Durban, South Africa

by Andrea Palframan, Watershed Sentinel

A death-knell for a new Kyoto is being sounded just as the gates open at Durban’s COP 17. Politically, the victories here are being predicted to be insubstantial. Thus the focus is shifting to economic approaches, such as increasingly gimmicky emissions markets and a push for yet more privatization of resources. Beneath those dialogues, yet woven throughout, is another tune which is being carried on the voices of some of Africa’s untitled leaders: the faith community.

While secularism might be fashionable, if not politically expedient, in the West, in Africa faith is part of the discourse. Activists at COP 17 are trying to harness the power, and relevance, of scripture in order to engage ordinary people in the struggle for climate justice. In Africa, as with elsewhere, broad environmental concerns such as calling for a reduction in CO2 emissions are often drowned out by people’s more quotidien struggles.

Just as apartheid was framed as a moral issue in order to garner support for boycotts and sanctions against the South African government, faith leaders and others from civil society aim to appeal to humanitarian principles in order to shift the intransigent ‘have’ nations into making legally binding environmental commitments.

At the We Have Faith rally marking the end of a climate caravan that travelled from Nairobi to Durban, Archbishop Desmond Tutu appealed to the power of human unity to heal the planet. “Ubuntu means a person is a person is a person. We are meant to live harmoniously together. There is only one race: the human race.” Speaking of the garden God created, Tutu appealed to faith communities to ” help support vulnerable communities to build their resilience, in order to adapt to the impacts of climate change.”

Youth delegate Nelson Mensah-Aborampah, though skeptical of the political power of COP-17, feels the faith community is in a position to respond the climate change “in fact, rather than in word.”

“The church can be dynamic: what we are seeing today is a result of how we handle the power that God gave us. So more than a moral failing I would say it is a problem of greed. Africa has been exploited for so many years; as an African, my aim now is not to continue the exploitation. This is why I want to change my career, from mining exploration to medicine. I’d rather choose something that gives back to people instead of taking. That’s how my faith motivates me.”

Climate change is being referred to as a moral issue in some surprising quarters: in the opening plenary, UNFCCC executive director Christiana Figueres acknowledged the receipt of a petition from faith based organizations demanding action to find a common solution to secure a future for generations to come. The petition reads, in part, “”We, the people of the world, have lost our moral compass, and reduce all economic decisions to maximising profit and consumption, and so as faith communities we must renew our commitment to compassion for other living beings and the principle of justice.”

Speaking of carbon trading, South Africa’s Ashwin Desi comments that, “It is immoral. It allows global North countries and companies to maintain greenhouse gas emissions while neglecting green alternatives.” On the ‘collective suicide’ that would be the result of allowing the rampant expansion of the Sahara, Chadian president Idriss Deby exclaimed, “All of these terrible problems must call on our collective conscience!”

Zulu legends Ladysmith Black Mambazo, performing at the We Have Faith rally, shared a song about Wangaari Maathai, the Kenyan Nobel Prize winner whose recent passing makes her a touchstone for this gathering. The Green Belt Movement Maathai founded was about motivating communities to use their indigenous knowledge and beliefs in service of the Earth. Maathai, a ‘beloved daughter of Mount Kilimanjaro”, worked to reanimate African peoples spiritual ties to the nature world as a basis for her reforestation work. The We Have Faith movement carry on her legacy in their attempt to use the commonly understood and respected language of scripture to motivate ecological action.

Says Mensah-Aborampah, “The whole issue of climate change is hard to solve. If this conference is COP 17, what happened to all the other COPs? People who failed to reach agreements are skilled, yet they failed. So common people wonder, what can we do? I think that everything can change, no matter what it is . I suppose that is faith.”

Whether the language is secular or scriptural, what is being called for at COP is a moral response to the failings of the past. In large part it is a matter of replacing pessimism with pragmatism. If delegates here can go forward believing that, as Figueres proclaims, “reaching a global agreement has never been more compelling (or more achievable),” then COP 17 may just beat the odds. Perhaps a new motto would borrow from the lexicon around anti-retroviral therapy: how about a Lazarus effect for the Kyoto accord?