When elephants fight, it’s the grass which suffers – How real people and real issues are getting lost in the political battles being fought at the climate change negotiations

While it’s true that the climate change negotiations operate, like all aspects of international law, between states it is imperative that the negotiators remember on whose behalf these treaties are being negotiated. It’s not always clear that in the bruising battles being fought between north and south; developed and developing; Annex 1 and non-Annex 1 that the real people affected by climate change are even being considered. The African idiom that when elephants fight, it is the grass which suffers is an apt description of how real people and real issues are trampled on when powerful interests wrestle for supremacy in the international negotiations.

Sure, everyone pays lip service to the idea that the global poor are going to be the most affected by climate change – but has this really translated into the kind of urgent action needed to protect the poor? Not really. Everyone remembers the horrific pictures beamed across the world from the devastating Mozambican floods; from Hurricane Katrina; from the devastating forest fires in Australia; and here at home from the almost annual floods in the Western Cape that leave thousands of poor people homeless. Some of us who are old enough can even remember the famines that swept through eastern Africa in the 1980s. But these memories seem transient and instead of lending urgency to the work of the negotiators who should be working feverishly to avoid their recurrence, they seem to be of little relevance.

Of all the issues being negotiated, the most important issue that seems to be overlooked again and again is that we have very little atmospheric space left. So whether or not the USA can indeed pass the Waxman-Markey Bill on time to make an impact at Copenhagen; or whether China, India, Brazil and South Africa agree to take on emissions reduction targets; the fact remains that we are very close to what scientists tell us will lead to catastrophic climate change. This fact though, seems to sway no-one, not least the folk that we have entrusted with negotiating a new climate protection regime.

This is not to say that the negotiations are being approached in a laissez-affaire manner, or that genuine effort is not being put into the negotiations. Neither can it be said that the negotiations are a simple exercise. Far from it, it is quite clearly understood that multi-lateral negotiations are a complex arena where different interests have to be balanced in the effort to save the planet. What can be said though is that in failing to negotiate a climate deal that will adequately cater for the needs of the poor, and for the shrinking atmospheric space, while placing the emphasis on economic security we run the risk of severe global warming. What the people of the South – where the majority of the world’s poor reside – would like to know is when will the elephants stop fighting and start working together?

*Sakhile Koketso

The author is Sustainable Development Programme Manager for the Heinrich Böll Stiftung Regional Office for Southern Africa.