Will Cop17 still the terrors of a child?

2011-12-09 00:00

IT’S official. Jeremy Maggs loves Jimmy Manyi. A tantalising snippet of information picked up at one of the press briefings given during the UN Climate Change Conference down in Durban. My source? Maggs himself. South African ministers Dipuo Peters and Edna Molewa, having given lengthy presentations, were proving resistant to questions they didn’t want to answer. So the press stopped asking questions. Manyi, the cabinet spokesperson, somewhat embarrassed by the silence, spotted “my friend Jeremy” and asked if he had a question. “No,” said Maggs but, as at that moment he didn’t have the benefit of the roving microphone, Manyi didn’t hear the negative response and instead enthusiastically directed the young green-clad helper with the aforesaid mike towards Maggs who obligingly took it and said: “Jimmy, I love you to bits … but I don’t have a question.” Laughter.

That was one of the lighter moments at the many press conferences held here at the Inkosi Albert Luthuli International Convention Centre over the past two weeks.

It’s also lightened up on the U.S. front. Spokesperson-wise that is. They might not be doing any serious negotiating — hey, we never ratified the Kyoto Protocol, so what’s to talk about? — but in the second week Todd Stern, U.S. Special Envoy on Climate Change, replaced last week’s Jonathan Pershing as U.S. spokesperson. A case of good cop, bad cop. While Pershing was the latter, Stern is all loose-limbed charm. When, as per protocol, journalists introduce themselves before asking a question Stern immediately responds: “Hello, Lisa/Jim/Roy.” Of course, he might actually know them. Someone complained that Stern’s assistant was only choosing hands from the U.S. press corps. “Making sure he gets a readership back home,” a colleague cynically remarked.

At least Stern got questions. I attended one press conference where there were none.

His Holiness Shri Shri 1008 Soham Baba, voluptuously attired in colourful fluorescent robes, gave several press briefings. At one he spoke about women and climate change. Before the briefing one of Soham Baba’s European sari-clad followers spoke to the cameraman capturing the event for the UN webcasts and told him to keep a tight close-up on His Holiness, chiding him for not following a similar instruction on the previous day. Presumably because a wider shot would reveal the sparse attendance. Apart from some of Soham Baba’s female followers, I was the only journalist present. There was a Japanese guy who may have been a journalist, but he spent the entire briefing texting on his BlackBerry.

Soham Baba concluded his talk by advising mothers to “Tell your children to go to the woods … to hug the trees, talk to the trees and you will discover [the trees] listen to you. Sing for the trees, they will sing for you.” He then asked if there were any questions. I began writing copious notes. The Japanese guy texted furiously. “If you don’t have any questions I will carry on with my experiences,” said Soham Baba. As the John Lennon character said in the film Yellow Submarine, it was time to exude. I exuded. And don’t ask about 1008.

Such moments, humorous at times, even absurd, have leavened the two weeks spent at COP17 in Durban. But ultimately there is no escaping the seriousness of the issues on the table here. Simply put, they involve the future of the planet: a phrase simultaneously platitudinous and impossible to comprehend. But the science is clear: if we keep up business as usual climate change will accelerate. We have already had a sample of what may lie ahead. The storms that prefaced COP17, in which people died and homes destroyed, were frequently cited as examples of extreme weather events, a taste of things to come.

In his address at the opening of the High Level Segment on Tuesday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described how he had seen evidence of climate change in his travels: melting glaciers and dry earth where once the waters of Lake Chad and the Aral Sea sparkled under the sun. One story continues to haunt me. On the Pacific island country of Kiribati near the equator a young boy told Ban he was afraid to go to sleep at night. Kiribati is gradually being overwhelmed by the ocean and the boy is afraid he will be drowned while asleep in his bed.

Today is the last day of COP17. What will be the outcome? We will know that tomorrow. I wonder, will it be sufficient to still the terror of a child?

• feature1@witness.co.za

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