So we didn’t get a deal. Yes, this is a catastrophic failure of the thousands of negotiators, media, world leaders and informed experts who crammed into the Bella Centre for two weeks in December. But this is a failure too for civil society, and not only those who travelled to Copenhagen formally (as NGO representatives, to participate in the Klima Forum) or informally (as activists on the many marches, media stunts and peace vigils) but all who observed and waited.
I was one of those in Copenhagen. Invited by Oxfam, I travelled as part of a group of five activists from the SE Region to represent the hopes and wishes of our communities at the International Day of Action on 12th December. In the run up to our journey, we wrote to / met our local MPs, spoke at school groups, blogged, Tweeted and held local events to raise awareness about climate change and justice.
On the day we left for Copenhagen I read a blog on the FT’s website asking whether ‘NGOs would kill the Climate Talks’. It seemed a deliberately provocative hypothesis and I wondered how the two key authors – Lord Browne of Madingley and Graciela Chichilnisky – would respond. But they were consistent – NGOs are the world’s conscience and Copenhagen needed them.
We travelled by train from London to Copenhagen, meeting up with hundreds of campaigners from northern Europe, trade unionists and activists from all shades of the ‘green’ movement, in Brussels, on a specially chartered ‘Climate Express’. During the 20 hour journey we shared points of view, polar perspectives, food, music, boredom, frustration at the inexplicable stops, and utter exhaustion as we finally pulled in to Copenhagen Central at 2am on Saturday morning.
The International Day of Action, the 100,000 strong march, is well documented. You can see the Oxfam Copenhagen 5 report here. It was not as anarchic as the media would have you believe, the police were not as heavy handed as reports showed, it was a long and cold walk from the centre of Copenhagen to the Bella Centre, the candle lit vigil was beautiful and we could see the faces of those inside the Bella Centre looking out at us. We were tired but also inspired.
While my Copenhagen 5 colleagues went to an Oxfam briefing on the Sunday, I attended a session at the Klima Forum on Climate Change and the Future of Food Security. The session’s premise was simple – the climate talks have been built on the assumption that expensive, complicated technologies are the primary way to reduce GHG emissions. While countries must develop cleaner energy sources and move away from fossil fuel burning economies, we set ourselves up for failure when dialogues begin with solutions that require massive financial resources, in a time when even rich countries can’t or won’t commit such funds.
Regenerative organic practices could sequester 40% of all carbon equivalent emissions if all the world’s tillable land was used. Sustainable agriculture could feed the one billion today who have no food, and provide better diets for the two billion who have food-related illnesses such as obesity and diabetes. And this could all be done at a higher level of energy productivity than through industrial farming.
Scientist, eco-feminist and environmental activist Dr Vandana Shiva argued for the wisdom of many traditional practices and spoke of us all at the Klima Forum as a “gathering of the peasants of the earth” – who must learn to live at peace with the earth and between people in a new economic system that integrates science and traditional learning.
We have reached the tipping point of debate and awareness now – climate change was the 2nd most followed subject on Twitter. Environmentalist Paul Hawken, in an article in Ode Magazine, talked about a movement of over one million organisations working around the world on ecological sustainability and social justice. Through old methods and new, people are coming together to find small solutions to big problems.
So how did we collectively fail at Copenhagen?
We must not lose sight of the small steps of a more equitable and sustainable future, as well as the huge leaps and commitments we all wanted from COP15. We need an equitable, ambitious and binding deal but each and every one of us should not lose sight of the power in our hands:
- The power to work collaboratively in our communities
- The power to educate and inspire young people
- The power to actively reduce our own carbon emissions
- The power to lobby and influence the political process
- The power to consume less and enjoy more
- The power to peacefully protest
- The power to think differently
Theologian Hans Kung talked of the ‘leap of faith’ over an unknown chasm when debating the existence of God in his now famous 1980 book “Does God Exist?”. The challenge facing us as society now is no less profound.
Professor Anthony Giddens summarised it thus: our rational minds cannot comprehend an abstract, and potentially apocalyptic, future and so we do not ascribe it the same level of reality as we do the present. Despite the scientific and public consensus on the dangers to the planet and its ecosystems, the fragility of the human condition in developing and low-lying nations, the recognition that all of this stuff is ‘just unsustainable’ (although no-one really knows what that means), we are charging towards the end of the species – so poetically articulated by Lemn Sissay.
Just what, precisely, are we all waiting for?
We need a visceral leap of faith. Imagine if you will the few moments before an orchestral concert begins. The strings, the wind section, percussion, discordant and inelegant as they tune up and prepare for the performance. But listen closely, and the sound becomes a cordant hum, almost beautiful.
And so too we need a genuine convergence of the multitude of conversations – the hundreds of thousands of groups, the manifestos, the millions of ideas and robust actors changing their world around them – into a coherent tune that says we can and will live differently and more equitably.
Which brings me back to the point of the Oxfam visit to Copenhagen over the weekend of the UN Summit. We went to be part of a 100,000 strong march of ordinary people, children, students, freshly minted graduates, parents, professionals and pensioners, with a singular voice asking for climate justice.
Have we made a difference? Yes, but the results may not manifest themselves this week, or even next week. We shouldn’t see one protest march as a measurable unit of change, but one of a series of sparks, complemented by advocacy to influence policy change, by leveraging our spending power to change business behaviour and individual responsibility.
Lao Tzu said: “the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step”. Some of us have taken those tentative first few steps. It’s time now for the vanguard to break into a confident stride and lead the way.