Mixed Feelings of Hope and Low Expectations Permeate Durban Climate Talks

Written by Louis Blumberg on . Posted in Act, COP17, The Wonk Room

I stood at the 18th floor window – with a dense fog and warm rain blowing in off the Indian Ocean – wondering about how different the planet will be for the next generation. 

For the fifth year in a row, I’ve come to the United Nations climate change conference as part of The Nature Conservancy’s delegation. But this year, in Durban, South Africa, my typical enthusiasm is a bit muted, in part because of the dismal state of climate policy in the U.S.

Not surprisingly, the low expectations set by the press seemed matched by a low energy on the conference grounds over the first few days. Country delegates were guarded, feeling each other out, and leadership was lacking despite the great job South Africa has done in organizing the event. My 15 colleagues from five different countries also felt the lack of “buzz.”

But by end of this first week, there were new signs of life and the more common  “buzz” started to fill the halls and cavernous meeting rooms. In a very, very faint echo of 2009’s famously hyped Copenhagen conference, by Thursday I had to stand in line for a sandwich and endure a five-minute wait for a place to plug in my laptop.


On the first few days, I sat in huge, public sessions where a majority of the 193 nations represented made short, often impassioned speeches about the threat and impacts of a changing climate. Soon, I was squeezing into meetings of the various subcommittees dealing with The Nature Conservancy’s priority issues: stopping deforestation, using nature to help people prepare for the consequences of climate change, and developing a flow of money to make it all happen. 

I attended the “Indaba” – an informal, unofficial session that gave country representatives a chance to speak their minds without reference to any sub-committee or document. A great divide emerged between developing countries and the heaviest-polluting nations over the future of the Kyoto Protocol, a conflict that permeates the discussion here.

By the end of this first week, meetings are closed and we work the halls and phones to make our case, and we’ve seen some progress as the new versions of the various written legislative drafts reflect some of our priorities.

The stage is now set for the high-level negotiations of week 2, when the ministers and a few heads of state show up. Though as we learned in Copenhagen, where more then 120 presidents showed up, we can’t count on heads of state to get the job done. The U.S. remains enigmatic, unwilling to commit – at least publicly for now – and support for continuing the Kyoto Protocol is eroding with the U.S. sitting on the sidelines as the only industrialized country that never signed it.

The vulnerable countries and the environmental groups, on the other hand, are pushing to keep building on Kyoto, and the thousands marching in the street on Sunday added new energy and volume to our efforts. But it’s hard to get too excited since the common understanding now – led in part by the U.S. – is that it will be at least 2020 before we see a comprehensive, legally binding mandate to reduce global emissions. 

I quickly close the window, wipe my face, and hope that we act soon enough to leave a world that in some way resembles what we’ve known; and not looking forward to 29 hours in the aluminum tube to get home.

Louis Blumberg is climate change director for The Nature Conservancy in California.

Photo by: Flickr user jit bag (View of wharf and Indian Ocean through window, Durban, Kwazulu Natal, South Africa, 2010) Used under a Creative Commons license.

Poster Photo by: Frank Lowenstein (New branding identity for the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change was shared at the Durban conference center).

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Planet Change is a Nature Conservancy blog site designed to share stories about actions the Conservancy and others around the world are taking to fight carbon pollution and the impacts of climate change, and to help people feel the connections between climate change and their daily lives and understand actions they can take.

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