The Circus Is In Town (but you’re not invited)
It’s 7am in Durban. I’ve just bought a cup of coffee to go (needless to say, once COP-17 started I soon abandoned my no-caffeine regiment) and am on my way to the International Convention Centre (ICC).
“Madam, madam! Are you with the press?” I hear a man shout behind me. Before waiting for my answer, he says, “the television won’t show what’s happening in the streets of Durban, madam”. He (I later learn his name is Joshua) goes on to tell me that he has been living on the streets for 25 years. Joshua explains that Durban’s street people are being cleared from the streets in a sweep to make the city more ‘attractive’ in the eyes of the thousands of visitors here for COP-17.
“They’re taking children, madam. Children! The police come, the metro police, and they are taking entire families”. Joshua is visibly outraged. He urges me to tell others about what is happening, and I promise to do so. We part ways at an intersection, waving.
While the Durban police are cleansing the streets from its traces of poverty, COP-17 delegates have it pretty good inside the ICC, with its air conditioning, free wifi, and immaculate washrooms. A maid can be found at all times in the ladies’ washrooms, wiping up drops of water from the sink after a delegate washes their hands, and mopping the floor whether it needs it or not. I enjoy a running joke with the woman who seems to be in charge of cleaning the washroom nearest the CYD booth; we both chuckle at how often I come to pee (it’s like 30 degrees outside – got to stay hydrated!).
The brand new infrastructure combined with the heavily packaged and overpriced food, the smart phones, the business cards, the suits, the ties…. All this makes for a pretty disillusioning experience. My feet are covered in blisters from wearing ‘business casual’ shoes, and it’s too hot to wear a blazer but on some days I feel compelled to do so, if only to be granted the respect that this sort of attire seems to demand here at the UNFCCC. It’s as if we’re all playing dress up – except that climate change is no joke. There’s a lot going on here at the ICC, but so far, climate action isn’t one of them – and that’s the most disillusioning part of all this.
It’s no wonder that local organizers have developed a circus narrative around COP-17 –“because nothing undermines authority like holding it up to ridicule”. They’ve poignantly dubbed these negotiations the Conference of Polluters. It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that these negotiations are, at least in practice, driven by the fossil fuel industry and its stakeholders. The designated free speech zone outside the conference (a triangular patch of grass in the middle of a busy intersection) can only accommodate a maximum of 500 people… this when climate change is expected to cause 300,000 deaths per year by 2020, and displace hundreds of millions of others.
The circus is in town, but the majority of Durban’s inhabitants, not to mention the people of the world on the frontlines of climate change, aren’t invited.
I run into Joshua again later in the evening. Now it’s raining. He calls my name from under the awning of a closed café and we wish each other a good night. He will remain well hidden tonight, for fear of being taken by the police. I return to the dormitory in my hostel. Canada’s negotiators return to their fancy hotel on the beach. The Earth keeps warming.