Bill McKibben made me cry today.
Yesterday there were frequent snow flurries, and this morning I woke up to a white Copenhagen. On my way to the Fresh Air Centre (FAC), the downtown media hangout for COP15, I passed a department store with large cheery penguins singing along to Boney M. All very Christmassy. But I wasn’t feeling festive. I had woken up feeling angry. Last night I had attended an excellent but disturbing event at the FAC, where George Monbiot and Naomi Klein were among the panellists. To a thronged room, the panel gave their view on recent events. Here is my best effort to summarize their comments:
1. The enforced resignation of Connie Hedegaard as President of COP15 was seen as a bad thing. She had urged the NGOs (non-governmental organizations) to keep up the pressure on the decision-makers. When she was asked to stand down in favour of the Prime Minister of Denmark, the official reason was that with an unprecedented number of heads of state arriving in Copenhagen, it was more appropriate that the president of the conference should also be a head of state. But some saw a more sinister agenda: the Danish Prime Minister had last week advanced a draft treaty that was close to the weak US position. This was very unpopular with the developing nations, and his succession to the COP Presidency was seen as a negative move.
2. Despite this bad news, some of the panellists were still urging a last-ditch attempt to seal the deal. Barry Coates, Executive Director of Oxfam New Zealand, demanded that the policy-makers “bring their sleeping bags” and not leave the Bella Center until they reach agreement. Kumi Naidoo, the dynamic Chair of TckTckTck, delivered a rousing speech saying that, “It ain’t over till the thin man in Washington signs a fair, ambitious, and legally binding treaty… it’s still a Hopenhagen, not a Flopenhagen or a Nopenhagen…”. Click here to see Kumi’s open letter to Barack Obama, and to sign the petition.
3. Naomi Klein, in a voice cracking and fading after a week of too much talking, stressed the significance of the moral high ground now held by the developing nations. “Let’s get out of our nationalistic boxes and see which countries have the most moral authority, and stand with them.” She commended the work that 350.org have done in bringing the plight of the Maldives to the fore. “We need a human face to this issue.” Using hard-hitting terminology, she likened the ecological recklessness of the developed nations to genocide – if by omission to act they permit the systematic killing of a racial or cultural group by famine, drought, or warfare over diminishing resources.
But the words that hit me hardest came from George Monbiot, a British writer, environmental and political activist. He sees climate change as a symptom of the deeper problem of “sheer bloody selfishness”. The developed countries have prioritized financial growth over our shared humanity, not caring “if I swing my fist and your nose gets in my way.” He concluded a rabble-rousing speech by saying, “Those who urge that human decency is paramount must win, and those who believe we can trash other people’s right must lose.”
As I walked home last night, I reflected on the eloquence and intelligence not just of the speakers, but also of the members of the audience who asked follow-up questions. I noted with interest that the climate change believers tend to be smart people.
Their powerful speeches percolated through my mind as I slept, and I woke up feeling angry – for all the right reasons – rather than the logistical post-theft weariness that has been my first emotion on the last few mornings. I was angry at having my illusions shattered. Angry that Big Money is running the show here. Angry at the global leaders who have been so cheaply bought. Angry that the process seems to be failing, corrupted by the love of money, the root of all evil.
I felt angry, but also stupid. How could I have been so naive? How could I have believed that we could really make a difference? It seemed to me that the Dobermanns of Big Money was going to win the day, and we were just a bunch of fleas jumping up and down and futilely squeaking our protests.
In this frame of mind it didn’t take much to reduce me to tears.
I was among the first handful of people to arrive at TckTckTck’s Fresh Air Center, and headed for the row of communal computers. Bill McKibben arrived a few minutes later, and sat at the computer next to me. As he greeted me I apologized. I had read his 350.org newsletter yesterday and knew that he was fasting today in a show of solidarity with the poor of the world. And I was sitting with a caramel latte and croissant at my side. Even worse, my latte was in a disposable cup, my lovely Sigg mug having been stolen along with everything else.
“Hey, at this stage, a coffee cup isn’t going to make much difference,” he said. He was in self-confessed bitter mood. As the talks in the Bella Center reach their most intense – and tense – stage yet, he was pessimistic. He opined that the collapse of the talks might be the best outcome we can hope for.
“And do you think there will be another COP in July?” I asked.
“We could have COPs until the end of time, and we still wouldn’t agree anything,” he said.
I looked at him, stunned and speechless. My eyes misted. I didn’t want to believe that I had just heard him say what he had just said. I have known throughout that my optimism was based on a stubborn refusal to contemplate the consequences of failure in Copenhagen, rather than on any evidence that we might get a positive outcome, but tit was nonetheless a slap in the face to hear it stated so starkly, by a man whose opinion I respect.
Bill went on to tell me his view that COP15 has been a display of naked power. He told me that small countries have been threatened by the IMF that it will withdraw its funding if they don’t toe the line. He gave an example of a small country that had been promised two new hospitals by the Chinese if it would back their position here. Money talks, and here it has been talking the message of business as usual, and continued financial growth at the expense of our poor aching Earth.
I confessed to Bill that I had been naive when I arrived here. I really thought I could make a difference. I thought that the global leaders could surely not remain unmoved by such passionate demonstrations in support of a fair, ambitious, and legally binding deal on climate change.
But it seems I was wrong. I will leave Copenhagen more jaded than I arrived, but more realistic too, and hence hopefully more effective. The theft of my backpack has not made me believe that every person is a criminal. Likewise, I’m not going to believe that every international negotiation is hopeless. The truth lies somewhere in between my former idealism and my present cynicism. To see the world as it is, rather than as I wish it was, is no bad thing.
On a sunnier note… I had a chat with Kim Nguyen, the impressive young man who cycled here from Australia for COP15. We were comparing notes on our respective plans and adventures. He pointed out that even those who represent Big Money are human beings. And human beings can change. Awareness is growing. If we can change the hearts and minds, we can change the system.
And as I’ve been writing this blog, the word is out on Twitter that Hillary Clinton has pledged USD 100 billion (although reading this article it seems less exciting than I first thought), up from the original commitment to USD 10 billion. Definitely a move in the right direction.
So the news isn’t all bad, but personally, I’m feeling despondent and exhausted. I’ve been running nonstop since I arrived back on dry land 3 months ago, and it’s catching up with me. The theft of all my most valued possessions has been quite stressful. My eyes are tired and strained from hours of squinting at a computer screen without my glasses. I haven’t been eating properly, trying to eke out scarce cash resources borrowed from friends, by eating cheaply rather than healthily. A persistent tic in my right eyelid is a clear signal that I’m nearing my limits. Physically, psychologically, and financially, I feel pretty destroyed.
But all this pales into insignificance compared with what we will lose if there is no miracle within the next 36 hours. The loss of my laptop is nothing compared with the loss of the world as we know it.