Climate change solitudes and absence in closed systems

Chui-Ling Tam's picture

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

Sat today by some giant translucent animal figurines for that most furtive and fleeting of COP21 activities – eating lunch – I was approached by a graduate student distributing a questionnaire that has made the annual round of climate change negotiations since COP13 in Bali in 2007, an event that some identify as the pivotal point at which The Blue Economy entered the global lexicon, with its emphasis on oceans.

I was fresh from an exhilarating session where luminous women leaders spoke of the absence of women in climate change. French ecology, sustainable development and energy minister Ségolène Royal, environmental activist-scholar Vandana Shiva, former Irish president and UNHCR chief Mary Robinson, Oxfam's executive director Winnie Byanyima and film director Marie-Monique Robin had held a room rapt with their defiant and poignant stories of progress and retreat. The room rippled with shocked disapproval when Byanyima recounted her experience at the Bali talks, when, in response to her complaint about the absence of physical space set aside for women to hold meetings, the then U.N. climate chief told her the negotations were a highly political and technical affair, with the implication that COP was not a space where women belonged. Today was gender day at COP21.

Yesterday, I had sat in an afternoon session where some of the biggest advocates for oceans in climate change presented nine recommendations from last week’s Oceans Day in Paris. Chief among those was a demand that oceans be specifically addressed in the text of the Paris agreement. From space, stated the eloquent Angus Friday, Ambassador of Grenada to the U.S., the earth looks blue; it was more Mother Water than Mother Earth. Marine space is inseparable from climate change.

On the weekend, while touring the COP21 Climate Generations area in the green zone open to the general public, three women standing nearby had punctured my jetlagged stupor with a heated discussion of the absence of youth in climate change. There are actually plenty of young people and several youth-centred sessions at COP21, but these women (some of whom were almost certainly old enough to be parents themselves) roundly dismissed the fact of climate decisions being made by old men who would not be around to suffer the consequences of those decisions. The absence of youth from the climate change policy conversation was morally and practically untenable.

In my time at COP21, I have listened to belligerent declarations by national and regional political leaders at the High Level Segment of the Paris meetings. It is impossible not to see the huge gulf that divides the developed countries from the developing countries. The latter can number the Group of 77 plus China, the Small Island Developing States, the Least Developed Countries. While the coalition of the world’s poor speaks a language of overdue action, overwhelming frequency and ferocity of environmental hazards, and inadequate capacity to cope with climate change, the world’s rich countries are talking about energy efficiencies to support sustainable lifestyles. Debate swirls around the nature of innovation and its place in saving the one space we all share.

Today, as I bit into my sandwich, the graduate student handed me a survey seeking COP participants’ opinions on effective strategies for climate change and priority areas for mitigation efforts. The questions covered common themes invoked in these talks. Technological innovations, government regulations, economic models. Wider audience, government, organizations. Forestry, agriculture, energy.  Nowhere were oceans, women or youth mentioned. When marginal places and marginal peoples are absent, it limits the possibility for just implementation of climate change mitigation and adaptation. 

So, on my fourth day in Paris, I am reminded of Hugh McLennan’s 1945 novel Two Solitudes, which signifies Canada’s struggle with its dual Francophone and Anglophone identities. In the text of climate change and the spaces of climate change negotiation, there is a struggle between multiple solitudes that obstruct communication and understanding. Thirty years ago, Niklas Luhmann argued that different communities and policy cultures develop their internal coherency through mutually exclusive languages. Such closed systems are signified by the spatial and textual absence of women, oceans, youth and the world’s poor from the dominant language of climate change. The test of COP21 in Paris will be whether it can reconcile multiple solitudes to include multiple marginalized people and places.

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