Picture the scene. Bonn in June – a lovely and very cultured city, littered with museums; after all it’s where Beethoven was born. Excellent weather too – barely a cloud in the sky, and it’s warm without being stifling.
This was the setting for the SB42 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) conference a couple of weeks ago: a picturesque corner of Bonn, Germany that’s in many ways as far removed from the devastating effects of climate change as you can find on the planet. No wonder, then, that the document that the summit produced was off track.
I arrived in Bonn before the second of two weeks of debate; this was my first experience of any international conference. I knew that it takes a long time to reach international agreements – but what followed failed to meet even my (very low) expectations. On Monday morning I sat in the conference hall and watched one delegate stand up and tell the chairpersons that he thought the proceedings had been too slow in week 1. OK, I thought, that sounds sensible. Next delegate stood up and said the same thing. And the one after him, and the next – and so on for a couple of precious hours that could, I suggest, have been better spent actually debating the text. The proof of their failure isn’t in one anecdote though; judge the summit on what it produced. Delegates were there in order to streamline the text of the agreement that world leaders are due to sign in Paris in December, and were hoped to cut it from around 90 pages to 45 pages. At the end of the summit it stood at 85 pages – and some were calling it a success.
The irony of what they were saying in that first session I experienced would have been laughable if the conference wasn’t about such a serious issue as climate change. At the very least it affects your food prices, changes the cost of travelling and creates some extreme weather. At worst that weather threatens and destroys lives and livelihoods. Air pollution has become one of the leading causes of death in countries like India and China. From Vanuatu to the US, Somalia to the Philippines, typhoons, hurricanes and droughts are increasingly common and violent. When water levels rise they’ll cause a mass redirection of government funding in the developed world, away from other public services and into flood defences. For less developed countries without the same resources, they’ll have nothing to defend themselves. The right of ordinary people to live in a safe place is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, one of the cornerstones on which the UN was built. Too many delegates and observers get dragged down into every comma, full stop and semicolon in the text– they forget why they’re doing it and who they’re doing it for.
That’s why it’s so important that we speak loudly and clearly, and try to make a change. Most leaders now recognise the undeniable scientific fact that man-made climate change is happening, but many don’t realise how directly it affects them and their countries. Elected leaders respond to the pressure that’s put on them by their people – they know that’s how they stay in office. Technology companies will do more to develop cheaper eco-friendly products if that’s what consumers demand – they know that’s the only way they’ll make the profits they want.The People’s Pilgrimage – thousands of people across the world, of all religions and none, walking for a strong agreement in Paris – helps create that pressure. Faith and spiritual groups are ideally placed to bring individuals from diverse communities together for the common good, a key message of world faiths. That’s exactly what needs to happen with the climate change, and is why the release of the Pope’s encyclical is so important.
When we asked delegates and observers in Bonn to show who or what they were walking for, the responses were heartening. Future generations and fish; gender justice and snow-capped mountains. It’s not that people at these meetings don’t know what they’re aiming for – it’s just that they sometimes forget, and need to be reminded. The UN pick Bonn for a climate conference. Maybe they should instead hold summits in Tacloban, devastated by Typhoon Haiyan, or massively polluted cities like New Delhi or Beijing. Meanwhile, what we can do is remind them why they need to hurry up and reach that international agreement in Paris.
This blog is a cross posting from a blog posted by Francis Newman for the OurVoices blog – with permission. Francis is interning for OurVoices and HKICN for the summer of 2015.
Photo credits: International Institute for Sustainable Development, OurVoices and Francis Newman