In the winter of 2011, from November 28 to December 11, the countries of the world met to save it from peril. Their representatives congregated in the city of Durban, South Africa, at COP 17 (the seventeenth Conference of the Parties) where they battled and argued over acres of verbiage, running into overtime and a marathon session that had delegates red-eyed and babbling at the end. And at the end? Was the End averted? The short answer is no.
Expectations weren't high to begin with. Around the world, climate issues don't seem to be at the top of most people's agendas. And here in the US, despite the international consensus amongst climatologists, there seems to be little recognition that global warming is real. Distracted by an irresponsible media, and confused by skeptic groups well-funded by the fossil fuel lobby, the populace is at the best of times only vaguely aware that a threat exists. The threat isn't dramatic enough for Superman or his latest incarnation to defeat at one fell swoop, nor is it entirely comprehensible within a worldview limited by blind devotion to capitalism and prime time sitcoms. In other places there are, presumably, other blind spots. So the world hastens toward ending, while people flock to disaster movies and ignore the real threat, and the Durban Climate talks barely make it to the front page news.
Given the vested interests involved, it was not a real surprise that in Durban the U.S. delegation dragged its feet over the negotiations. President Obama had declared that the U.S. would lead on climate change action, but this proved to be more empty rhetoric. There is a history of Western nations not taking responsibility in the context of climate, which infuriates people in countries such as India. As Indian environmentalist Sunita Narain says: "When negotiations began over 20 years ago, it was well understood the industrialised world—contributor to 70-80% of the stock of emissions in the atmosphere—had to vacate space for the emerging world to grow. The deal was this enriched world would reduce emissions drastically, for they had thrown the climate system out of kilter. The deal also was that money and technology transfer would enable emerging countries to avoid future emissions growth. But none of this happened." This lack of responsibility has understandably created bitterness and distrust between developed nations and emerging economies. At Durban the Indian delegation dug in its heels, arguing that caps on emissions would negatively affect millions of people who needed to be lifted out of poverty.
Understandable though it might be, to me this position betrays a stupendous lack of imagination. Surely there are other paradigms of development than the Western path? Is it necessary to commit the same planet-destroying blunders in order to feed the Indian poor? I would have hoped that India would have taken the lead on an alternative, sustainable path to development, considering how severely countries in the tropics and subtropics will be affected by climate change. Instead the government is building more coal-fired power plants to feed—not the poor, but the consumerist appetites of the burgeoning middle class.
Despite the various stand-offs at Durban, however, at the last minute some kind of agreement was cobbled together, one that the conference website calls a "breakthrough." For the first time all attending countries agreed to a legal agreement by 2015, to be put into effect by—hold your breath—2020. Calling this a breakthrough is a bit misleading, because delaying action until 2020 while CO2 emissions continue to rise every year would allow for a global temperature increase of well over 2 degrees C. World Wildlife Fund-UK's Keith Allott says that the "outcome of Durban leaves us with the prospect of being legally bound to a world of 4C warming." According to scientist Jim Hansen of NASA, a warming limit of just 2 degrees C would be a recipe for disaster and scientists at the US National Academy of Sciences seem to agree. Union of Concerned Scientists director of strategy and policy, Alden Meyer, comments that temperature increases well over two degrees celsius "would foreclose our ability to avoid the worst impacts of climate change."
This is nothing short of disastrous for human and non-human inhabitants of the biosphere, and most immediately it is disastrous for Africa, which is already seeing the effects of climate change. Action to limit us to less than 2 degrees C warming would be much more drastic, that is, it would require immediate, meaningful action rather than hot air generated at talks. Such action is necessary for our mutual survival—but the powers-that-be stand to lose too much. Still, the negotiators did come up with a Green Climate Fund that was established to assist those countries most affected by climate change, that is, those countries who had the least to do with creating the problem. Who will pay how much and when is still up in the air.
There were some heroic moments. These were mainly due to the youth delegates, including the bold young American college student, Abigail Borah, who interrupted the U.S. Climate Team's Todd Stern to shout that he had no right to speak for Americans. "2020 is too late," she shouted. The conference official who rebuked Abigail Borah said "nobody wants to listen to you," before she was escorted out of the hall, but within minutes the video went viral.
Then there was Anjali Appadurai, official youth delegate, who delivered an unrestrained speech. Condemning the greed and stupidity of the powers that be, it ended with an Occupy-style mic check. Later the youth joined other groups, pleading "Don't kill Africa!" And there was music. African musicians got together and composed a song, and the global climate action group 350.org posted it and invited the world to make their own versions. The Nigerian-American singer Naira remixed it to fantastic effect—you can hear it and other versions at http://radiowave.350.org/.
The government of the United States bailed out the banks before you could blink an eye. Bailing out the planet, as environmental journalist George Monbiot says in the Guardian, is quite another story. As Oliver Hughes, student activist for SustainUS at the Durban Conference said in response to the lackluster end result, the world is sleepwalking toward calamity. The question ultimately remains: having condemned us to a greater degree of warming than we or our descendants can safely live with, the governments and the corporations have demonstrated that we cannot rely solely on them. We cannot wait for them to act. So what is it we can do, as citizens, as writers, as readers? What is it that must be done?
I'd like to posit the following. Assume that the planet must be saved. Not that we won't suffer the effects of global warming for a long time to come, but let us assume that we can do what it takes to limit it as much as possible so that one day it could be reversed. That is, less than 2C of warming. What would that take? What kind of action, re-thinking, re-imagining everything from technology to how we live to what we write and what we read—what would it look like on the way to saving the world? Science fiction is full of end-of-the-world stories, apocalyptic hereafters. It is so much more difficult to imagine and to bring to paper or screen the messy, complicated, partial, unsatisfactory, creative ways and means that might affect a solution. But it is a task both necessary and urgent. If we are the imagineers of the world, we must imagine, or re-imagine it in ways that involve other paradigms as well as other technologies.