The Path Beyond Durban

Historically, climate conferences have failed to create binding agreements to mitigate global warming significantly. The Durban Climate Change Conference—which took place in South Africa in Dec. 2011—is the latest example of this failure. Although some progress was made at Durban, it was hardly the major step towards climate change mitigation that many hoped for. The new “legal framework” setting binding emissions reductions won’t take effect until 2020, yet in 2010 alone CO2 emissions increased six percent. Last year saw unprecedented extreme weather and glacial melting. Now more than ever, the world’s population requires serious commitments to phasing out fossil fuels and developing renewable energy.

While this international failure is tragic, it is not surprising. Each country has unique economic challenges, values, traditions, and norms, and each is affected by climate change in a different way. One treaty cannot encompass the diverse qualities and needs of every country. Rather than wait for the magic conference that unites all nations, we should expand the role of international bodies to support, exhort, pressure, and coordinate binding legislation at the national level. A brief comparison of the United States, Bolivia, and China illustrates this need.

The environmental movement in the United States is built on unsustainable action. Since the first Earth Day in 1970, millions of people have gathered to demonstrate their concern for the environment. But this action has not translated into meaningful change because education it has not been reinforced with education. Americans do not understand how environmental degradation affects their lives. Yet the transition to greener lifestyles will occur when citizens understand what’s going on. A recent report from George Mason University reveals this problem. When asked in 2008 how likely they were to switch to energy-efficient light-bulbs, 44 percent of Americans said they would either like to or definitely would make the switch. By 2011 that had dropped to 34 percent. In 2008, 42 percent said that Americans’ energy-saving actions would reduce global warming. By 2011, only 26 percent believed this. These findings suggest that environmental awareness has not taken hold on an individual level. The environmental movement in the US needs to expand its focus to include a national educational agenda that can drive and support social action and policy.

Bolivia’s environmental movement, in contrast, is based upon Andean religion. While living in Bolivia, I learned that the idea of Pachamama—the native Quechua word for “Mother Nature”—pervades society. People want to maintain peace and reciprocity with Pachamama. If a family harvests potatoes, they must in turn sacrifice an animal to keep balance between humanity and Mother Nature. Some Bolivians see modern environmental problems as Mother Nature’s retaliation for humans abusing the Earth. Humans have cut down too many trees without giving anything in return. Now, they believe, we are paying the price with climate change, especially rapidly melting glaciers that threaten water supplies. Other environmental issues plaguing Bolivia—from destructive mining practices to deforestation—are the legacy of centuries of poverty, corruption, and exploitation. Despite this difficult history, spirituality pervades the everyday life of most citizens. Environmental education, while necessary in America, would not be effective in Bolivia just as the spirituality of Bolivians would not mesh with American culture. Bolivia’s top priorities should be more stringent industrial regulation to stop environmental degradation. It will need to develop and acquire green technologies that increase access to water while minimizing environmental harm.

China presents another contrast. It is plagued with severe pollution issues: coal accounts for 70 percent of energy use, and car emissions increase as the number of vehicles in China surpassed 100 million. Yet China has invested more in renewable energy than almost any other country. With a powerful autocracy, China can effect sweeping policy change quickly. China banned all plastic bags in 2008 and has ambitious goals to reduce energy intensity. I lived in China for three months last year, and I met with the major environmental organizations in Shanghai and learned about environmentalism in China. I saw that average Chinese citizens rejected the environmental movement because it was run by foreigners and represented a Western approach. Effective approaches to climate change mitigation will require an authentic Chinese strategy that involves both the government and the people. For example, recycling systems that close the waste loop would have a significant impact. China must also bring energy-efficient and eco-friendly products into mainstream consumer markets. The Chinese people require ecologically sound alternatives as well as education and regulation.

The disappointment at Durban should unite environmentalists in forging a new path beyond Durban because the effort to bring about binding international agreements is necessary but not sufficient. The profoundly diverse scenarios of America, Bolivia, and China show that nations are more likely to achieve substantial legislation to mitigate climate change when it is linked to their unique challenges and values. These actions can then be coordinated on an international level to ensure that global targets are met. Change must occur bottom-up as well as top-down. The failure of the Durban conference signals that it is time to rethink a global approach to environmentalism.

Chloe S. Maxmin ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Wigglesworth Hall.