Durban — Chanting loudly, thousands of demonstrators marched through the streets to the venue of the 17th United Nations Climate Change Conference to demand that their voices be heard for "immediate and drastic" carbon emission reductions to save the planet.
Dubbing Saturday the "Global Day of Action", demonstrators from international and national non- governmental groups as well as labour, women, youth, academic, religious and environmental organisations came together to highlight civil society's demands for politicians all over the world to take serious action to fight climate change.
"We are asking for 100 percent change. Today will be the beginning of a strong movement that is going to challenge the rich nations of the world," said Global Day of Action subcommittee convenor Desmond D'Sa. "World leaders are discussing the fate of our planet, but they are far from reaching a solution to climate change."
Protesters said it was time for climate change negotiators to listen to the voices of ordinary people. They marched holding banners which said: "Never trust COP 17", "Unite against Climate Change", "Climate Justice Now" and "Ensure the survival of coming generations".
There was a general feeling that ordinary people remained largely excluded from important debates on important issues that directly affected their lives.
"We want to ensure that the one percent on the inside of the conference will hear what the 99 percent on the outside have to say," explained Bobby Peek, one of the organisers of the protest and director of Friends of the Earth South Africa. "We demand immediate, drastic emission cuts by rich countries that have caused climate change."
Widespread anger could be felt about the slow progress made during the first week of the climate change negotiations, mixed with fear that the summit will end without tangible results.
Peek said he was gravely disappointed about the outcomes of the first week of negotiations. "It was generally a disastrous first week. There is no evidence of moving forward on emission reduction targets."
Greenpeace International executive director Kumi Naidoo agreed, lashing out at the United States for never having ratified the Kyoto Protocol, the only global, legally binding instrument to cut carbon emissions.
"This is not a dress rehearsal. A week of belligerence, bickering and backstabbing needs to now give way to real deals about the future of our planet. Those who are not interested in saving lives, economies and environments, like the U.S., must now stand aside and let those with the political will move forward," Naidoo said.
Chanting slogans and signing protest songs, a large throng of demonstrators walked from Durban's city centre to the entrance of the International Convention Centre where the climate change summit is being held, to hand over a list of their demands to Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
Civil society requested that governments meet various targets by the end of the conference on Dec. 9, including ensuring a peak in global greenhouse gas emissions by 2015, and that the Kyoto Protocol continues and provides a mandate for a comprehensive, legally binding instrument.
Civil society also requested that governments deliver the necessary finance to tackle climate change; set up a framework for protecting forests in developing countries; ensure global cooperation on technology and energy finance.
They also wanted international transparency in assessing and monitoring country commitments and actions.
Activists criticised rich, industrialised nations for using the global financial crisis as an excuse to give national interests priority before international ones.
After a week of negotiations, it remained unclear how money to finance climate mitigation and adaptation projects - measures particularly important to developing nations - will be generated.
"So far we don't even know where the money will come from. There is a real risk we walk away from Durban with empty pockets. And that failure will be measured in lives, economies and habitats," warned Tove Ryding, Greenpeace co-ordinator for climate policy.
"If governments don't move forward, the final agreement will be stripped of any possibility of protecting the climate."
Demonstrators voiced strong concern about a lack of political commitment to put in place legally binding and comprehensive agreements. The protest march was therefore particularly meant as a message to the heads of state and ministers from around the globe, which are expected to arrive at the summit on Dec. 5.
"We demand urgent and strong action on climate change. We can't just keep talking and keep wasting time," said ActionAid international climate justice coordinator Harjeet Singh.
"We march today to show our outrage. We want to give the ministers, who will arrive next week, a clear message: You cannot continue to make excuses."