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January-February 2012

Vol. 37, No. 1


UN Climate Change Conference 2011

The following report is from Sr. Ann Braudis who attended the conference in December 2011.


During the recent UN Climate Change Conference hope for a breakthrough regarding international policy was generated by the very fact that the meetings were taking place in South Africa, where a breakthrough regarding the entrenched apartheid social system was achieved barely 20 years ago. The apartheid reversal was one of the most significant moral and civilizational achievements of the present era. At the outset of the conference, the memory of this achievement was evoked by Dr. Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, who placed before the assembly the stirring image of Nelson Mandela's 1990 walk to freedom.

The imagery of a journey is apt for the moral and civilizational challenge currently before the whole of humanity. Human-caused global warming has begun a relentless process of altering the climate of the earth in such a manner that widespread hardship is being inflicted on many people, particularly in Africa, low-lying delta areas and small islands. Before this reality, no person and no nation can assume indifference. Moral rectitude requires the defense of life and, consequently, the protection of life-support systems.

During the conference, by one account, no fewer than 40 events were held that centered on the moral and ethical issues related to climate change. It was repeatedly pointed out that one nation cannot chose its own interests over the well-being of the whole planet; much less is it acceptable that economic interests of the type that increase global warming prevail to the detriment of human life anywhere on Earth. This understanding is clear and simple and cannot be subject to argument in the competitive sense of refusing to do what is correct unless others choose the same path (as in the case of the antagonism between the U.S. and China). To risk fundamental changes on the planet, human death and hardship, especially to vulnerable and poor people who have no where to turn, is unacceptable and morally indefensible. There is no road to take other than the moral high road. (The repeated claims that there is insufficient evidence that human behavior is a factor in global climate change are well known. These claims, of course, are contrary to the consensus report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Nevertheless, in face of such claims, it is helpful to be aware of the Precautionary Principle which requires that one face beforehand the possibility of unpredictable developments because of insufficient scientific knowledge. Interventions are required before possible harm occurs or before certainty can be achieved.)

As the conference unfolded, in spite of many divergent views and difficult moments, several positive steps forward were taken:

  • The agreement to activate a Global Climate Fund with resources from both the public and private sectors and for the benefit of those nations already suffering from or severely threatened by climate change is very important. Its significance lies in the acknowledgement that the developed nations have obligations to the developing nations. This is critical ethical behavior.
  • Some progress was made regarding the transfer of technology related to two points: the mitigation of harmful greenhouse gases and adaptation to the new reality of climate change; again, from the developed to developing nations.
  • The biggest movement, aggressively supported by the United States, was the agreement to negotiate a new legal document that would embrace all UN member states, to become effective by 2020. It must be noted that, as of the present, it is only an agreement to negotiate, which is seen by some observers to be a delaying tactic that does not match the scale and urgency of the present climate change crisis.
  • The Kyoto Protocol, which is the agreement that specifies the developed nations' commitments to specific greenhouse gas reduction targets, will be extended. However, far from being strengthened in view of the seriousness of the situation, it is weakened by the failure, up to the present, of several developed nations, chief among them the United States, to sign on to the projected extension with a commitment to adequate reduction targets.

Finally, while the conference took some steps forward, it cannot be said that it lived up to the high purpose that was set before it at its outset. However, while the present situation is very worrisome, a breakthrough may yet arise in time to draw humanity into a greater sense of responsibility for the community of life. In this case, humanity would find itself in a new civilizational era, one characterized by human cooperation on a global scale.

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