Images of three separate but interconnected events are in my mind tonight.
The first is the outcome of another negotiating session of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change in Warsaw two weeks ago. The second is a sunny fall afternoon in 1998 when South African President, Nelson Mandela, spoke at Ottawa’s Human Rights Monument. The third is a classroom of seven year-olds in a small medieval town called Montluçon, in the Auvergne region of France.
The 19th Conference of the Parties met in Warsaw in November to continue the long march towards a new climate change treaty. Success requires countries like Canada, Australia and the United States recognize their historic responsibility to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Success also requires action to ensure that the most vulnerable regions — like the Arctic and island nations like Tuvalu in the Pacific and Barbuda in the Caribbean — have the resources needed to cope with the rapid changes already occurring.
Despite the warnings in the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the evidence of that global climate is becoming increasingly unstable, the usual suspects sleepwalked through the most recent negotiations as if they had all the time in the world. They might but others do not.
The unequal burdens of climate change are falling on those least equipped to deal with them. Around the world, it is the poorest nations and people that are suffering the most — and whose lot is likely to get much worse in the coming decades. Yet what happens in these places has a direct connection to those of us who live in comfort and ease, in countries whose leaders, for the time being, seem to set on buying time. Or, worse, ignoring reality in the face of incontrovertible evidence.
The second image is of Nelson Mandela at the Ottawa Peace Monument in September 1998. On that sunny morning, with my young children by my side, I heard Mandela say that the monument should “inspire all who see it to join hands in a partnership for world peace, prosperity, and equity.” To be there on that morning, to listen to Nelson Mandela and to actually see him, was a reminder that no matter how bad things get, it was important to never give up hope.
Mandela’s death at age 95 has brought an outpouring of grief and also celebration of the human spirit and how, in the face of incredible odds, justice can triumph. Not for Mandela the dark alleys of despair:
I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.
Climate change negotiations, of course, are an endeavour where optimism appears in short supply. And while governments have consistently failed to come up to the mark, or recognize what UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called the “moral imperative” of climate change, there are signs of hope. Action is taking place at local and regional levels, new technologies that hold promise are being developed, and there is an increasing recognition that moving from the path we are on will require an enormous, collective act of will. Like ending apartheid.
Which takes us to Montluçon, where one of the daughters who listened to Nelson Mandela with me that day is now teaching English to French elementary school students. Her charges wave their arms in wild enthusiasm to answer questions like “What day is it?” and “What is the weather like?” Having just arrived from Warsaw, I couldn’t help but think about their future.
Like the children arriving with flowers and song at Nelson Mandela’s Johannesburg home to celebrate his long and influential life, these young people will be adults — and parents — in 2050. Half-way through this century, if we continue on the same course they and, hundreds of millions of young people around the world, will bear the burden of our inaction on climate change. Without fast reduction of greenhouse gases, their world will be fundamentally different than ours — hotter, more politically unstable and likely far less equitable. Unless, as Nelson Mandela said on that sunny fall morning 15 years ago, we “join hands in a partnership” and get serious about climate change.
We need to keep our feet moving forward.
John Crump is a CCPA research associate.