Voices on the road to COP 17: Who should lead the fight on climate change? You should

Mandeep TiwanaInterview by: Elizabeth Hira, Human Rights Activist and Policy Unit Intern, CIVICUS

Mandeep Tiwana, Policy Manager at CIVICUS, discusses climate change, COP17, and why ordinary people need to lead the fight. This is the first in a series of conversations CIVICUS will host in the lead-up to the 17th Conference of the Parties on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

 CIVICUS is launching a special column on climate change in the run-up to COP17 in Durban. Why?

We believe that climate change is one of the greatest human rights and development challenges of the 21st century. Governments and businesses have shown themselves both unwilling and unable to take responsibility for the damage they are wreaking on the planet. Time is fast running out and it’s imperative that more and more people know what is at stake here. The business-as-usual model must be abandoned, and this can only happen when ordinary citizens take it upon themselves to force policy makers to make the hard decisions needed to halt climate change.  This has to be a global people’s movement. We believe civil society is the vehicle to make it a truly global movement, connecting people’s voices with those in power to make these decisions. To enable this, civil society must mainstream climate justice, just as gender justice was mainstreamed in the last century. We at CIVICUS hope that our profiling in e-CIVICUS of climate justice issues from various sectors will help catalyze this mainstreaming. This is our contribution. We hope that the words of other activists we present will start small conversations in manyl corners, which will aggregate into this powerful thing that CIVICUS believes in—the power of an alliance. People all over the world will show that this can be and is a truly global people’s movement.

Finally, because of the complexity of these issues, and the slow pace they are being dealt with, it is tempting to see the Durban COP as just another global gathering where something may or may not happen. This is unacceptable. We want to run this series and to raise these issues to show that there’s a sense of urgency here, that something can be done, because it must be done.

What are CIVICUS’ plans for COP17?

As a global civil society alliance and convener of civil society, we’re first trying to spread the word. We aim to raise awareness about the issues. Additionally, we stress access: we aim to enable all interested civil society organisations to reach the leaders making the decisions. CIVICUS is uniquely positioned here because of the diversity of our network. We’re bringing together grassroots organisations, organisations that do research, organizations involved in advocacy, and media, and we’re seeking to give them a platform on which to demonstrate the power of unified, committed voices. In addition, we’re trying to link organisations across the globe with civil society in South Africa, which is particularly important for those who want to come to Durban from afar and have their voices heard and their needs represented.

Further, we aim to influence decision makers by using our various platforms, including electronic media and sharing information through our networks. More directly, we’re trying to influence decision makers at various multilateral forums ourselves, in the lead-up to the conference.

We also see the CIVICUS World Assembly from 10-12 September in Montreal as an important stopping point for civil society to share positions and strategies in preparation for the Conference. One of the central themes of the World Assembly is climate justice, and a number of workshops are planned. There, we’ll be bringing together people with different perspectives from different parts of the world to share experiences. We see the World Assembly as a place to mobilise around that shared information, and to forge strategies to influence decision makers in the run-up to COP17.

What is CIVICUS’ position on climate change?

Firstly, we believe that not enough is being done by governments. The persistent and dogged reliance on fossil fuels and dirty energy is basically creating a whole wave of climate refugees. Most often these people are not actually the polluters—they’re the people who have simply been expected to quietly bear the dire consequences. It is the people who cause the damage who actually have the infrastructure to withstand it. Those who are not responsible for it, often from poor and marginalised communities in developing countries, are the ones who suffer. Governments have a responsibility to address this. It is essential that we get a fair, ambitious and binding treaty but, most importantly, world leaders need to wake up to reality and see the writing on the wall – this is not just about future generations, this is about destruction now.

Further, if this is not addressed, apart from the humanitarian crisis  which will no doubt result, there’s also going to be a political crisis, because massive instability will be the inevitable consequence when people are deprived of their livelihoods. Weather patterns are changing, agriculture is being damaged—people’s subsistence is at stake when their physical dwellings and food sources are under siege from creeping sands and rising tides. We’re talking about huge numbers in all corners of the globe. This is not going to be a regional political problem—it’s going to happen everywhere. We’ve already seen this the world over during the last few years, with the floods in South Africa and Pakistan, the desertification happening in Australia, glacial depletion impacting water availability in Latin America. We have to put this all in context. Some island states are going to disappear because of the changes in sea level, fishing as a food source will become a relic, plant and animal life is steadily disappearing—we’re talking about whole ecosystems on the line, whole ways of life that have survived for centuries, that have been passed through the ages. Inaction puts all of these at risk. Yet we know all of this—it is the decision makers who must move, and the people hold the sole power to put the pressure on them to do so. Given the seriousness of runaway climate change, it is vital that world leaders set ambitious targets to drastically reduce pollution levels, while simultaneously creating environmentally friendly economies that rely less and less on dirty fossil fuels. Most importantly, a fair and ambitious agreement should be honoured in letter and spirit by governments across the board through a legally binding process.

Is it too late?

It’s never too late to do the right thing.

What are your expectations for COP17?

I’d rather say what my hopes are for COP17. Firstly, the fact that the summit is happening in South Africa has great symbolic significance. Two things: this is a country where a people’s movement—the struggle against apartheid—was able to overturn an entrenched unjust system. It shows us hope about the power of international solidarity, of people achieving something by working together across the globe because they believe in something, no matter how strong the obstacle or how high the aspiration . They achieved change here, and it can be done again. The second thing is that the Conference will be on African soil, and a number of the victims of climate change, a large number of countries affected, who ironically are least responsible for it, are right here on the continent. There is talk about this being “Africa’s COP”. Coming back to the issue of a fair treaty, we want to see African countries get a fair deal. We want to get those who are causing the damage to stop it, and the treaty should be fair by making both historical and current polluting countries take responsibility for their actions. An important aspect of this is also restitution to people and communities whose lives have been disrupted by changing weather patterns caused by carbon emissions from polluting industries. Notably, victims of climate change usually reside in countries that have lower levels of industrialisation with weak infrastructures unable to withstand such disruption. They need recompense from those responsible. Finally, we want to see widening access to green technology for those impacted by this damage.

Thinking about the Conference and what we can hope for, there’s a quote I like that springs to mind. “Change happens when those who normally don’t speak are heard by those who normally don’t listen.” That’s why we need this to be a people’s movement.  On 3 December 2011 we’re expecting 50,000 people to take to the streets in Durban, South Africa, to show their determination to policymakers, to let policy makers know that there’s urgency. They will be coming out in such large numbers to demonstrate the reality that people are really, really concerned. At the Conference, perhaps the people being listened to are the people in their fine pressed suits—they may have a lot of money, but they’re only a miniscule fraction of the world. The people in the streets will show that the reality of climate change is here. There are massive amounts of people who are affected, and they will show their indignation at the failure of policymakers to halt the destruction and to allow those who pollute and cause climate change to continue with their violence against the planet, against the people. We hope to hear the voice of the people say this cannot happen. To fail the people is not an option.

What are your expectations for the South African government’s part in COP17?

The role of the South African government is key in this. As the host country, all eyes are on South Africa. They are taking up the mantle not only for Africa but, as a leading voice in the global south, they have a grave responsibility. There is a lot of expectation on the South African government to achieve substantial progress in the negotiations on behalf of all people who are impacted by climate change. There, we will let history be the judge.