Tackling climate change from the air-conditioned desert

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by Alana Westwood

This piece was originally posted at the blog It’s The Ecology Stupid, and is cross-posted at gapingwhole.

COP 18, this year’s installment of the annual United Nations climate negotiations, opened yesterday in Doha, Qatar.

In the 28°C winter of Qatar, dust shifts on the street as I make my way to the shuttle. My shoes squeak in sand stained with black soot. With no sidewalk in sight, I gave up trying to preserve my shoes after dodging SUVs and 4×4 trucks on the road, almost all of them bearing the insignia of luxury brands. The clang of construction is continuous as limestone towers with marble-gilded entrances are hewn into place around me.

This year’s COP host, Qatar, boasts the world’s highest GDP due to its booming petroleum sector. There is no public transit system but for a few small shuttles travelling select routes. There is no municipal recycling, certainly no composting. Gas is incredibly cheap. Sprinklers spray extensive lawns. Irrigation pipes snake concentric circles around the roots of the trees bordering the desert. Locals eye me warily when I sit in the gardens.

In a place where it is too hot to be out in the sun eight months of the year, being without air-conditioning is a peculiar notion. A new Qatari friend tells me I should be glad it is not summer. “In July,” he says, “It is too hot to walk from the door of your house to the car.”

Dense traffic slows the shuttle, and I have to rush to finish an order of business just across the road from the conference centre. Getting there and back is no simple task—there is no option but to take a taxi for twenty minutes or anxiously sprint across the packed freeway. I choose the latter. I am still short of breath from vehicle fumes when I return to the COP, where negotiators will discuss ways to limits global carbon dioxide emissions.

I slip from the scorching heat into the exquisite and chilly Qatar National Conference Centre, wishing I had brought a sweater. Yet, a different temperature is on my mind: 2°C, the planetary warming limit that was agreed upon by the 194 member states at COP 15, and formalized as the Copenhagen Accord. Though all of the parties at COP1 5 agreed that 2oC represented the upper safe limit to climate change, the agreement is voluntary and unenforceable. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol has failed, and at current emissions rates we are on track for a world in which average temperatures are at least 4°C higher than a century ago. There is concern that at these negotiations, despite the urgency of the issue, governments from developed countries like Canada will continue to obstruct movement towards binding targets.

The opening plenary of the conference gave brief vignettes of the positions of each member states. In sharp contrast, the press conference held this morning by a coalition of youth delegates from across the world told a much different story – that of a world that is already nearly 1°C warmer than it was a century ago.  These young people shared experiences of the climate legacy they are inheriting; a legacy of floods, superstorms, droughts, and with it, rising prices of food, forced homelessness, loss of land and life.

Climate change is no longer an arbitrary concept to be debated by scientists and politicians. It is being lived every day.

From COP18, we desperately need binding targets and mechanisms for their enforcement. These are the demands from those living the impacts of climate justice. Over the next two weeks of this COP, we can only hope the powerful governments of the world hear their urgent message over the constant din of the air conditioners.

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