Another climate summit comes to an end. Are we all in the same canoe?

Anoushka Carter is a Global Justice Now activist and member of the youth network group in Falmouth. She travelled to Bonn for the UN climate summit earlier this month where she met other activists, reported on what is happening and took part in the mobilisations for climate justice.

This year’s United Nations climate change talks (COP23) took place in Bonn, Germany. In an ideal world, COP23 would have marked the achievement of an agreed rulebook on implementing the Paris Agreement, established at COP21 in 2015. But this year, once again, the talks lacked anything worthy of being called a ‘milestone’. The Paris Agreement, with all its potential, remains a document chock-full of empty rhetoric. Its signatories persist in dragging their heels at a time when we need to be sprinting forwards.

We are all in the same canoe

Solidarity is an important part of the movement for climate justice. The President of Fiji was heard on several occasions at this year’s COP saying, “We are all in the same canoe”. This phrase desperately tries to encompass all stakeholders in the topic of climate change. But is it true?

The truth is that the people in this ‘canoe’ are the majority world, the global south; who have been exploited and plundered by the global north. The reality is that those in the canoe are being ignored while the privileged minority are less exposed to the impacts of climate change and sail on by in their cruise liners; able to do so because they created both their own cruise liners and the increasingly fragile vessel on the waters below them.

The narrative that we are all in the ‘same canoe’ suggests that we are all going to be affected by the problem in equal measures. This is a dangerous narrative to be communicating because it avoids discussing power dynamics. It over-simplifies the real and brutally unfair world that we live in where those who least contributed or benefited from pollution are now feeling the intense force of pollution-induced climatic change. Furthermore, COP23 has done nothing to compensate these countries for such injustice.

Feeble pledges are not enough

If the feeble pledges made by UN member states in the PA are not revised by 2020 then the chances of remaining under the 2-degree limit are extremely slim. Meanwhile, many of those in the ‘canoe’ are already witnessing their destiny play out before them. A youth plaintiff in the lawsuit against the United States administration for its failure to protect their rights to a safe future stated, “I got out of bed and stepped ankle-deep into climate change”.

In addition, unlike mitigation and adaptation, there are currently no sources of finance for 'Loss and Damage'. Loss and Damage refers to the unavoidable and very tangible costs of climate change that many countries in the global south are feeling and will feel as they surpass the mitigation stage whereby preventing climate change impacts is no longer an option.

People’s ability to recover and adapt to climate change is markedly unequal, making climate finance a subject of morality. When rich countries continually refuse to take bold moves to fund the most risk-exposed countries, they are avoiding responsibility for the climate crisis. And important movements challenging our current economic system like energy democracy, justice in the food system, indigenous rights and gender equality have been negotiated into a bleak corner.

The struggle for climate justice is a battle against addiction

The current economic system is not just responsible for creating climate injustice but a multitude of inequalities and crimes across a range of societal sectors. The reality is that climate change is not the sole driver of poverty, illness, death and suffering that has been bubbling over the surface of political attention. Climate change exacerbates existing suffering, and has the potential to dismantle any progress made in the realms of ‘sustainable development’, poverty ‘alleviation’, rural infrastructure, sanitation efforts, or conflict prevention; making the climate deals a pinnacle of importance.

Monsoonal storms and floods this summer killed over a thousand people in India, Nepal and Bangladesh and forced millions from their communities. A typhoon ravaged south and central Vietnam during the talks in Bonn. Puerto Rican delegates from the peasant farmer network La Via Campesina spoke during COP of their continued suffering 60 days since Hurricane Irma, the most powerful known hurricane in the history of the Atlantic.

But despite all this human suffering, commercial interests with a financial stake in the fossil fuel industry still attempted to pervert the climate change conference. Fortunately, civil society actions during COP23 used the power of bold and direct action to challenge a certain government representative’s attempts at presenting false solutions. When SustainUS and indigenous American activists from Idle No More called out California governor Jerry Brown during his attempts at promoting fracking as a solution to pollution he responded, “Why don’t we put you in the ground, so we can get on with the speech?”

These kinds of ‘false solutions’ are attempts to avoid diagnosing the real problem. Our economic system has an inherent addiction; one where money and economic returns are the narcotic and human suffering and ecological destruction are the deepening side effects.  

And it is a chilling truth that many so-called ‘leaders’ would like for us to be silent so that they can continue with business as usual.

Can turkeys really be trusted to vote for Christmas?

Fossil fuel corporations continue to slow down advancements in the transition away from fossil fuels. The presence of fossil fuel lobbyists at the climate talks is tantamount to having tobacco companies promoting cigarettes at a cancer research summit. It is immoral, and completely undermines the severity of the climate change challenge. It should not be left to a twelve-year-old Fijian boy to call out the farcical and slow response from governments worldwide to act on their pledged responsibilities. However, Timoci Naulusala spoke more truths in seven minutes than any of the leaders did over their hour-long speeches.

Additionally, you cannot simply talk about how to mitigate and adapt to climate change without questioning the deeply embedded causes of the problem in the first place. As Einstein said, “You cannot fix a problem with the same level of consciousness that created it.”

Still, there is insistent pursuit of doomed-to-fail market-based mechanisms at COP. It is understandable, therefore, that civil society is constantly questioning whether the COP talks are the right space to channel our efforts towards achieving climate justice.

In protest at these market-based mechanisms, civil society groups from the US disrupted a conference led by the Trump administration to promote ‘clean coal’. During the conference, the lies were drowned out by song, and when the activists walked out the fossils were left talking to themselves. Walking the walk is far more powerful and speaks more truth to power than just simply talking the talk.  

We will continue to apply pressure on all sides

Although ‘system change’ is our long-term goal, our focus should also be on ensuring that people do not have to wait until the system is dismantled before they can reach climate justice. As Asad Rehman of War on Want declared, "Corporations who profit from polluting our planet, and the governments that enable them, will face pressure on all sides in 2018. They’re raising the heat of the planet and we’re going to raise the heat on them.”

During COP we saw the successes of direct actions both in coal mines near Bonn, and inside the formal conference spaces themselves. We must continue, and escalate, efforts to shut down fossil fuels and destructive exploitative projects at their source. This does not just mean going to the source of physical production but also where the all-important ideology and rhetoric breeds.

As we have learnt from just a simple phrase like ‘we are all in the same canoe’, words equate to power, and where toxic lies are propagated they must be challenged. This is critical if we are to see a transition out of a fragile vessel and onto the safety of a shore that provides a safe living space for humans everywhere.  

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