Arab activists take over

December 01, 2012 - 2:32:10 am

By Isabel Ovalle

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have been unusually quiet during the first week of the UN Climate Change Conference in Doha, the first to take place in the Middle East. Banners and megaphones seem to be something limited to previous conferences such as Cancun (2010) and Durban (2011).

Traditionally active organizations like Greenpeace or World Wildlife Fund (WWF) have said that a lack of representatives in this small country of the Gulf has made it difficult to implement actions similar to those that took over the hall of the building where the negotiations of COP17, in Durban (South Africa), were held. 

Back in 2010, in Cancun, activists, environmentalists and rural Mexicans and foreigners took part in a protest over the COP16 World Climate Summit, demanding concrete actions to help protect the environment.

In this context, some of those participating in the summit have expressed surprise over what they say is the stillness with which the conference is proceeding. A silver lining, though, has been that due to the lethargy of big-time western NGOs, the ongoing Summit has become a perfect stage for the debut of the Arab Youth Climate Movement.

Young people from 16 different countries gathered for the first time in Egypt almost two months ago to organise their participation in COP18. They are taking the lead of the over 7,000 representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGO’s) gathered in Doha, putting together the first march to raise awareness about climate change in the Qatari capital.

On November 10, different activities were organised in the countries comprised where the Arab Youth Climate Movement exists, like planting 300 trees in Sudan or a talk with 100 attendees about global warming and similar other issues in Jordan. These youngsters see this conference as an opportunity to keep the Arab Spring alive, addressing issues like global warming.

Ahmad Al Noubani, from Jordan, told The Peninsula that he came to Doha to “look out for my future” and to oversee that negotiators keep their pledge and approve the extension to the commitment period of the Kyoto protocol.

The coordinator of activists coming from Egypt, Mariam Allam, said that since their first gathering in Cairo less than two months ago, young activists have been in touch with official negotiators from Algeria, Egypt and Sudan, among others, who are participating in COP18. 

Young activists traveled to Doha courtesy the Qatari Government that funded their trip. The group was invited to meetings with the Arab League of Negotiators, as well as with the Qatari delegation. Thanks to these meetings, youngsters have learned that talks are somewhat “stuck in the historical blame, which is still being passed around”. 

“Some countries are waiting for others to pledge”, added the young Egyptian activist, as she encouraged Qatar to take the lead of other Arab countries, “because if it does, the others will follow”, she stated.

The report ‘Impact of Climate Change on the Arab Countries’ completed by Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) has outlined the most serious effects of climate change on the Arab world, referring to scarcity of water, which will reach alarming levels by 2025.

AFED points to the raise of sea levels as another serious consequence for Arab countries due to climate change. The report said that “the bulk of the Arab region’s economic activity, agriculture and population centers are in the coastal zone, which is highly vulnerable to sea level rise”.

The study points to the deterioration of biodiversity, the impact on human health due to higher temperatures, as well as the impact on food production because of the increasing aridity and changes in the spans of seasons, among other things.

Local organization Doha Oasis will officially host the march that begins at 7am in Sheraton Park, at Corniche Street. People taking part in the event are called to stride under the slogan ‘One Environment, One People, One Earth’.

The main message the Qatari organization wants to share is that, at this point in time, Arabs have to play a key role in climate change issues. Young activists are sure that Qatar hosting COP18/CMP8 will be the ultimate thrust for Arab countries to start digging for alternatives to oil and gas. 

Arab civil society groups are participating more than ever in the conference, with about 50 attending this year, while in the previous Conference of the Parties only five did so.

Doha Oasis, the group heading up the event, describes its mission as providing a “link between the community and the organizations to solve environmental and health issues, jump-starting new environmental projects in Qatar, and raising the level of environmental awareness of the population”.

The event will take place with the support of other civil society organizations, such as the Climate Action Network International and the Global Climate Change Alliance.

While Arab youth leads the way, youngsters from other parts of the world are also very much involved in the conference. YOUTHinkgreen, an international movement which helps to organise local sustainable projects in 12 countries, including Namibia, India, Germany and Brazil, works with people between 15 and 17 years of age.

Other young activists have taken the lead with creative and visual events displayed at the Qatar National Convention Center (QNCC), just days before the ministers arrive and the high-level negotiations begin next week.

Visual effects that have traditionally characterized well-known organizations such as Greenpeace, are now exclusive to groups of young activists that have called the attention of dignitaries and colleagues from other organizations displaying maps and flags to put a face to the impact of climate change.

The President of COP18/CMP8, Abdullah bin Hamad Al Attiyah, has taken time to connect with young attendees. Nevertheless, movements like Connected Voices have complained about the lack of direct representation of younger generations in the conference, given that only 50 of the 140 countries have young delegates.

In the mean time, traditionally active organizations such as Greenpeace and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) are left behind arguing they don’t have local officials. Tasneem Essop, head of WWF delegation in COP18, said that not having local delegates has played an important role in their decision not to hold any protests.

WWF trusts the conference will have a positive outcome, with an extension of the commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol for three more years. However, Essop added that so far the negotiations have been “weak”.

The organization came to Qatar with very clear expectations, essentially related to the level of ambition to deal with climate change, in other words, what countries are willing to do. Essop expects a “strong decision about compensation and dealing with loss and damage”. 

“No developed countries have come here with new pledges on emissions; we’re still hoping developing countries will come forward with new pledges. In addition, a number of key countries like Canada, Japan, Russia and New Zealand have already jumped the ship”, she added.

WWF officials admitted that in past COPs there has been more activism. Nevertheless, they think “this is an opportunity for the Qatari Government and the region to get more involved”, she stated. “We are happy with the awakening of the Arab youth, but we wonder what will happen after the COP and hope it will continue”, added Tanzeed Alam, also from WWF. 

Officials from the NGOs say that Durban was very important to save the process, “if it wasn’t for Durban we wouldn’t be here, but Doha is important because this is where we make the foundation for the future”.

With the support of Climate Action Network, that comprises 700 NGOs in more than 90 countries, such as Oxfam International, Arab Youth has taken a decisive step with their active participation in COP18.  The end of the conference will clear up questions about the continuity of the climate awareness movement in the Arab countries, which its protagonists link to the Arab Spring.

The Peninsula