The battle over carbon emissions has so far been fought mainly between big and powerful players. In countries like Australia, the coal industry has battled environmentalists and taken on solar power entrepreneurs, while on the international stage the major players — the EU, the US, China — have driven the negotiations. Most of the talk has been about what’s preferable from the point of view of the leadership of these strong forces.
But as the December United Nations climate change talks in Copenhagen get closer, the first victims of climate change have become increasingly assertive as their predicament becomes more apparent.
Late in August, the African Union appointed the Ethiopian Prime Minister as its chief negotiator at the Copenhagen talks, and he delivered one of the toughest speeches on global warming the world has yet heard. Though he repeated the time-honored (and fair) demand for large amounts of compensation and aid from the nations that caused the problem, he went further. Africa, he said, would also demand the rich nations make a maximal effort to cut emissions and hold global warming to as few degrees as humanly possible. "We will use our numbers to delegitimise any agreement that is not consistent with our minimal position," Meles told the African Partnership Forum on Climate Change in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. "If need be, we are prepared to walk out of any negotiations that threaten to be another rape of our continent."
For "rape of our continent" read spreading drought so severe it makes agriculture impossible across much of the region. The UN lists 28 countries as most vulnerable to climate change — 22 of them are in Africa. But they’re not alone. The Association of Small Island States has also grown much feistier and better organised, dismissing even the 2-degree targets for temperature increases set by traditionally green governments in the EU. Mohammed Nasheed, the new president of the Maldives, has said he’ll refuse to sign an agreement that would serve as a "death warrant" for his nation.
The new assertiveness stems from new science. Even a few years ago, most developing nations viewed climate change as one more trouble to which they could, with sufficient aid, adapt. But after Arctic sea ice melted so dramatically in the summer of 2007, scientists began re-evaluating their models — clearly the earth was reacting violently to even relatively low levels of temperature increase. It became clear that for many countries climate change wasn’t a management issue, it was an existential threat. The Maldives, though poor, have begun setting aside a portion of each year’s national budget to buy a new homeland if and when their current home sinks beneath the waves.
As the science gets clearer, more of these poor nations have endorsed a target of limiting greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere to the level of 350 parts per million — the amount of carbon that according to a growing consensus among climate scientists is the most we can have in the atmosphere without causing horrible havoc. Since we’re already past that level, at 387 parts per million, the critical importance of moving back to a safe level also demands much swifter political action than governments have supported in the past — it means, among other things, an aggressive timetable to phase out the use of coal everywhere.
Normally, the governments of countries like the Maldives and Ethiopia are ignored in international forums. But this time may be at least a little different, because a huge civil society movement is building around the globe that centers on the same demands. On October 24, the 350.org Global Day of Climate Action, there will be nearly 200 events in Australia, and over 3,500 events in 163 countries worldwide, bringing those three digits to planetary attention.
These 350.org events have the support of a large number of internationally prominent messengers, including the Chairman of the International Panel on Climate Change, Rajendra Pachauri, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and David Suzuki. Al Gore has endorsed the number, and so has NASA’s James Hansen, one of the planet’s most respected climate scientists. The list includes many prominent Australians: scientist Tim Flannery, author Robert Drewe, film directors George Miller and Rachel Ward and science commentator Robyn Williams.
Protesters will gather in the world’s most iconic places — from the Sydney Opera House and the Great Barrier Reef to mountaintops in the Himalayas and even beneath the waves, when Maldivian president Nasheed leads 350 scuba divers with signs and banners in a dive to the country’s endangered coral reefs. Everywhere protesters will be expressing concern over the fate of their own particular places — but they’ll also be standing up for the weakest people and places on earth. Here’s Ethiopian Prime Minister Zelawi again: Africa "will live with the damage caused by the unavoidable levels of global warming and seek compensation and assistance to limit the damage. What we are not prepared to live with is global warming above the minimum avoidable level."
That level is 350, and it’s a non-negotiable demand from the planet itself.