Stepping Outside the COP Box

By Toby Davine

I have been at COP17 for a week now—a conference that brings together government officials, bureaucrats, media, and  civil society members from around the world. Posters and signs throughout the city welcome global dignitaries to the climate conference to “work together, saving tomorrow today”. Pressure’s on.

Within the hallowed halls of the Durban exhibition centre, amongst hundreds of identically sized booths in 10 straight lines, global civil society is expected to share their ideas and views on climate change. All claim to know the right way to solve the climate crisis, offering their messages on shiny banners and pamphlets. “Hope”, “clean”, “future”. This is the rhetoric they use. This venue is the place that they do it. It’s all very nice.

Today, however, I had the chance to step out of the COP box and into a refreshingly unpackaged ‘People’s Space’—an alternative civil society space at the University of Kwazulu-Natal where South Africans and global civil society members, many of whom cannot gain access to COP17, can meet, learn, and “define their own responses to COP17”.

It was here that I had the opportunity to attend the Climate Justice Hearings. This is an event that has provided a forum for people whose lives have been directly affected by climate change to provide a personal testimony of their experience. In this space, climate change is not a report or a policy to be debated, but a lived experience. Vishwas Satgar, a local organizer in Durban, explained that the hearings allow us to introduce the idea of criminality in the climate change discussion.

“We cannot eat promises”, said Christian, a subsistence fisherman from the Western Cape in South Africa, who reiterated many speakers’ frustrations at the bureaucratic process of the UNFCC and the false solutions they often propose.

Many speakers shared stories of foreign mining companies entering their communities without their consent, devastating their land and poisoning their rivers. Their stories were real and their pain was palpable.

Kandi (Eagle Woman), an Indigenous woman from North Dakota, lives on a reservation that has been infiltrated by an oil company to carry out hydraulic fracturing. She shared heart-wrenching stories of devastating health impacts amongst the youth on the reservation and several deaths that have occurred due to speeding semi trucks.

Amidst all of the injustice and suffering that these people have endured, however, was an unequivocal sense of solidarity and hope. These people are mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore. In the middle of one man’s testimony, he started to sing. Before I knew it, the whole hall was standing and singing along in a language I desperately wished I knew.

“There is strength in unity; there are so many more of us than there are of them,” said Kandi. “ We have a connection to the land that you cannot break. It’s in our blood.”

Inside the conference centre, people’s futures are being drafted and negotiated away. Don’t get me wrong; I am so grateful that I have the opportunity be at COP. We need people to understand what is going on inside the negotiations, to hold governments accountable, and demand what seems to be unreasonable.

But after today I can’t help but wonder, what the hell am I doing inside the conference centre?

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