The Warsaw Climate Change Conference began discouragingly just days after Typhoon Haiyan thrashed the Philippine islands of Samar, Leyte and Negros. The storm has since killed over 4,000 people and displaced millions, while the rest of the world scrambles to provide aid and an explanation for the unprecedented frequency of oceanic disasters affecting South East Asia in the last decade.
Yeb Sano, head of that country’s delegation to COP19 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Poland, urged the 190 attending states to thrust open a closing window of opportunity to save Earth’s ecosphere from impending temperature increases. The conference ended Friday November 22.
In a tearful speech to onlooking representatives, Sano recounted personal tales of tragedy from his native Tacloban, while linking climate acceleration and severe weather patterns to devastation in the global south. He discouraged wealthy nations from inaction and stressed the importance of reaching agreements even before an international climate deal is to be ratified in Paris in 2015.
“What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness. The climate crisis is madness. We can stop [it] right here in Warsaw,” he said. “Typhoons such as Haiyan and its impacts represent a sobering reminder to the international community that we cannot afford to procrastinate on climate action... science tells us that simply, climate change will mean more intense tropical storms. As the Earth warms up, that would include the oceans. The energy that is stored in the waters off the Philippines will increase the intensity of typhoons and the trend we now see is that more destructive storms will be the new norm.
“I will now commence a voluntary fasting for the climate. This means I will voluntarily refrain from eating food during this talk until a meaningful outcome is in sight, until concrete pledges have been made to ensure mobilization of resources for the Green Climate Fund... until there is assurance and financial adaptation, until we see real ambition and climate action in accordance with the principles we have so upheld. Mr. President, this process has been called a farce, it has been called an annual carbon-intensive gathering of useless frequent flyers. It has also been called saving tomorrow today. We can fix this. We can stop this madness.”
Sano received a standing ovation from the delegates at the UNFCCC. His ability to articulate the immediacy of anthropogenic climate change, in human and scientific terms, forged a moving plea to the world. After all, if the emissions of developed nations do not drop to (at least) 40% below 1990 levels, superstorms like Haiyan will be routine. If low-carbon economies are not incentivized in the rich nations, sea levels will rise at a quicker pace. If agreements like Kyoto are repeatedly met with skepticism in the most polluting states, international cooperation becomes meaningless. As Sano says, “there are not two sides, but the whole of humanity. There are no winners and losers, we all either win or lose in the future we make for ourselves.”
Despite an air of desperation surrounding the nineteenth round of the UN climate talks, outside attitudes seemingly remain static. According to a report by MediaMatters.org, less than 5% of Typhoon Haiyan television media coverage mentioned climate change, compared to just 10% in print outlets. No mention of rising sea levels between 1993 and 2010, now at a rate of 0.13 inches per year (in the 100 years prior, the annual uptick was only 0.07 inches). No comment on melting glacial ice contributing to higher sea levels delivering 20 foot storm surges. And no discussion of how these escalating climatic events overwhelmingly target the poorest and most vulnerable populations on the planet. The silence is deafening.
When will climate change enter public consciousness as an actually existing phenomenon?
Since 2005, a Global Day of Action has been held around the world to coincide with the UNFCCC. It’s objectives, naturally, are to spur national governments into concern about climate change and demand that states honor emission reduction targets while committing to new treaties.
Organizers were especially busy this year in the so-called obstructionist states at the Convention – those hostile toward policy changes and the scaling back of greenhouse gas emissions tied to key industries. Japan forwarded perhaps the most brazen reversal of goals, announcing it will renege on its pledge to reduce emissions from 25% to 3% by 2020. With the capitulation of its nuclear energy program, the island nation is consigned to dirtier forms of energy to stay functional.
The climate change-denying government of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott received as much if not more criticism for its domestic policies, including lately a bill to repeal the nation’s carbon tax. That piece of legislation still requires a Senate vote, however Abbott has already announced plans to slash scientific research and development funding by $400 million while dismantling investment in clean energy technologies. More than 60,000 protestors gathered across the country last Saturday to voice their distaste for Abbott’s policies of “denialism and skepticism.”
In Canada, familiar scenes gripped a nation whose Conservative government has repeatedly turned its back on climate change. Over 100 protests were held across the country last weekend to extend an already passionate discussion about Canada’s national energy vision tied to Alberta’s oil sands, and its repeated efforts to ignore internationally-binding agreements pertaining to anthropogenic global warming. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has overseen Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) and has failed conclusively to curb domestic greenhouse gas emissions. To further establish its stance as one in opposition to the environment and developing nations, the government released a statement praising Australia’s leader. “Canada applauds the decision by prime minister Abbott to introduce legislation to repeal Australia’s carbon tax... the Australian prime minister’s decision will be noticed around the world and sends an important message.”
This is a Fight for Humanity, Not Nations
For those living in the developed world, the consequences of climate acceleration are but unfortunate mementos of suffering half way around the world. The plight of victims in the Philippines, having to drag the corpses of their loved ones from underneath fallen buildings, incites a different type of tragedy and infuriation among those witnessing disaster from afar. What is common, however, is the human struggle that all people, regardless of nationality and wealth, will be forced to confront at some point in the twenty-first century. This is an inevitability.
The UNFCCC is an important conference, but it has proven anemic as the sole international body for mediating anthropogenic global warming. The signing of treaties and documents – officiated pinky swears at best – cannot be relied upon as the only method of mobilization to combat the crisis of our collective ecosphere. Through alternative media, grassroots organizing and radical thinking, solutions will become clearer. But to become a reality they first require political will from above and below, and solidarity with developing nations who are most affected.
It ought to be the hope of all humanity that we possess the will needed to alter our lifestyles, consumption habits, and reliance upon fossil fuels perpetuating cycles of supply and demand. Admittedly, it is beyond the scope of any piece of writing or document to reverse these deeply engrained and historical processes, but a meaningful acknowledgement of them is a bold first step. Perhaps we're close to reaching it.