Skip to main content

The Importance of ‘Listening’ in International Climate Change Conferences

Published January 10, 2012

by iris_author

This blog is cross-published and also available on the CC-RAI website:

As a graduate student from York University, I had the opportunity to attend the United Nations’ Conference of Parties (COP17) in Durban, South Africa this December. The experience helped me understand that climate justice is about knowing when to stop talking and start listening. It is about humility and creating institutional opportunities for the people who are most affected by climate change to voice their concerns.

During a COP17 protest, I sat down under a tree beside a group of rural women from Northern Cape, South Africa. They were tired, hungry, and thirsty from protesting all day, but they were there to fight for agricultural and land reform. I have tried to understand their cause, but I was left confused by their passion and determination for climate justice. My situation was a lot more different than theirs: I live a relatively comfortable life in Canada as a student researching climate change policies. I do not know what it means to have limited opportunities when your family goes hungry because of a shortage of food caused by climate change. I went to South Africa with a desire to better understand the Conference of Parties as a policy platform. However, I have quickly learned to stop asking pre-determined questions and just start listening. My lesson in the importance of listening can further be applied to the new ways that climate justice can be incorporated into the institutional structure of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the many programs that are part of this greater scheme.

The current market-based approach in the UNFCCC to regulate greenhouse gases is supported by some and opposed by others. An interesting aspect of COP17 was how these different opinions were concentrated in different physical locations. The physical structure of COP17 in South Africa can be divided into three main physical spaces. There was the Durban Exhibition Centre, which has over two hundred information booths from various research institutes, NGOs, and private companies; this was also the location of various panel discussions on the technicalities of UN’s programs as well as discussions on private and public involvement. The official place for governmental negotiations on international climate change initiatives was the International Conference Centre. In these two spaces there was very little opposition, with the exception of a number of civil society groups such as GreenPeace and the Canadian Youth Delegation, against a market-based approach in mitigating climate change.

The third location, a park called the “speakers corner”, became a public space where people from different parts of the world would gather to express their dissatisfaction with carbon markets and governmental inaction. The plurality of voices in this space provided different opinions on what can be considered adequate and realistic action on climate change. That said, the majority of protesters were against a profit-based approach and were either calling for more participatory, accountable, and transparent UN climate negotiations or the disposal of the current process and the establishment of a new system that would be based on peoples-solutions to climate change. I believe that there is space for both - the governmental and peoples-driven approaches to climate change - but the key to success is greater interaction between these two systems.

A recognized advantage for the majority of the world’s population during COP17, relative to other COPs, was that this conference took place on African soil. This presented an opportunity for many civil society people from Africa and Asia to be able to attend this international conference and place ‘climate justice’ on center stage by either protesting or participating in panel discussions. ‘Climate justice’ is based on the understanding that industrialized countries such as Canada and the United States are historically responsible for the current climate crises whereas ‘developing’ countries and lower-income communities (including communities in the ‘developed’ world) will be most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. In the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change  (1992) the ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ principle was introduced to outline that both ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries needed to introduce different measures to combat climate change as per their different responsibilities and capacities. This principle is arguably being eroded by the pressures of certain big players such as United States and Canada to incorporate ‘developing’ countries into a legally-binding climate agreement while refusing to provide adequate financial support to help developing countries develop their economies sustainably. Placing a greenhouse gas emissions’ cap on certain developing countries would limit their economic development. For this reason, a number of developing countries, including India, have been very vocal about ‘equity’ and ‘right to development’ during COP17 and in future international climate negotiations. The ‘climate justice’ slogan became a common sight and chant during COP17 protests. What does ‘climate justice’ mean now after the signing of the Durban deal where countries have agreed to move forward with a legally binding agreement that will incorporate the ‘developing’ world?

‘Climate justice’ in future COPs should be about creating the right institutional opportunities for those who are currently lacking the space to voice their concerns and propose their different solutions. In short, ‘climate justice’ is about recognizing that industrialized countries have a circumstantial privilege in not only dealing with climate-change impacts but also during climate change negotiations at the United Nations level. Countries such as Canada and the United States need to learn when to stop talking and start listening. Although COP17 proved to be the fertile ground to explore the realities of many developing countries that are already being disproportionately affected by climate change, the institutional structure and negotiation climate at COP17 did not place enough emphasis on the importance of listening. The official delegates were in Durban to represent their government’s perspective and their national interests. However, it must be recognized that it is in their interests to hear what others, including the protesters, have to say about climate change. The protesting of many people from around the world on climate change was often categorized as unrealistic and unpractical opinions. But the conversations that happened at protests contain valuable information on how to approach ‘climate justice’ in international climate change policy and should inform the future development of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. ‘Climate justice’ is about meaningful dialogue between developed and developing countries, private and public sector representatives, and the national delegates and the people.


Posted in: Blogs | Students Speak | Turning Up the Heat

One thought on “The Importance of ‘Listening’ in International Climate Change Conferences

  1. “Countries such as Canada and the United States need to learn when to stop talking and start listening.”

    I agree completely, like listening to the indigenous protesters at Durban, who are having their land taken from them by corporate polluters from the north. Its always about the money. Its never about saving the planet with these big corporations. Canada should be listening to indigenous people, and stop this outrageous money making program outright.

    read about it here;

    This corporate backed money making program called REDD must be stopped.