From Durban, With Urgency

CI Chairman and CEO Peter Seligmann speaking at COP 17. (© CI / Photo by Kim McCabe)

This past week, I had the great opportunity to join a team of smart, passionate, talented champions at the U.N. climate talks in Durban, South Africa, where delegates from 194 countries have been debating what to do about the growing climate crisis facing our planet.

The team I speak about is not ministers or party delegates; it is my own — more than 20 conservation champions hailing from 15 different countries around the world where Conservation International works. Some of our staff here in Durban are sitting on the national delegations of their home countries; all are trying their best to make a measurable difference for nature and people. To see their sophistication and engagement with national delegations, coupled with the inspiring work of our host colleagues here at Conservation South Africa, energizes me beyond words.

These talks are a beast of a process. The guiding principle is agreement by consensus, which by its nature is almost impossible to achieve. Try to imagine everyone at your dinner table this holiday season agreeing on issues as complex as climate change and who should pay what to fix it, and you can imagine the uphill battle we have when leaders from nearly 200 countries attempt to find common ground. But still, to achieve the scale of investment and will necessary to tackle these very serious global problems in time, we need global, cooperative solutions. Let me say it again: global problem, global solutions.

Whether we will get these solutions in time from this body is still in question. Some countries are so entrenched in positions born of national interests that they seem unwilling or unable to see the big picture. While I absolutely respect the unique circumstances and constraints of each nation’s position, this is not productive. We desperately need our leaders to lead — designing an actionable plan to start dealing with the reality of climate change, and enabling countries to adapt to its serious and threatening impacts. This is no time for diplomatic chess games or clever out-maneuvers.

Our hosts, the city of Durban and South Africa government have done an impressive job of staging this mammoth event. There are something like 15,000 people from all corners of the globe, with comfortable buses to transport delegates between venues, security guards to ensure order, friendly volunteers offering directions and food or coffee stands everywhere you turn. The production is organized, efficient and friendly. Though I can’t help but think: what do we spend — and emit — each year to pull these meetings together? Of course, in the larger scheme of things it is a relatively small price to pay for the chance to design global solutions to the greatest threat that humanity has ever faced, but considering how many conferences of this sort have taken place with little progress, it begins to make you wonder if it is worth the time and expense.

After the frustrating failures of Copenhagen two years ago, and the renewed goodwill in Cancun last December, we were hopeful that all the talk would finally deliver at least some meaningful action here in Durban: designing the rules and safeguards that would allow the mitigation mechanism known as REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) to take off, operationalizing the Green Climate Fund to structure the globe’s collective climate bank, forming an Adaptation Committee to ensure funds flow to countries most affected, and legitimizing the need for a variety of financial sources, including markets, to pay for all this — given the economic realities draining so many national coffers.

But disagreements about a second commitment for the Kyoto Protocol — the only legally-binding international mechanism we currently have to limit greenhouse gas emissions — seems to be the roadblock countries can’t or won’t get past. Right now, countries cannot seem to come to agreement on climate change because they are fixated on who should fix it.

My view is that when you have 194 nations tasked with reaching a consensus, it deeply constricts the probability of success.

Rather than deadlocking the process in disagreement, what I would like to see as an important step forward is for nations to put discussions about attribution aside, and instead move forward by agreeing on the key threats, the sources of emissions and best mitigation strategies to reduce them, the year emissions need to peak before reversing to avoid catastrophic impacts, and the scientific essentials we can best employ to adapt. We believe in the principle of common by differentiated responsibilities, but no one will benefit if we keep getting stuck on blame.

We need to start recognizing the value of biodiversity and ecosystem services in helping people adapt to the harmful impacts of a changing climate, and prioritizing ecosystem-based approaches to adaptation that enable nature to do what it does best: adapt and respond to change. Our team in South Africa is demonstrating this concept with cost-effective pilot projects in country, and sharing these lessons in clear, jargon-free success stories we presented in Durban, alongside colleagues at the South African National Biodiversity Institute and the World Bank. Only by recognizing that healthy ecosystems offer humanity our strongest safety nets, and that climate change, biodiversity and livelihoods are all inextricably linked, will we too adapt.

In the meantime, we need to activate the private sector which is already forging forward to adapt to the impacts of a changing planet. Businesses smartly recognize that it is in their enlightened self-interest to invest in nature’s resilient support systems, to ensure access to supply chains that begin and thrive in healthy ecosystems. Never in my 25 years of managing Conservation International have I seen such energy or participation in the business world to engage in sustainable long-term solution on a global scale. They get that climate action, supported by nature, is essential to economic survival.

Until we have global action, we can create submarkets and regional strategies for aggressive climate cooperation for countries that are willing, such as the kind we are seeing between forward-thinking countries like Norway, Indonesia, Mexico, Guyana, Brazil and even the state of California. A coalition of the rational, if you will. These submarket climate co-ops would be instrumental in increasing countries’ national capacities, sharing of technologies and trade in strong carbon markets.

Peter Seligmann

In any case, I remain hopeful but impatient. Hopeful that countries will finally agree that it is time to stop postponing action and imperiling our children’s future and start mobilizing our collective will to avert disaster; impatient for action. We do not have any time left to play around with this, as our population poises to increase by 33 percent within the next four decades, emissions skyrocket, and temperatures continually climb. Our planet has its limits; our patience for leadership should as well.

Durban must deliver.

Peter Seligmann is the chairman and CEO of Conservation International. Read other COP 17 posts.


  1. jt says

    It’s a disgrace of the highest order that the US is not present for these vital talks. The average American feels covered in disgust and guilt by the actions of their own government, while US and foreign corporations carelessly destroy the planet for profit. Mr. Peter Seligmann would be better to condemn rather than hope “Durban must deliver” while he and the world witness the US government turns it’s back on it’s own people and our planet. No one is proud of America especially the average American. Let the world hear!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *