A key climate action advocate points to four key communications points she thinks critical coming out of the upcoming Durban UN Framework Convention meeting.

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“The current negotiation process is stupid, useless and endless. It is based on this principle: two parties reach an agreement, a third one comes along and says it doesn’t agree and it reduces the ambition of the others. In essence, even if we reach an agreement, it will be an agreement about nothing. It will be so diluted that it will be of no use.”

That recent comment by Maldives President Mohammad Nasheed exemplifies the communications challenges that will arise when representatives of 194 countries meet in Durban, South Africa, November 29 as parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

News-hungry media feast on comments like these. With prospects remote for a game-changing breakthrough in Durban, we can probably look forward to more headlines like this one from Time magazine: “The Kyoto Accords — and Hope — Are Expiring.” The unfortunate conclusion many readers will draw: The negotiations are a waste of time, and worse, a failure in Durban spells failure for climate action more generally. Both conclusions are incorrect.

A Legacy of High Expectations from 2009

For better or worse, the December 2009 Copenhagen meeting is probably the benchmark against which many journalists will measure results in Durban.

On the one hand, we are living with the legacy of high expectations from 2009. We were supposed to get a fair, ambitious, and binding international agreement on climate change that year — after all, 120 heads of state came to Copenhagen to do the deal! A binding agreement has thus become the yardstick for measuring success, and anything less is seen by some as abject failure. Given two decades of unfulfilled promises by developed countries, that view is not entirely unreasonable, but it’s not very helpful either.

Conversely, if expectations reached their peak in the run-up to Copenhagen, the frenetic negotiations of the final 48 hours (and the disappointing outcome that resulted) may forever be viewed as the nadir of the multilateral negotiating process. Many analysts will therefore judge Durban, as they did last year’s Cancun meeting, against a backdrop of expected failure. This explains why incremental progress made last year in Cancun was joyfully celebrated when an 11th-hour collapse was narrowly averted. Any forward momentum in Durban could thus be put in a positive light.

This year’s outcome will not be judged solely against high or low expectations, however. There is an added level of urgency this time around. The International Energy Agency made headlines with its 2011 World Energy Outlook and a dramatic statement that the door to 2 degree C is closing. This adds a new dimension to the communications challenge. As Grist described the IEA statement in its own inimitable way, “The point of no return on climate change is fast approaching. Either we halt it in five years, or … well, imagine I’m drawing my finger across my throat while making a ‘kkkkkhhhhhh’ sound.” The IPCC has been making those “kkkkkhhhhhh” noises for years, but coming from an organization like the IEA, the warning that we are headed for a 6 degree C world is all the more frightening. Remember that the IEA has always been a fossil fuel cheerleader, created as it was in the aftermath of the 1973 oil shock.

No Sugar Coating of Climate Reality … and Need for Action

So here’s the conundrum: how to communicate the extreme urgency for action (to secure the future of the Kyoto Protocol, increase ambition, get money on the table and so forth) while simultaneously communicating that failure to achieve breakthrough outcomes in Durban does not mean all is lost? If, after all, a sense of despair and defeatism takes hold, it will be all the harder to inspire people to take action.

One thing is clear. We can’t sugar coat the reality — climate change is happening and we are perilously close to a dangerous point of no return.

Here are four important things that need to be effectively communicated while at Durban:

  • Transformational change is happening already. Durban is an opportunity to scale up that change to levels that can lead to a stable climate. If Durban fails to deliver, it’s about missing that opportunity, but it is not the end of the story. Think of it like a super tanker changing course; it takes a long time to get it moving, but once it starts to go, its own momentum (i.e., an eventual internationally binding agreement) will speed it up.
  • It’s not over till the fat lady sings. When it comes to climate, goals are defined on the basis of risk analysis, cost assumptions, current technologies, and so forth. We would be foolish to base policy on wishful thinking, but we would be equally foolish to discount the possibility that we might get lucky. If your car were speeding out of control towards the edge of a cliff, wouldn’t you keep trying to hit the brakes?
  • Addressing climate change can be good for the economy. The final communications challenge for Durban will be to get the world’s media to focus on climate at all, given the giant elephant in the room that is stomping all over the global economy. It’s worth pointing out the IEA’s conclusion that for every dollar we don’t invest in clean electricity, an additional $4.30 will have to be spent to deal with consequences of our increased emissions.
  • Climate change is coming, and we will need to adapt. It’s critical that we build resiliency, especially in the most vulnerable developing countries which have done the least to cause the problem but will face the worst consequences.

Whatever happens in Durban, we need to remember that climate change is about real people being affected right now. We need to consider the day-to-day realities they face — now, and not just in some distant future — and link climate solutions to those concerns. Yes, the changing climate is a vastly complex problem and it will take many more years to work out the mechanisms to fix it. But we have no alternative. The need to solve climate change is an imperative we have no choice but to follow.

Kelly Rigg, who lives and works in Amsterdam, is the Executive Director of Global Campaign for Climate Action, which is headquartered in Montreal and has a Secretariat spread around the world.