Post-Durban COP17 Reflection

Reflection on the COP17 Climate Change gathering

The UN Conference in Durban South Africa

By Isaac Wittman

[Isaac Wittman is an ELCA Young Adult in Global Mission currently located in Durban]


Since the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1995, world leaders and policy makers have met annually to come to an agreement on how to react against climate change.  For the past two weeks, Durban has hosted the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) of the UNFCCC. Amidst the energy of COP17, different faith-based organizations and communities have united to voice their stance on climate change and have centered themselves at the Diakonia Centre in downtown Durban. Coming from my own American Christian background, in which focusing on differences between denominations is often more prevalent than focusing on similarities, I was thoroughly impressed by the harmony and cooperation shown by the interfaith community. For two weeks straight we rallied, hosting marches, lectures, and workshops to mobilize and educate people on climate change and the happenings of COP17. I sat in on multiple panel discussions in which leaders from different religious backgrounds discussed their faith’s views on climate change and our responsibility to protect the earth. The resounding message from all parties was that God has called us to be not just owners, but stewards of the earth. It is our responsibility to take of it and of the vulnerable communities affected by climate change. The mindset of “just leave it, God will sort it out” is totally unacceptable.  (The complete doctrine that was signed by faith leaders can be found at


I have always been a strong advocate for climate justice, but looking at the issues from the other side of the world has freshened my perspective on the matter. Desmond Tutu said it quite clearly, “Climate change is a matter of justice. The richest countries caused the problem, but it is the world's poorest who are already suffering from its effects.” It’s not just about saving the polar bears; climate change affects humans in a very real and traumatic way. The temperature of the earth is rising and it’s having the greatest effect on the developing world. Since 2003, East Africa has had the eight warmest years on record, which is no doubt contributing to the severe famine that now afflicts 13 million people in the Horn of Africa. And while the developing world is suffering, it’s the richest countries that are creating the problem. According to the WorldWatch Institute, the wealthiest 7% of the world’s population are currently responsible for 50% of carbon dioxide emissions, while the poorest 3 billion are responsible for just 6%. In addition, from 1900-2004 the whole of Africa generated just 2.5% of cumulative carbon dioxide emissions while the USA accounted for 29.5%. 


It is easiest for people who rely heavily on fossil fuels to deduce recent weather extremities to simple chance or natural causes rather than by human actions. Maybe that is why many people in the US have ignored climate change or have chosen to denounce its legitimacy. From this side of the world it looks like Americans are some of the only ones not taking it seriously. This was evident throughout the COP17 negotiations as the U.S. withdrew from global responsibility by calling to delay taking real action until 2020 and declining to sign the Kyoto Protocol. The ending of COP was quite saddening, as the agreements reached will still leave Earth on track for 3-4 degrees Celsius of warming or 5-6 degrees for Africa, by 2100, almost certainly disastrous.


A common chant or saying I’ve heard over the past two weeks is “Choose people over profit,” suggesting to the delegates to listen to the people who elected them and not the big corporations who are paying them. This may be relevant for other countries, but frankly I’ve been hearing a big whopping silence from the American people on this issue. It has upset me how many people I’ve talked to recently (from the US) who didn’t even know about COP17. And I‘m not claiming immunity of ignorance here; I just hope that as a society we can start thinking more globally and start taking responsibility for our role in the world. In a democracy, we get the government we deserve and if we want to see change we must be proactive in producing it. It is time to stop blaming government for the decisions being made and accept our responsibility as members of a democracy and citizens of the world.


There is no doubt that it will be difficult to cut back on the energy we use. We have our standard of living where we want it and it will be uncomfortable to retreat to a simpler way of living. But, if we don’t step up to thwart this problem now, it could become the next historic disaster in which future generations look back and think, “Those jerks! They could have done something but they didn’t!” Last week in a lecture, Bishop Geoff Davies, aka “The Green Bishop” made the observation that the rich world’s outlook on reducing carbon emissions today is very similar to the outlook used many years ago about ending slavery. People then believed that the economy couldn’t survive without slavery, just like big corporations today believe they can’t survive without their carbon emissions. Just as we have overcome terrible violations of human rights in the past, like slavery, racial and gender discrimination, and genocide, I believe our next big step will be to reduce the disparity between the rich and the poor, and bringing down our carbon emissions is one large step towards universal human dignity. While I leave the two weeks of COP17 feeling disheartened by the lack of action from the delegates and a lack of energy and awareness from people from my country, I also feel charged and excited to bring awareness to this issue back home. With the knowledge I have, I feel responsible to be proactive in changing our mindset on energy use. I hope other people feel similarly.