Martin Frick, Director of Policy & Programs of the UNFCCC found a great analogy to describe our current situation: We are all standing at the edge of a cliff holding hands, ready to jump to reach the other mountain top in front of us. WE ARE READY TO JUMP. We have the skills, knowledge and understand why we should jump. It’s a matter of life and death, but if one jumps too slowly we all fall, just like if one jumps too early the rest will still hold him back and so we still die. We need to jump at the same time taking into account the strengths and weaknesses of each country, and only through compassion and cooperation can we avoid falling off the cliff.
At the beginning of the COP24, I wanted to prove that no one was walking the talk, that we do not care enough to make sacrifices for future generations or for the most vulnerable populations. Basically I believed we were doomed because our lifestyles and consumerist system will remain. I also wanted to see how effective taking individual action can given that most people do not want to change their lifestyles, or more precisely they do not have the luxury to worry about how to be more eco-friendly because they are barely getting by. (example: a refillable water bottle won’t do any good because there are no water dispensers or worse, no potable water where they live so plastic bottles are the only safe option)
So at the beginning of the COP24, I was wondering: are small actions and efforts really useful when the damage is so big? Refusing to use one straw or choosing the vegetarian dish instead of the nice sausages that the Polish are having won’t do much because emissions are still not declining. Right? We have all the reasons to be sad and frustrated. Greta Thunberg said in her recent speech that “our leaders are behaving like children” and she seems to have lost hope with politics also stating that “the rules have to be changed”. Actually many panelists I encountered both young and old, believed that governments, as systems and institutions, were obsolete. NGO’s, businesses, and common people can do much more.
I took my job as an Observer seriously and witnessed what the “common people” are actually doing. My original belief was confirmed: the true environmentalists are the young people. It is not surprising because the young are more open-minded and eager for change. We are also fighting for our future. The young activists assured us that every little effort counts because the more we speak about sustainable lifestyles the more trendy it will become and the more followers it will create. Some older panelists also have great initiatives and explicitly stated that they try to “practice what they preach”. For example, Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, member of the independent group of scientists of the global sustainable development report told us that his home runs almost 100% on renewable energy, some have divested, others cycle to work, a few were vegetarian… little things, when added up DO make a difference in reducing our carbon footprint.
The best side-events I attended revolved around youth activism, journalism, and public engagement. They focused on ways we can better communicate the urgent need for climate action to a wider and more diverse public. In fact, when we made climate change a scientific phenomenon (when it is actually also about humanity and social consequences) people stopped caring because they thought it was a job for politicians, scientists, and experts. The IPCC reports and resolutions being debated on can seem so esoteric and abstract for the general public. Daniela Jacob an IPCC vice-chair agreed, and said that they wished to develop a new simplified report and maybe also one for children. Humans prefer everything simple and easy. Therefore when we think of climate change as a complex and big phenomenon, we get scared, frustrated or we simply choose not to think about it too much.
A very interesting point from the audience during a side-event was questioning why we are seeing the growth of isolationism, nationalism, and extremism in our societies, at a time when we most need to be united. Martin Frick believed it came down to one word: fear. When we are afraid of something or feel threatened, we hide, we close borders, and we want limit the threat by staying in our comfort zone. We cannot afford spreading fear and hopelessness because we know that this is a GLOBAL issue and working in isolation will not work, hence the importance of voting for the right politicians. Even if one country meets its NDCs but the rest don’t, mitigation won’t be successful and the efforts will be useless. (we also know that the NDCs aren’t enough to avoid reaching 1.5 degrees by 2030).
There is a communication gap between generations, between scientists and the general public, between politicians and citizens that must be bridged to get the message across and be on the same page. In fact the “yellow vest” protests that sprouted in France is the quintessential example of politicians not being able to communicate the facts and the reasons behind a policy correctly, a policy that was essentially turned towards reducing emissions. Even back in NUS, when a no-straw day took place without warning the community, people got mad. This is why the concept of a just transition is so important. Also, knowing how to persuade people that taking climate action to cut down emissions is in their best interest should be a priority! My last blog will outline a sort of rulebook with points on how we can talk to people about climate change efficiently, all inspired by conversations and side-events I had at the COP24.
The reality is that we cannot all be satisfied, and when we look at the current positions of the USA, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Kuwait, or the policies put forth by countries such as Brazil and Poland, we definitely should feel unsatisfied. Martin Frick used another great analogy to describe the hardships of negotiations between nations. They need to order a single type of pizza, but once you start asking countries about their likes and preferences or dietary restrictions and allergies, some don’t like pineapples, some are vegetarian, some like spicy, others are allergic to dairy… we realize that we will essentially just end up with the dough. Sacrifices need to be made and this has been overly pointed out. And given the urgency of the matter we cannot sit patiently and accept the status quo. We cannot be those people dancing and singing while the Titanic is sinking.
This is how a perfect chronology of events would look like because carbon neutrality is impossible to achieve from one day to another: 1) Civil society and activists around the world push the governments to take action and implement the required policies through all means necessary such as peaceful strikes, petitions, non-violent protests and more (we could avoid this phase and simply go straight into 2 if we had ideal governments)→ 2) NDCs are met, governments are pressured, understand the responsibility they have, put economic restrictions and sanctions on unsustainable industries, and start implementing good policies for mitigation and adaptation based on the principles of equity, cooperation, and just transition→ 3) Industries and businesses shift to a carbon neutral economy and take appropriate measures that are dictated by the new regulatory policies of governments and international agreements→ (all of this happens while individuals also start doing their part)→ More technological innovation creates alternatives, transition starts to happen through the recalibration of 4 systems which guide our lifestyles namely energy use, cities, land use and industries which then→ changes the whole system to a more sustainable one free from fossil fuels→ The Paris agenda is met and the advice from the IPCC SR1.5 is followed → BETTER FUTURE (?)
It is clear that all sectors need to participate. The outcomes depend on the pace of action, the solidarity between nations, and cooperation between state and non-state actors. It seems idealistic to think that we will be able to manage all this in 12 years. But let’s put faith in Greta Thunberg’s words directed at our world leaders: “We have run out of excuses and we are running out of time. We have come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not. The real power belongs to the people.”