A report from COP17: Marching in a changed climate

This is a copy of a blog I wrote for the Oxfam Campaigns Blog while in Durban in 2011 on the global day of action:


The UN are in town and so are the campaigners. COP 17 is under way. We’re here to add our voice to the thousands demanding a lasting deal on climate change. 

It is early afternoon in downtown Durban. Ahead of me teenagers are chanting, behind me local women dance and sing. Above my head two large puppets named Mother Earth and Father Water are swaying. I am holding one of the gangly arms aloft on a pole, moving in the cacophony and waving it to onlookers. Around me are members of Oxfam, from Australia, Hong Kong, South Africa and the UK.

This march is more than the sum of its parts. The atmosphere is colourful and vibrant – people here know how to raise their voices. Perhaps if we shout loud enough and turn to the cameras, our message will reach a global audience? Discussions are taking place inside the highly guarded conference centre and we have to seize the day. But the pressure to act is not new either. I have been on marches before and know that world leaders still struggle to act on their climate promises.

The march pauses and there’s time to take in the surroundings. Behind us are perhaps two hundred women campaigning for the rights of women in rural areas, the farmers and labourers too. In front, about one hundred people are demanding one million green jobs. I notice the faces and become aware these are not just campaigners but the very people whose lives have changed as the climate has altered. They are not asking for action on an abstract issue but demanding a change to their day-to-day life. For them, this is a human rights march.

As Connor Costello from Oxfam said to me ‘Climate change is not an anecdote for these people.’ When you understand this and you’re standing alongside them, their songs and chants no longer sound the same, becoming a plea from people on the frontline.

The day before the march, a South Africa paper printed a comment column that looked forward to the end of COP17 and to the lies about climate change coming to end. This view no longer makes me angry. It is not denial but blindness. Those I am stood shoulder-to-shoulder with are already victims of a changed, rather than changing, climate.

We paused again, and a young local woman asked what organisation I belonged to. ‘Ah Oxfam!’ she said, smiling. ‘They are funding us, our project is not far from here.’ Since I first became involved with Oxfam, I was told we were a global movement but in these few seconds I had understood what it really meant.

However, I can’t say that this march was ’symbolic’ or ‘profound’ in itself, the reality was much more understated. We can be confident that the delegates heard us but there’s no guarantee of how much they will listen.


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