UN Climate Change Conference Brings Grim Warnings, Angry Protests

The second meeting of the parties to the Kyoto Protocol is being held in Kenya, and tensions are running high.
By Linda Orlando

The United Nations Climate Change Conference got underway last week in Nairobi, Kenya, with speakers issuing stark warnings that the growing problem of climate change is going to quickly become one of the greatest challenges in the history of mankind.

"Climate change is rapidly emerging as one of the most serious threats that humanity may ever face," said the President of the conference, Kenyan Environment Minister Kivutha Kibwana. The President continued by saying that the crisis will affect the poorest people most severely. For those communities, resources that should be used for projects to further economic development will instead have to be used for health care crises, water shortages, or food stock failures. "We face a genuine danger that recent gains in poverty reduction will be thrown into reverse in coming decades, particularly for the poorest communities on the continent of Africa," Kibwana said.

The two-week conference is the 12th meeting of the 189 parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and is also the second meeting of the 166 parties to the Kyoto Protocol. It is the first UN climate summit to take place in sub-Saharan Africa.

Africa is considered to be the most at-risk continent from rising global temperatures, which have been blamed on greenhouse gas emissions, despite the fact that Africa produces the least amount of greenhouse gases of the planet’s inhabited continents. In Kenya itself, global warming is blamed for altering weather patterns that have resulted in a devastating cycle of drought and floods, endangering centuries-old cultures and traditional ways of life.

Grace Akumu of Climate Network Africa, an environmental group is attending the UN conference as an observer. She had some harsh criticism for African delegates to the conference for not doing enough to seek assistance for Africa to adapt to global warming. "Africa will be the most affected continent by climate change (yet) the African ministers are very weak," said Akuma, slamming Kenya’s environmental minister for "not extracting anything meaningful" at the talks. "The countries will see for themselves who is betraying them in the negotiations," she said.

Akuma’s group organized a protest over the weekend, where thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Nairobi to denounce delegates for failing to agree on urgent measures to address the problem of global warming. More than 2,000 demonstrators, led by a marching band, wore shirts reading, "Our climate, our survival." One banner held by community leaders, environmental activists, and school children said, "Western leaders, it’s time to take responsibility." Another featured a photo of U.S. President George W. Bush, along with the words, "Wanted for crimes against the planet," referring to Bush’s refusal to agree to mandatory cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

The Bush administration has staunchly refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol agreed to by 166 other countries, which seeks to cut emissions that scientists say are partly responsible for a 0.7-degree Celsius rise in temperature since 1900. Canadian Environment Minister Rona Ambrose is also under fire and must explain to the global summit why Ottawa has essentially abandoned the Kyoto Protocol despite Canada promising to agree to it. Toronto Star columnist Chantal Hebert said Ottawa's abandonment of Kyoto "casts a pall on the value of Canada's word" to the international community.

"If a country such as Canada can treat its signature on a treaty as a passing inconvenience, how many other nation-states will feel entitled to shrug off cumbersome obligations in the future?" she wrote.

One of the marchers in the weekend protest was Jackie Pasoi, 24, a Maasai woman from southwest Kenya. The Maasai tribe is a livestock-dependent community whose herds have been repeatedly wiped out by drought, the most recent of which hit Kenya and other areas of eastern Africa earlier this year. "Our livestock is finished because rain patterns are no longer the same," said Pasoi. "We are suffering." Akuma echoed the sentiments of Pasoi and other demonstrators. "They’re losing their livestock, they’re losing their lives," she said.

Others demanded an immediate end to the out of control deforestation that has resulted in a loss of trees, which convert carbon dioxide from greenhouse gases into oxygen. "People are cutting down trees," said student Brian Seiro, 15. "When people to that, the rains don’t’ come as we expected, and people starve." Last month, the UN World Food Programme said that it is still $44 million short of the necessary $225 millions required for a drought emergency operation to help 3 million people in Kenya who have been affected by the drought.

On Wednesday, the High Level Segment of the conference opened with addresses from President Mwai Kibaki of Kenya, President Moritz Leuenberger of the Swiss Confederation, and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Ninety-two ministers from different countries around the world were expected to attend. The opening speeches were webcast live on the Internet and broadcast on television by Kenya Broadcasting Corporation.

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