Whalesong for climate action

Anna Palliser's picture

[This post is part of a series offered by IECA members attending COP24 in Katowice, Poland.]

If ever there was a time to trespass beyond the conventional boundaries of what is said and not said in the different arenas of our lives, it is now. In the first couple of days of COP 24, representatives of the UN and of the World Bank, along with Sir David Attenborough, urged the parties (the representatives of governments from around the world) to act decisively, to be brave and uncompromising in making the changes that are needed, within the brief 12-year window given to us by the latest IPCC report. One week later and forward movement at the conference has been halted by four oil-producing nations refusing to “welcome” the IPCC report, in this way preventing the consensus that would lead to a full embrace of the action it calls for [1]. At the same time, the US is permitted to extol the virtues of coal, and gas within the conference venue [2]. It seemed to me, while I was at COP 24 for week one, that there are elephants in some of these conference rooms that are the size of blue whales.

In my country, Aotearoa, New Zealand, when the first Pakeha (non-Māori) came to our shores in the 1800s, there were such huge numbers of whales in our harbours that their whalesong deafened us. We didn’t know it then, but the faeces of these whales fertilized our oceans, underpinning a food chain of huge abundance, an abundance that has now vanished. Wandering the endless walkways between meetings at COP 24, grumpy from a combination of jet lag, age, and the two-hour journey from my accommodation to the COP venue, I began wondering about the time when they stopped hunting the whales. Who stopped first? Did someone think that it would be better to stop before all the whales were all gone? Did someone else think they wouldn’t stop until everyone else had stopped in case they missed a final profit? They didn’t stop before the damage was done, no-one now alive has heard the whalesong in our harbors, but then they didn’t know the damage they were causing.

While at COP, I became deafened by the sounds that were absent, by the words I was not hearing, words that surely should be spoken now in this place, at this time. I heard that governments are lagging behind the private sector and civilians in climate action, however the reasons for this were not discussed at meetings of the parties, where discussing corporate power and the ways this limits effective climate action at the governmental level, appears taboo and comprises my first blue whale. Naomi Klein [3] discusses the bad timing of climate change, saying at the very time that we most need government regulation to control corporate behavior, corporate power is at its strongest and regulation has become a dirty word, certainly it seems too dirty to mention here in the high-level meetings where delegates cluster.

Fossil fuel subsidies and the financing of fossil fuel power plants comprise my second blue whale, again seemingly unmentionable at high level events. A COP press release from Urgewald NGO on Wednesday 5th December [4] said global coal capacity was set to increase by 33% with new coal-fired power plants being planned and financed around the world. Yet none of the speakers urging the parties to act bravely at the beginning of the conference named this shame. Instead delegates hide such secrets under their overcoats, undiscussed, as though they were too dirty to mention inside the glitzy halls of the conference venue.

Finally, my blue whale of climate communication, a whale close to my heart of course, due to my IECA membership. Two silences struck me in the first few days of the conference. The first was the showcasing of Greta Thunberg, the fifteen-year-old Swedish schoolgirl whose school strike action for climate change has resonated across the planet [5]. Lovely to highlight strong action on behalf of the climate but I was shocked to find no mention about Extinction Rebellion, the large direct-action protests that have been closing central London roads to traffic over the last few weeks [6]. These huge groups of people undertaking actions of civil disobedience to highlight the lack of governmental action on climate change surely deserve a mention at a conference whose sole purpose is to urge nations to stop damaging the climate. The second silence was at a COP workshop on climate communication on 4th December. Here we discussed how to effectively communicate about climate change via the media, via poetry and to our hairdressers. A range of ideas and associated research was discussed, but what was missing again for me was communication about civil disobedience. The workshop discussed research that showed a high percentage of ordinary people were worried about climate change and thought it was caused by humans. If that is the case then rather than information about climate change, maybe people need information about how to mobilise effective pressure groups, about their legal rights if they do this, about how to express key messages through civil disobedience.

In my opinion it is time to stop tweaking at the edges of business-as-usual discourses, time to embrace new discourses in old arenas, time to stop the double-speak of tokenistic gestures while working to maintain high profits whatever the cost. Also, time to accept that climate action communication requires communication for motivating acts of civil disobedience while our governments remain in thrall to industries determined to limit effective action. During these final twelve years, isn’t it time for these three blue whales to swim freely throughout all the meetings in all the rooms of the COP conferences? Isn’t it time for clouds of their whalepoo to be freely emitted, undoubtedly creating murky and disturbing waters, but also the fertilization of new diversity, new potential for effective change? 

[1] : https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/dec/09/us-russia-ally-saudi-arabia-water-down-climate-pledges-un

[2] : https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/cop24-us-fossil-fuel-event-trump-climate-change-global-warming-coal-poland-katowice-a8676126.html

[3] : https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/apr/23/climate-change-fight-of-our-lives-naomi-klein

[4] : https://coalexit.org/sites/default/files/download_public/Urgewald%20Press%20Release%20-%20Coal%20Plant%20Developers%20-%2010-04-2018_final2.pdf

[5] : https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/sep/01/swedish-15-year-old-cutting-class-to-fight-the-climate-crisis

[6] : https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/10/extinction-rebellion-goes-global-international-civil-disobedience-climate-talks-poland

About the Author: 

Dr Anna Palliser is a lecturer in environmental management at Southern Institute of Technology, Invercargill, New Zealand. She has attended the last two COPs in Bonn 2017 and Poland 2018 as an observer for IECA.