and universities from all around the world who were all working toward the same general goal of environmental equity and sustainability. This may be one of the biggest networking opportunities for sustainability oriented organizations. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of young people who were present and the amount of energy which they brought with them.
While working at Cornell’s booth I met journalists from West Africa, mountaineers from Nepal, youth activists/community organizers from Australia, professors from Chinese research institutes, and a systems coordinator for the European Space Agency, to name a few. I even received an unofficial job offer! There were probably between two and three dozen research institutes present, though they were not all directly associated with universities. Prior to going to COP17 I think I held the view that the Conference of Parties was about delegates from all around the world coming together to try and figure out how to deal with the effects of global climate change, but now I see it under a very different light. Aside from hosting an international negotiation session, the COP also brings the global sustainable community together once a year to branch out, interact and learn from one another. In my opinion the NGO pavilion was the most exciting part of the conference and is where the real potential for change exists, not the negotiations themselves. That is not to say that the negotiations don’t matter, but they only really serve to legitimize those things which are already going on around the world and promote sustainable development. I think that I may have put too much weight on the COP negotiations and their outcomes; they cannot be the driving force of sustainable equitable global change. We will need a bottom up and top down approach to meet each other in the middle if we as a species are ever going to address climate change.
The UNFCCC COP 17 seemed very detached from the surrounding city of Durban. I can understand closing off some sections for security purposes, but it was difficult for Durban residents to even get through the first level of clearance without special authorization (I could just walk in, no questions asked). Additionally the entire city was teaming with police officers and traffic guards, which seemed to put many people on edge. Through talking to some locals I found that the city had been vamping itself up for this event for the last two years, upgrading its public transit and infrastructure in the areas where the majority of delegates were expected to be.
When making my arrangement to go to the COP I very consciously booked my lodging in areas of the city which were likely to immerse me in the ‘real’ Durban. For the first half of my visit I stayed at a hostel which was located in a quasi township. After talking to the TK the owner of the hostel I found out that the native African population knew of the COP 17 but there was very little knowledge about what was going inside the conference due to a lack of media coverage. Every evening when I came back to the hostel I would give him and his friends a run down on what I had seen at the negotiations.
For the second half of my stay I had arranged to couch surf with some friends I have in Durban; they are mostly of European descent, and are all either in or fresh out of university. They seemed to convey the same disconnect that TK had exhibited, finding it difficult to find out actual information about what was going on in the conference. That being said , a few of them were musicians and were invited to perform at one of the outside pavilion/food courts the day after I left, so on some level they were granted access in to the COP. In general there seemed to be much more order around the COP in a (rough) 12 block radius, but outside of that there seemed to be no real change, or at least that’s what the locals were telling me.
Just an interesting fact about the Durban: It has the highest Indian population outside of India. This is the case because during the times of British imperialism many workers were brought from India to work on the sugar cane plantations of the Eastern Cape of South Africa.