It’s 5am and I arrive at Warsaw Chopin Airport in Poland on zero hours sleep. My body is electrified yet tired from the previous week. I had won a scholarship to observe the annual meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Warsaw, Poland during my first semester of graduate school at American University. I had just bore witness to the ultimate decision making process: how much global warming will humanity allow?
An overpriced airport latte calls to me, but I refrain in order to sleep on my flight back to the US. I grab a sandwich instead and walking back to my over-packed and overweight camping backpack, I recognize the delegate from Singapore sitting at the gate next to mine. Singapore is part of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) at the UNFCCC. They have banded together with other small, low-lying nations to leverage their influence as a bloc rather than as individual countries without much gravitas. Essentially, these countries have contributed the least amount of the greenhouse gases (GHGs) that are driving our warming planet yet are experiencing a disproportionate share of the negative impacts.
I stall for a moment, but decide to go over and introduce myself. What have I got to lose?
He is kind, obviously tired, yet happy to speak with me. Delegates such as this man are running on almost no sleep at these conferences during the final few days. They are working on drafting an all-encompassing international agreement to limit the worst of climate change. The world was watching with great anticipation in 2009 when the first all-inclusive agreement was supposed to be struck, but the negotiations came to a standstill when none of the world’s largest economies, such as the USA or China, stepped up with truly ambitious GHG emission reduction goals. The conference ended with a fog of disappointment hanging heavy among the attendees. The UNFCCC regrouped in 2011, and set 2015 as the deadline for finalizing this new agreement.
All this was freshly acquired knowledge for me. That first semester I was blown away to learn that there is an international body with their hands on the global thermostat, that the decisions being made are not how to avoid climate change, but how much of it we are going to induce. See, at the highest level, no one is debating if anthropogenic global warming is happening. Countries know it is, but doing something about rustles the feathers of the big time fossil fuel companies that buy legislative influence. But that’s a story for another post.
The several months of preparation in class for the conference lead to a crystallization of a cynical thought once I experienced the real thing; these conferences are deciding the fate of the world. These people are negotiating how degraded we will allow life sustaining processes to become. It is simply a diabolical thought. All of these considerations are in my head, but I try to keep it polite and simple so I ask if Singapore got what it wanted at this meeting.
The big governments gave more than they wanted to, the small governments got less than they asked for, he explains. It is all about compromise, he says with a rock solid patience he must have developed from years of working in the field of climate negotiations.
Our conversation seems fairly on message, but then he said something that I will never forget. He looks at me and says, “It’s important for you to be here. You young people put the spotlight on us, hold us accountable. Without that we would have no one to answer to.”
My flight takes me back to Washington DC and my good friend Greg picks me up. I proceed where my life left off; homework, catching up with friends, more homework. It takes several weeks and months for me to process the time I spent in Poland and my encounter with the delegate from Singapore.
I recognize that I am an outlier. I decided to go the graduate school and study Global Environmental Politics because to me, climate change is the biggest and scariest challenge we face as a species. I have been warned not to use this alarming rhetoric, but it is the truth of how I feel. A student of the physical sciences, I understand we cannot escape cause and effect. By filling our air with GHGs for the last 300 years there is simple physics and chemistry we cannot escape. Bill McKibben said it best, “It’s not that the scientists are alarmists – it’s that the science is alarming”.
But I am a trained optimist. There is always a joke waiting inside defeat, always a space to express gratitude. So I have met the climate change problem and have come to see it instead as a challenge. Because a challenge can either be a problem or an opportunity. Al Gore has described climate change as the greatest opportunity ever afforded to mankind. Indeed, responding to climate change is qualitatively uncharted territory for humans. What climate change means to me is an opportunity for cooperation, innovation, and a consideration of equity on a global scale.
And here is where I hear the voice of the delegate from Singapore ringing in my head. Indeed, there is no one person, entity, or government that will be held accountable if these negotiations fail. There is comfort in acknowledging that some of the best on-the-ground work being done to combat climate change is at the local and regional scale. However, without the international rules of the road the UNFCCC is meant to set, we are setting the Earth up for a crash.
But the real power is in the citizens who hold our governing processes accountable. By being active participants in our governments, by voting, by staying up to date on new laws, by joining organizations like Citizens Climate Lobby and Sierra Club, by attending town hall meetings on environmental legislation, by sharing information in person and on social media, we each can effect change that makes a difference.
To me climate change means we must take the next step as individuals in modern society struggling with the burden of climate change. We are afforded a great opportunity to extend ourselves beyond our single lives to challenge the climate challenge. We are a global community and we have global responsibilities.
I haven’t seen my friend from Singapore since that November morning in 2013, but his words have not left me. And I hope you now can be equally enlivened by his message: everyone makes a difference. Bodies at a rally, names on a petition, and shares on social media all add up. Our actions are not lost to oblivion, but add to an inertia. So add your action, whatever it may be.
You don’t need to fly to Poland to take on climate change, but you can at least share this post.