COP24: A first-time attendee’s reflection
[This post is part of a series offered by IECA members attending COP24 in Katowice, Poland.]
I was told that COPs are overwhelming, and it certainly was. Previously, my main source of information about what is going on at these conferences was the news. As we are well aware from media framing theories, all representations champion selected aspects of an event while leaving out others, constructing a certain reality for the audience. As my co-participant for the 2nd week of the conference, Mira, posted earlier, there were a whole lot more activities going on besides the diplomats’ negotiations to which observers had almost no access. At any given time, there were multiple concurrent side events – panel presentations, press conferences, workshops and more. Most of these are open to everyone, but some were accessible by invitation. It was interesting to attend the COP and compare my experience to news media’s reports. I want to focus this reflection on the aspects of the conference that did not get widely reported in the news media. The news media understandably focus on the progress of the high-level negotiations that were stagnant throughout the conference. However, what’s left out of the reports are vibrant grassroots and non-governmental efforts to connect, collaborate, and share across the nations. A roundtable discussion on climate education I participated, for example, was facilitated by the Center for Environmental Education in India. Participants across the globe discussed challenges, resources and indicators of meaningful outcomes in promoting literacy and capacity to face climate change. I was able to learn from and share ideas with people from countries in Latin America, Africa, and Europe.
Another under-represented aspect of the conference is the presence of indigenous peoples. As I walked into the conference building on my second day, indigenous peoples from around the world were staging a demonstration with a banner declaring “Our rights are not up for negotiation.” The representative said, “we don’t want sympathy. We have thrived for millennia with our traditional knowledge. We have a lot to offer. Learn from us.” It was indeed this recognition of the value of indigenous traditional knowledge that led to the establishment of the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform (LCIPP) at COP21. LCIPP was created to recognize indigenous peoples as important actors in addressing climate change under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). At the end of the first week of COP24, a document to operationalize the role of ICIPP was developed. During the second week, Indigenous peoples were visible through the Talanoa Dialogue, an inclusive, participatory and transparent dialogue process adopted from Fiji. They shared their stories with diplomats who were also encouraged to share their personal stories related to climate change. As a Communication teacher-scholar, it was exciting to see dialogue being taken seriously at the conference. Yet, I am not clear how much indigenous peoples’ stories are taken into consideration at the highest level of negotiation. At the press conference by Brazilian indigenous groups, Sonia Guajajara, an activist and a vice-presidential candidate in the 2018 general election, shared the dire situations indigenous people are facing in Brazil due to deforestation and mining. This of course has been happening for decades, but the victory of Jair Bolsonaro (who already withdrew Brazil as the host of COP25), Guajajara said, is a huge set back to the country and to the indigenous people there. “The crime of ecocide must be recognized,” she said. At the same time, her plea was to everyone; we need to stop buying products made available as a result of the ecocide. (Four commodities that we use every day drive the ecocide of rainforests around the world – beef, soy, palm oil, and wood products). Although I knew about the plight of indigenous people in Brazil, it was powerful to hear from them. Seemingly innocuous choices we make as consumers everyday are directly tied to destructions elsewhere.
Finally, I should note the ironies around climate change conferences. Over 22,000 people participated in COP24 flying in from all over the world. And COP24 was largely sponsored by the fossil fuel companies in Poland, a country that relies on coals for 80% of its energy. The day after the conference concluded, I joined a tour to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau (a tour that deserves its own reflection elsewhere) from Krakow. The guide said at the end of the tour that the public transportations would be free for everyone in Krakow the next day because of the severe air pollution from burning coals. That prompted me to google pollutions in Poland. I learned that 33 of Europe’s 50 most polluted cities are in Poland, and some 50,000 people die due to air pollution in Poland. It was then I realized that the grey skies I saw everyday in Krakow and Katowice were not simply because it was winter; the skies were covered with killer smog. This was another moment of reflection for me; we are all so entangled in climate change. The responsibility to save us from us lies with everyone. It is truly time to listen to indigenous wisdom and the voice of the living, breathing Earth.