Category Archives: climate crisis

A climate negotiator’s tearful plea

The world’s most poor and vulnerable nations experience climate change as a present reality, while we tend to talk about it as a future abstraction. They’re already suffering, but can’t do much about it. We could do something about it, but we’re not yet suffering.

I became aware of that distinction in Copenhagen during the COP15 climate talks three years ago. At the time, I wrote:

The context of the conversation that’s taking place in Copenhagen is entirely different from that in North America. Instead of arguing about if climate change is a real and serious concern or predicting future consequences if we don’t act, the narrative here is that dangerous climate change is already a reality

Today I listened to a man from the island nation of Tuvalu, which is emerging at this meeting as a symbol of why we must act. The highest point in Tuvalu is 4.5 meters above sea level. In other words, unless we aggressively reduce the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, this nation will slip beneath the waves. Negotiators from Tuvalu have been strongly pushing for tough, binding targets in plenary, and the tiny state has captured the imagination of many of the NGO delegates, particularly the youth.

Through this lens, the Canadian government’s pathetic non-participation in the negotiations is seen as not just embarrassing, but cruel. The world’s poorer countries believe they are already suffering, and that people are already dying, because of the actions of the world’s richer countries. For them it is as if the United States, Canada, and Europe are turning a giant tap that slowly drowns them while they cry out in vain. The immorality becomes blatant and blaring. And yet they continue to chose hope over anger; it’s remarkable.

I was reminded of that today when I saw this article and video of the lead negotiator from the Philippines issuing a tearful plea to the COP18 plenary in Doha. Three years later, and all that’s changed is Canada’s climate plan is more pathetic and lacking than ever. In 2009 there was lots of criticism that the government’s targets were way too low, today we’re not even on track to meet those targets.

We didn’t talk about this much in the last federal election. Let’s do better next time. Talk is the least we can do.

Five things I learned in Copenhagen

By the time you read this I’ll be on my way back to Toronto, and since I’m afflicted by an embarrassing amount of anxiety whenever I’m separated from the internet for more than a few hours, I thought it might calm my nerves to know that this post was scheduled to go live in my absence, communicating with the internets on my behalf.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but here are some things I’ve learned this week that I don’t think I could have gotten from just following the news coverage from back home.

Canada’s international reputation really is very damaged. That’s not eco-spin or a partisan jab, it’s the reality on the ground. You can see it in people’s eyes when you introduce yourself as Canadian, and hear it in their voices as they ask how we went so wrong. I now understand first-hand what George Monbiot meant when he said that Stephen Harper risks doing to Canada what George Bush and Dick Cheney did to the United States. By the end of the week members of the Canadian Youth Delegation had actually sewed American flags onto their backpacks.

Speaking of youth, they really are having an incredible impact. I’d wondered if reports of youth influence was just pandering, but the members of the youth delegation I saw in action are truly some of the most engaged, intelligent, passionate, and affective people here.

Despite claims by some of the government’s defeatist defenders (“Canada isn’t significant enough to have an impact on the talks anyway”), Canada could have taken a major leadership position at this conference. I’ll point to two pieces of evidence. First, an account of the Rio climate talks told by Jean Charest at a press conference Wednesday morning (and confirmed by former MP David MacDonald, who’s traveling with me and was in government at the time), at which Canada was the first G7 country to sign the deal at a critical moment, convincing others to follow. Second, the fact that countries like Tuvalu and Maldives have dominated this conference due to their strong leadership, and despite their extremely small size.

There are lots of easy obvious things we could be doing that Copenhagen and other European cities take for granted. Escalators and hallway lights are all motion activated. My hotel room has a “master switch” by the door that lets me turn off all the power in the room before I leave. All toilets have two flush options. I bought a drink of Gløgg at an outdoor stand and put a deposit down on the cup, then got the deposit back by returning my cup to an automated station. All simple ideas we seem to have not even considered.

People who live in Copenhagen are hard core. It’s freezing, it’s night time, there’s snow on the ground, and they’re still cycling around the city in large numbers. And they look like they’re enjoying it.

Bill McKibben inspires

A highlight of the week was watching Bill McKibben of give a speech at Klimaforum, the alternative “people’s summit” happening here in Copenhagen. He was speaking in advance of Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed, and had to keep extending his remarks 10 or 20 minutes at a time as the president was stuck in traffic. In the end, McKibben spoke off-the-cuff for an hour without losing our attention while making the images and people of the 350 movement come to life.

Out of the full hour, here’s five minutes I put together for the United Church of Canada’s YouTube channel.

Things fall apart

protestsI stayed away from the Bella Center today, where the main climate change talks are taking place, and that seems to have been a wise decision. From now on, access to the negotiations for NGOs will be restricted more and more each day, shutting out almost everyone by Friday. Today there were reports that even those with proper authorization could not get into the Bella Center, creating a feedback loop: the more people are denied access, the more frustrated they get, increasing the passion and size of the protests, making it harder for people to get in, making everyone more frustrated, etc. I spoke with someone who has been to all 15 COP meetings. He says nothing like this has ever happened before.

Downtown I received reports that protesters were violently clashing with police, and I could hear and see helicopters hovering over the center seven kilometers away. By early afternoon sirens were sounding throughout the city core as well, and police started shutting down sections of streets and stores. A local woman named Anna Sophia told me that people who live in Copenhagen think of it as a small town. Now this town is growing up quickly.

Aside from the frustrations around access, it’s also becoming clear that the national governments gathered here are not going to reach an agreement that satisfies the unflappable demands of our best science. The new buzzword to emerge, therefore, is “sub-national.” As in, regional and municipal governments all around the world are going to have to pick up the slack and get to work. Yesterday, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (perhaps you’ve heard of him) called for formal talks between these “sub-national” governments, and offered his state as a venue. This morning, I attended a press conference where the premiers of Quebec, Nova Scotia and B.C. and the ministers of the environment from Ontario and Manitoba were congratulated by environmentalists on the leadership they’ve shown. In accepting the award, Jean Charest offered “reassurance” that by no means would they take this as a sign that everything they’re doing is great, nor are they under the impression that there isn’t a lot more work to be done. Still, it’s an encouraging start.

That’s where I’m finding hope in these final days. When things fall apart and the central governments cannot hold to their responsibilities, more local governments can and will step in. At a Canadian reception this evening, I had a number of conversations with elected leaders and activists about the possibilities for Toronto to take a leadership position not only in Canada but on the international stage. Those conversations and ideas solidified my growing excitement about what the Toronto government could and should do to move our city into the future.

Photo by kk+ from the Copenhagen Flickr pool.