December 5, 2013
On Nov. 14, I packed my bags, said goodbye to the United States and boarded a plane to Warsaw, Poland on my way to the 2013 UN Climate Talks. Struggling to curb my optimism and high expectations, I entered the National Stadium in awe of my surroundings, excited to meet diverse groups of people at the forefront of efforts to combat climate change.
I wish that I could say throughout my time at the conference my optimism did not waver as I witnessed first-hand the effectiveness of international negotiations. That progress was made to break through prior stalemates to formulate new decisions and commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and finance efforts in developing nations to adapt to damage caused by climate-related disasters. I would like to say I witnessed all of these things, but unfortunately I cannot.
As the 19th Conference of the Parties concluded its last session less than a week before Thanksgiving, Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, summarized up the results of the conference as a “steppingstone” to future negotiations—a first step that will supposedly lead to action and agreement on a successor protocol in 2015 in Paris, which would take effect in 2020. Figueres, a tour de force in the battle against climate change, worked tirelessly to promote action at the conference. Yet, when it came to the actual negotiations, progress was much slower than expected.
Even after witnessing all this inaction, I must say that I return to the States more optimistic than when I left. Not because of a newfound confidence in negotiations, or optimism about the outcomes at the next conference in Lima or the agreement to follow in Paris, but because I did in fact witness something extraordinary. Not where I expected it, or how I expected, but I witnessed it none the less. Real change.
This kind of change starts at the community level, and bridges gaps between inequalities and against all odds. This change occurs when a group of dedicated and hardworking people decide to stop waiting for someone to do something, and take it upon themselves to make a difference. Real change happened right before my eyes, and it happened outside of negotiations.
Distressed and frustrated with the small steps being taken in negotiations, I wandered into a room titled Warsaw Momentum on Gender Day at the conference. This is where I found examples of people really taking action in their everyday lives to combat the effects of climate change—effects like extreme weather patterns, limited access to renewable resource and overconsumption that are having a significant effect on energy use.
The panel consisted of the 2013 Lighthouse Award recipients in the Gender Results category, who presented that projects that serve as examples of actions taken to address climate change around the world, specifically with an emphasis on empowering women. This talk was the most inspiring event I attended, with a multitude of amazing projects on display.
The single most popular project was the Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative, founded by Executive Director Bernice Dapaah. Recognizing she had a chance to affect change within environmental and social justice movements, Dapaah created an initiative that uses locally sourced bamboo and labor (mostly youth and women with high unemployment rates) to make these bikes. They are sustainable, affordable and go hand-in-hand with replantation efforts. They also happen to be five times stronger than Western metals, able to carry loads between 100 and 200 kilograms. Not only does the Bamboo Bike Initiative help empower women as active agents in their communities, it makes the green initiative marketable and appealing.
From what I saw at the conference, community action coupled with pressure to take action at national and international levels are what it’s going to take to make a real difference when it comes to climate change. On Thursday Nov. 21, I witnessed over a dozen leading civil society organizations, including the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace, walk out of the conference in mass protest due to the lack of progress being made in negotiations. This is the first time, to my knowledge, that this has ever happened at one of these conferences. A statement was released saying, “Enough is enough,” which indicated to me that a shift is happening around the world in favor of immediate action against climate change. This is where I find my hope. Not because fighting climate change will be easy, or because it will happen without a fight itself, but because people all around the world are making their voices heard. Those countries whose public have accepted climate change as a serious issue are the ones that are leading international negotiations and working to make a real difference. This is due to community action, public protest and the subsequent commitments that follow as public opinion changes to insist that the world address this issue.