Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office Reflections on the Warsaw Climate Change Conference
Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office Reflections on the Warsaw Climate Change Conference

Warsaw Climate Conference 2013 – THE INSIDE SCOOP


Since 1995, The United Nations Climate Change Conference has been held annually at different locations around the world. This year, the conference was held in Warsaw, Poland from November 11th  through the 23rd. We were fortunate enough to have Elena Rahona represent the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office at the conference this year. During this time, she blogged about her thoughts and reactions to the events. Below you will find posts about  the ups and downs of these critical negotiations. Elena Rahona, MS is the Program Manager for Mount Sinai Global Health. She earned her Master’s Degree in International Relations from NYU. Prior to joining the Global Health Team she worked with the Mount Sinai Queens Vanguard Site of the National Children’s Study and spent five years at Mount Sinai’s Adolescent Health Center with the Adolescent Medicine Trials Network, a multicenter research network devoted to the health and well-being of aHIV-infected and at-risk adolescents and young adults.  

Message #1: 11/19/13 Greetings from Warsaw

Elena Rahona

Day two for me and I've not yet shaken the grin off my face. Discussing land degradation and desertification over breakfast is a far cry from clinging to a metal subway pole while focusing intently on not spilling my coffee down the freshly pressed shirt of my neighbor. This is what I was hoping for in Warsaw, the chance to be surrounded by like-minded people all fighting the good fight in this world. I've managed to make it to a number of side events where I've noticed a distinct rift between those who have faith in the negotiations, and those who are not so convinced in the international community's ability to come to any sort of meaningful agreements. Regardless, however, the sense of urgency is universal, as is the will to make a difference, in whatever small way possible. Two things have resonated most with me so far. Yesterday, one particularly impassioned speaker reiterated over and over again that the knowledge is out there, but the understanding is lacking. Our role is to translate the findings and make them meaningful across sectors. Only then will we see action. And secondly, I went to another presentation where we learned that in less than a hundred years, the ocean's pH is expected to drop by .3 to .4 units due to increased CO2 levels. Consider that a mere pH change of .03 units causes extreme health consequences in the human body. Life works within extremely defined and sensitive parameters, and we are destroying it. The numbers throughout this event are sobering, and so far the experience of being here has made me reflect on the delicacy of our world. It's something that living in a big city can dull for you, despite thinking about the climate nearly every day. So I am grateful to be here, and grateful to see such passion, will, and energy. I am grateful to get the chance to engage with people who are trying to make a difference and trying to give us ways to translate facts into action. I am excited for the next few days to get the chance to talk to more people and to hear about new ideas, new opportunities, and new perspectives. So thank you to you both. I am very happy to be here!!!! Cheers, Elena Program Manager, Mount Sinai Global Health, Mount Sinai School of Medecine, New York, NY ------------

Message #2: 11/20/13

I'm sitting in the hallway on the little red cushions scattered on the floor, and across from me a government rep from the UK is sweeping his arms around the room and watching everyone grossly engaged in conversations, blogging away on their computers, and all looking terribly important. "This is utter disfunction. No one wants to say it, sitting here giving the illusion of progressing toward something....but I'm tired and hungry, and I'm saying it. Nothing is getting done. It's actually rather hilarious," he is saying. I have to say, despite my unflagging happiness to be here, that I cannot disagree with him. Today has been a day of watching the mounting frustrations. There is much talk of this morning's walkouts in the negotiations and walkouts even from side events by panelists who are fed up with talking when there is no practical solution in sight for saving their island homelands from the rising tides. Youth delegations have been kicked out for protesting and voices have been raised during presentations over the Polish government's denial of visas to large numbers of Africans who were looking to be a part of this event. Do the people really have a voice? Add to this the leaked memo to the US delegation expressing State Department concern about the emerging "destruction and loss" theme and the frustration only intensifies [The memo revealed how US negotiators fear this language will lead to "blame and liability" and that poor nations will thus seek "redress for climate damages." It is a refusal to take any responsibility or change in any significant way.]. The meetings I have gone to today have all asked the question that we all think we are answering in our lives by the plain fact of being here. "What can I do [to make this world a better place]?" There were a lot of answers, but also an inherent understanding that if we really did know, we wouldn't need to be here.

So it's frustrating. It almost feels like people here in the bubble of the stadium are separating themselves from those out there. How is it that we know what is happening in this world; that we see a fast moving train to chaos, but that others see no urgency, no real danger apart from some minor inconveniences? This includes some of the delegates who are out on the floor refusing to concede anything. HOW DO THEY NOT GET IT?

The sessions have mostly ended with a resounding pledge to reconvene at next year's COP with some solid responses. And so it's back to the man with the sweeping arm, at his sixth COP and counting. "At what point do we all just cash in on our retirement accounts and spend the last days of a still beautiful planet enjoying what it has to offer before it is all taken away?" I don't mean to be negative. People will often criticize climate activists for being too negative, too pessimistic. But it is hard not to be. This is the state we are in. You can't sugar coat it and call it a candy cane. Will there be any resolution in the next two days? We will know very soon. But in the meantime, we can continue to exchange ideas, meet new people, and work to do our parts. For one outcome is very clear. Giving up is not the answer.


Message #3: 11/21/13: Volveremos, we will return.

A large group of civil society reps have just left the building. As the hours wind down, they have reached their despondency tipping point and staged a walkout. The corporate agenda and backtracking nations (notably Australia, Canada, and Japan) have clouded over any chance of being heard, they feel. Walking down a corridor I stumbled on an interview Amy Goodman (my absolute hero!) was conducting for Democracy Now! with one of the youth leaders of the mass exodus. "We have not given up hope," said the representative. On the contrary, they are planning to take this time to regroup and come back stronger than ever at COP 20 in Lima. Civil society must have a voice. The poor, marginalized, and most vulnerable have the most to lose, and yet they have been systematically overlooked here. As I wrote about yesterday, there has been a lot of emphasis on communications and messaging over the course of the last few days. How can we effectively convince the world that inaction can no longer be tolerated? I decided to forgo lunchtime meetings today and instead sit in the cafeteria with a beer. I wanted to ask those around me (this is where the beer helps) what they personally felt was going wrong with getting people to pay attention. Frustration once again ruled the conversations. Everyone realizes that people respond much more eagerly if a positive spin is somehow tacked onto any type of call to action. But as we careen towards a 4 degree hike in temperature (as revealed to us yesterday from results of a new study), it is ever more difficult to have anything remotely flowery to say. One woman, a Spaniard (they tend to talk with their hands a lot) flailed her arms about and said she was ready to stockpile on beer and retire to her apartment. A US delegate likewise commented that he was at a loss. Am heading to an ethics and justice panel now with representatives from human rights organizations. We are all born with the inherent right to a dignified life, and we cannot stand by and watch the violations mounting. I think a push to keep fighting will do me good. Cheers, Elena --------------


Message #4: 11/22/13 It's the day of reckoning.

"Nature does not negotiate," was the line making its way around the halls yesterday in the wake of the NGO walkout. Nature does not compromise. This is the intended message of the activists. I was thinking about this message last night as a speaker from a panel on the ethical and moral obligations to fight climate injustice begged "scrap the damn lines about saving the planet!" This argument has not worked, he says. This argument is not correct. The planet does not need saving. Regardless of how much we warm, shatter, and abuse, its existence is not threatened. The great earth will keep on spinning for millions of years to come, with or without us. It's life, pure and simple, that is in dire need of a rescue. And though the polar bears, and dolphins, and trees are as crucial to our world as any other living creature, in defiance of Poland's own national hero [Copernicus], this is not the time to suppress our solipsistic urges. Climate Change is about people. This is the angle that will get the attention. I found this sentence in a recent article from the Guardian talking about the growing gap in the climate talks between the pledge to keep global warming below 2C and the extent of the current policies to make good on this promise. "When I say gap, I really mean a chasm. And when I say chasm, I mean a huge, gaping, canyon-like hole big enough to either eat a planet or at least lose an Earth or a carbon dioxide swamped Venus down there for a while." The gaps are formidable. They are overwhelming to say the least. The gaps in the policies, the gaps in the messages, the gaps in the answers. Mercifully, however there are some gaps that are beginning to close (see, I am capable of positive messages). Two in particular have emerged on top over the course of the week, both fundamentally orbiting around people. Climate change is, at its core, a human rights issue. There is no dignified life without a safe environment. Period. The poor and marginalized are the most vulnerable to climate change outcomes. Period. We cannot allow violations to mount. We have a moral imperative to end the injustice. It's surprising that the human rights lens was so late to the climate change dialogue. But it has arrived in force and there is much work being done to make rights-based advocacy central to climate change negotiations. It is a gap with sizable space to fill and ample room to make a substantial impact. Climate change action manifests via climate change data. This has been made equally clear over the course of the week, along with the other gap that the world is quickly looking to fill. For the numbers that are beginning to perk the policy maker's attention are the numbers that relate to human health. Consider that China's latest move to curb emissions was driven in large part by the numbers released regarding air pollution and mortality. It should be so obvious that breathing pollution is as deadly as inhaling cigarette smoke. But no one cared to make the link until the scientists began to crunch the numbers. It was a sobering day when statistics revealed that while malaria is responsible for around 900,000 deaths annually, pollution (indoor and outdoor) kills upwards of 7,000,000. That's seven million. Every year. Someone needed to collect the data and do the math. But once they did, people paid attention. There are vast chasms of health data that still must be generated, but as noted, focusing on climate change's direct effects on people above all else is proving to be a very powerful call to action.     Thus, as we wait to hear what progress has been made here in Warsaw, the urgency to DO SOMETHING becomes ever stronger. What can we do? We can remind the world that when one person suffers, we all suffer, and that climate change is the ultimate indignity. We can also focus more attention on producing meaningful data. Linking climate change to human health is a growing field. The more we understand just how profound the consequences are to our living healthy, productive lives, the more the world will listen. Or so we can hope.

About the Author

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