Global crises, local resilience: From COP 21 back to reality

Tariq Toffa, Johannesburg Community Manager
Johannesburg, 18 December 2015

As current chair of the G77 plus China coalition of "developing" countries, the large South African delegation to the recent UN conference on climate change (COP 21) in Paris was lauded at home as "instrumental in advancing positions around finance‚ technology and capacity building required to tackle climate change … on behalf of the developing countries of the world."

For South Africa like other countries of the south most affected by climate change, however, their plans rely on finance from the U.S. and other industrialized nations largely responsible for climate change, around which the Paris deal provides "no basis for any liability or compensation." Controversially, less than an estimated 15 percent of what vulnerable countries will need by 2020 will therefore be "mobilized" by industrialized nations for both emissions cuts and adaptation measures. The insufficient, vague, and non-mandatory nature of the agreements, as well as the marginalization from the text of human rights issues impacted by climate change, means that much of the responsibility, local relevance and realization of COP 21 ambitions will ultimately fall back on local translation and initiative.

In South African cities, climate awareness has increasingly become a part of mainstream political discourse. However, with few exceptions (such as the BRT initiative which combines low carbon aims with socio-spatial city restructuring), these climate strategies tend to be a projection of "first world" norms, overly narrow in their scope, and similarly do not engage the socio-political and human rights issues that they are confronted by in their local contexts. Resilience, rather than sustainability, is therefore increasingly becoming a term used to refer to adapting to a simultaneity of critical and interrelated issues.

This is where local community initiative becomes integral. The dynamic of official versus "unofficial" attendants at the Paris talks (i.e. national delegations visa vie civil society groups excluded from observing the negotiations) cannot be echoed at the local level. Rather, grassroots knowledge and resources should play critical roles in supporting government projects, and vice versa.

One example of civil society mobilization can be seen in the work of the Brixton Community Forum (BCF), a volunteer-based NPO elected in the racially and economically diverse neighborhood of Brixton in central Johannesburg to represent and improve the area. Against the background of recent droughts and food shortages in South Africa (linked to an El Niño weather phenomenon supercharged by climate change), and in response to a city proposal to construct a water reservoir and tower upon the neighborhood’s park, ostensibly related to densification along Johannesburg's BRT corridors, the BCF organized an event to engage all stakeholders (albeit somewhat unsuccessfully) to find ways to creatively build water-sensitive public and domestic spaces in city-identified densification zones. Part urban activism, part local social cohesion, such initiatives followed others, such as a pedestrian and public space proposal known as "Brixton Steps," accepted by the City of Johannesburg, which combines pedestrian and cycling urban infrastructure with local concerns like heritage, play, and safety. The organization also launched Alley Activation events, which simultaneously aim to build social cohesion and spatial regeneration in the disused neighborhood alleyways.

Governments should actively embrace and nurture such grassroots alternatives and opportunities for collaborative effort wherever and in whatever form they exist, while climate justice campaigners must continue to mobilize for deals less compromised by the fossil fuel industries at the global level and in their local level translations. These efforts do not absolve those most responsible, but these are times of crisis. And, as one of the civil society groups at the Paris talks put it: "If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu."

Photo credits: Brixton Community Forum

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