Spatial Confessions of a Climate Change Newbie

Chui-Ling Tam's picture

[This post is part of a series offered by IECA members attending COP21 in Paris.]

Last week, torn between environmental pride and terrorism worry, my 11-year-old told me she had struggled to explain to her school friends what I was doing at COP21. I gave her the main narrative, that human actions were intervening in nature in ways that had contributed to an accelerated rising of the earth’s temperatures, and we had to figure out how to slow, halt or reverse that. Part of my job was to study, explain and improve on communication about threatened environments so that people could design and take effective action. At stake were future generations, like herself and her children and their children. She didn’t think her friends would get it.

That is not surprising. My daughter is growing up in oilsands-powered Alberta, where the recent oil price crash has directly led to job redundancies and fiscal restraint among denizens who seem to collectively and cyclically forget that downturns are embedded in boom-and-bust resource economies. Oil gratitude is bred into the spirits of Alberta’s children. In Calgary, in the traumatized corporate heart of Canadian oil, the economic downturn has collided with the shock end to the oil-friendly Conservatives’ 44-year-old reign and the virgin New Democratic Party government’s Climate Leadership Plan, announced one bare week before COP21 opened in Paris. A big message of the new provincial government is that environmental stewardship and oil production are not mutually exclusive.

So, as I prepare to attend my first day at COP21 as part of the IECA team to observe the climate change negotiations, I am acutely aware that the Canadian and Alberta political landscape has changed. A sea change has been performed in Canadian climate politics by our two-month-old federal government and Alberta’s new leaders. We have brought a 300-plus official entourage to Paris, rehabilitating Canada’s climate image, no longer pariahs indifferent to the good fight against terrestrial activities like oilsands production. It has been bewildering to keep pace with the sudden shifts in Canadian climate identity and policy ahead of these talks, not least because before the call went out for nominees to join IECA at COP21, I didn’t ‘do’ climate change. My research interests were concentrated on Indonesian marine areas that have experienced mixed transformations resulting from conservation policy. I look at communication spatially, and try to identify obstructive and transformative communication geographies with a view to creating communicative space. Environmental communication is the glue that binds those spatial interests, whether in marine areas or climate change. And in my short time in Paris, it’s clear that COP21 is an excellent example of communication geographies at work.

Communication as spectacle is a huge part of the COP21 story in Paris. Walking across the Place de la Republique every day, I note the fairy ring of candles encircling the statue of Marianne. The shoes placed there in lieu of the banned climate change protesters on the eve of COP21 are gone. But the spatial practices of the French to maintain a communicative space for conviviality, knowledge-sharing, and diverse human lived experiences speak loud. The construction of the public Climate Generations areas abutting the official negotiation site at Paris-Le Bourget, the over-200 booths and exhibits set up by accredited civil society organizations like the IECA in the secure area, the nearly 200 country delegations, the very visible security forces, and the countless green-clad COP21 helpers stationed at key passing places such as the airport, Le Bourget and Gare du Nord, are all enacting communicative defiance and cooperation in physical spaces across Paris. The banners declaring Je suis en terrasse (I am on the terrace, indicating I am outside, living) and the packed crowd at the Café Bonne Biere which reopened just this weekend by the Place de la Republique, all perform a reassertion of public space as communicative space.

COP21 – defiant, hopeful, exhaustive - is one of the biggest spatial communication spectacles of all.