Countries from around the world come together annually to discuss one of the most pressing issues of our time: climate change. This year, the United Nations Climate Change Conference—where all the details of the Kyoto Protocol are hashed out—is in Nairobi, Kenya. This is my second time attending a UN climate conference, but my first time experiencing such a deep sense of frustration. From dawn to dusk each day it seems we aren’t getting anywhere; when we go home at night, driving past the slums of the city and hearing stories of drought from farmers directly affected by climate change, I wonder if the connection between the hardships of developing countries and the luxuries of the industrialized countries will be made with the urgency required.
It is 10:02 PM and my feet are up in the library in the basement of the United Nations complex. I sit with a laptop warming my thighs, and five more busy bodies typing away on laptops around me. A beer lingers nearby and cell-phones work away their batteries. Eyes droop and ties loosen, but the work doesn’t stop. We are developing press releases. We are talking about lobbying. We are planning our strategy. We are detailing a day that is a step towards our future.
We are stuck in a space where we work ourselves to the edge because we don’t want the rest of the world to be pushed over the edge. As we reach the "high-level" segment of the conference—when the discussion ends, and the decisions begin—every country is moving forward more slowly than a slug stuck in Alberta’s tar sands. The negotiations have stalled. This is not something new, but is increasingly frustrating as climate change grows more serious by the day. The worst part is that half the countries are saying the same things, and aiming for the same goals, but are using different vocabulary.
The majority of the negotiators at the UN are bureaucrats—i.e. people who work within the government, sent by politicians, to work out an agreement with other bureaucrats. The politicians send off their representatives with a position, and are instructed to defend it to the end. There is little room for compromise. So why am I here? What’s the point if the process is so apt to stalling and so stuck in the grasps of bureaucracy?
I am here, with 20 other self-fundraised Canadian youth, to jump into this process. Believe it or not, we go to these conferences to integrate into this mess, with a goal to unravel the knots. The beauty of the youth movement is that we see these issues with a sense of simplicity. We break down the policy and see it for what it is—a tool to leverage concrete action that will actually change the situation we are in.
The Ministers of the Environment arrived with four days of negotiations to go. I have met with our Environment Minister Rona Ambrose three days in a row, including 45 minutes of hard-nosed questioning, 15 minutes of planning student engagement in government decisions on climate change, and two hours of hors d’oeuvres, wine and dancing at the Canadian Ambassador’s house. In 72 hours she has moved from saying, "Our Kyoto commitments are impossible" to "Our views have evolved so that our domestic policies can parallel that of Kyoto. We didn’t have the knowledge of Kyoto before that we do now." Is it progress? Or is it rhetoric?
It is evident that public opinion and concern for the environment are finally getting through to the Canadian Government. The rhetoric has improved, but the fact remains that all actions taken to date have dropped Canada behind the rest of the world. We are the only Kyoto country publicly stating that we will miss our targets.
As the discussions draw to a close, I feel bewildered, slightly disappointed, and a little confused. How could last year’s conference have been so progressive and this year’s so uneventful? Welcome to international politics, Zoë.
Here is what has happened in the last two weeks:
• Developed countries with targets under the Kyoto Protocol agreed on a work plan to set targets for greenhouse gas reductions beyond 2012.
• The Kyoto Protocol was reviewed, and will be reviewed a little more at next year’s conference (i.e. what is working, what isn’t).
• Countries agreed to work on making it easier for developing nations to join Kyoto by possibly starting with voluntary rather than mandatory commitments. (This is a sticky issue because it lowers accountability, but at the same time allows more countries to be part of the work.)
• Details of the Adaptation Fund (cash for projects in developing countries that will help pay for damages caused by climate change) were agreed upon.
• The issue of deforestation (which is over 20 percent of the climate problem) was bumped to a workshop in the spring.
• Developed countries refused to give funds to developing countries for new sustainable technologies.
The ongoing and overarching goal is to get countries to agree to a package deal (a "mandate") that would take the outcomes of all of the above decisions, and set a strict timeline of one year—two at the most—to finish these specific talks. This agreement needs to happen to ensure there are continual and deep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
We had 12 days. We had 12 days to influence one of the most important sets of negotiations in the entire world. You get sucked into the nitty gritty by at least Day Five, and are almost delirious by Day 10. But even the nitty gritty needs to be taken in moderation. Those lobbyists and leaders in the climate movement that can balance the details with the bigger picture are admirable. It’s just as any other process in life: you must have faith that some systems are actually functional and are helping you achieve your goal. You also need to recognize that you are only in the world once.
Tangled in all these late nights and strategizing is a beautiful sense of belonging. There is an incredible building of friendship. There is a strong sense of community. We take the time to dance. We take the time to learn. We are teaching each other and meeting new people and setting a foundation for our future, whatever it might look like. We are also being hit with cultural differences and social divides—and at the same time, finding beautiful and comforting similarities between people.
Bureaucrats or politicians, industry or non-governmental organizations, young students or seasoned lobbyists, we're all in this together. As President Bill Clinton said at last year’s conference in Montreal, "If we all work together on this, it’s hard to see how we can fail. And if we don’t, it’s hard to see how we can succeed."
From the nitty gritty to broader horizons, it’s up to us. Period.