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cc In anticipation of Denmark's hosting of the United Nations Climate Change Conference – the COP15 – in December this year, Collins Cheruiyot says that now is the time for Africa to be proactive in asserting its right to be heard. Calling upon its leaders to seize the opportunity to represent their continent in Copenhagen, Cheruiyot stresses that Africa must not allow itself to be short-changed on so crucial a challenge.

People talk about the future, yet climate change is claiming lives now, notably in Africa. The nations, governors and those governed must stand up and be counted.

The continent of Africa contributes least to climate change, yet it’s the worst affected. The negative impacts range from the rapid encroachment of desert, extended periods of drought, massive crop failure, and extreme weather conditions like floods, cyclones, extended dry spells, heat waves and severe bushfires. This is, in a nutshell, disastrous and we cannot afford to face such consequences.

In December of this year, global minds will meet in Copenhagen to devise an action plan for addressing climate change for when the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012. The conference will be the latest of the annual UN meetings that stem from the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the original summit to coordinate international efforts to fight climate change. The COP15 conference in Copenhagen will attract the world’s environment ministers, as well as more than 15,000 officials, advisers, diplomats, campaigners and journalists. COP15's chances of success have been improved by President Barack Obama's agenda to achieve an 80 per cent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

This is an opportunity that Africa must seize, talk about and be heard on. The right to be heard and the right to be taken seriously must go together this round. Our negotiators should know what is at stake. The time has come when we can no longer be reactive but proactive, whether poor or not. We cannot afford to go on giving excuses that we didn't get that because of that. We as Africans have had a lot from the Slave Trade to colonialism, to structural adjustment programmes, HIV/AIDS and debt, and now climate change.

In April, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the US was 'determined to make up for lost time both at home and abroad'. 'The US is no longer absent without leave', she said. On a visit to China, last week Nancy Pelosi, the current speaker of the US House of Representatives, told an audience in the Chinese capital that the two nations – the world's top emitters of greenhouse gases – must work together to fight global warming. 'China and the United States can and must confront the challenge of climate change together', she said at a meeting organised by the American Chamber of Commerce in Beijing.

The exclusivity resulting from such a situation is further darkened by the fact that the African continent is overshadowed at the G77; Africa has virtually zero political recognition within international negotiations. Africa has been short-changed and largely overlooked in much of the global discourse and policy developments relating to climate change.

Professor Ian Lowe, an award-winning scientist and the author of a number of books on climate change, said that when he wrote his first book in 1989, Living in the Greenhouse, he summarised what scientists were saying would occur in 2020 if climate change was not addressed. 'Perhaps we can be concerned that that was what the science was saying 20 years ago would be occurring by the 2020s and we are already seeing it in 2009', he said.

Thus the need for action now.

The impact of climate change is and will be terrible. The once mighty Lake Chad is half the size it was 35 years ago. Models predict that sea levels may rise as much as 59cm during the 21st century, threatening coastal communities and leading to the massive displacement of millions of people and the submergence of costal towns. Seawater is becoming more acidic and heat waves more frequent, while warmer temperatures are affecting human health through allergies and malaria as incidences of extreme drought increase. These effects are set at bringing a doomsday to the whole of humanity.

This is not just about climate change but about human rights, justice, political transparency, social responsibility and accountability. But above all, it is about achieving a rule of law that characterises a civilisation, in opposition to the double standards and application of 'rules of the jungle' currently dominant in international relations and global developments.

* Collins Cheruiyot is an intern with Oxfam's Pan Africa Directorate Pan Africa Programme, Nairobi, Kenya.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at http://www.pambazuka.org/.