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Climate is not a negotiation

Either we play by the planet’s rules, or the planet ‘shakes us off like gnats’

By Alanna Mitchell

The climate conference starting today in Durban, South Africa, feels like Copenhagen “lite.”

It’s such a far cry from the brouhaha over the Copenhagen talks two years ago. Media coverage of that summit saturated the newspapers and airwaves. Citizens showed up by the thousands to show their support for reaching a new deal to save the planet from catastrophic climate disturbances.

So many people converged on the Danish capital that United Nations officials started barring registered delegates from the convention centre where the talks were unfolding. I only set foot in the centre once, the day I registered. After that, it was game over and I was never allowed back in.

Police were on high alert and in evidence. The so-called climate deniers were out in full force, even releasing a batch of e-mails stolen from the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom that masqueraded as proof that climate science is a fraud. Of course, the proof vanished under scrutiny, but it was enough to shake a few cages and set the scientific community scrambling to explain.

It was messy and fun and it felt a lot like democracy was happening, at least, outside the formal negotiations. Inside, the talks were breaking down. Politicians seemed to think they were in a run-of-the-mill trade war, as if one nation were negotiating with another nation. Wrong.

This was, and is, a one-sided game. The human species cannot win unless it plays by the planet’s rules. The planet has a line in the sand that humans are just beginning to understand. Once we cross it, life as we know it will end and, as Andrew Weaver, a University of Victoria climate scientist says, the planet will shake humans off like so many gnats.

The negotiators didn’t get it two years ago. In the end, all that came from the Copenhagen frenzy was an agreement to hold surface warming of the planet to two degrees Celsius — the likely line in the sand — and a raft of tepid promises on how that might happen. Problem was, even if countries had stuck to their promises, the planet would have warmed up more than two degrees.

The Kyoto Protocol, which is the world’s only legally binding agreement to cut emissions, ends on Dec. 31, 2012. Negotiators in Durban will try to extend it, amend it or even throw it out and draft its brave new phase.

Hardly anyone thinks that’s going to happen. Media in North America are avoiding the story. Major countries have said privately that they have given up hope. Leaders are more interested in euro contagion than in carbon. The deniers have even put out another batch of the same stolen e-mails trying to stir the pot, to little avail. It’s feeling like a damp squib.

In my heart of hearts, I’d like to see the Copenhagen passion back, with the intrinsic message that the talks matter. In fact, there’s nothing “lite” about these talks at all.

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