As the crowd of bright colours, beautiful banners, addictive drumming and determined expressions drives us all forward in to this smokey congested city, I realise how lucky I am to be part of something that is all at once nurturing, terrifying, fulfilling, unfathomable, inspiring and exhausting….
I have never been on such a positive, engaged and passionate march in my life. And to think that people doubted the urgency, the vibrancy, the presence of a strong and vital climate movement here in one of the world´s most polluted cities.
Lima. You have a fire in you that the world underestimated.
A couple of months have passed now, and as the circus finally disperses – the suits and suitcases pack themselves off to the four corners of the planet; the fighters from Amazonia, the Philippines and the Canadian First Nations re-join their communities to continue the hard work of survival – a clearer picture starts to emerge about what really happened here in Lima during the 20th meeting of the UN climate talks (COP20).
A bit of back-story
Born on this very same continent in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) aims to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”
Put simply, 196 governments – alongside civil society, media, business and researchers – come together in a series of global meetings every year to try to agree on: A) who will cut their emissions to greater or lesser extents; B) who will provide funding and new technology for adaptation to climate change; and C) who will pay for the damages already caused by increasing prevalence of climate-related disasters.
All of which normally ends up in a series of arguments about who is responsible for this great big mess in the first place.
These negotiations are as advanced the world has come in addressing an issue as big and complex as climate change, and – unsurprisingly – it is taking it’s sweet time in getting us to where we need to be. Where science now irrefutably tells us that we need to be.
It is really quite simple: if you put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the planet inevitably warms, and as the planet warms, various kinds of chaos and ruin are inevitably let loose.
Politics, on the other hand, is not inevitable.
And this is where we – young people and the UN – come in.
The role of young people
Young people have played an official role in the UN climate talks since our constituency – YOUNGO – was created in 2008. But our voices stretch back more than a decade. Voices on the side of science, justice, future generations, and the fighters who are already feeling the sharp bite of climate change across the world.
And in Lima we carried our voices once again in all their brightest colours. Painting, marching, teaching, debating, lobbying, tweeting, dancing, writing, crying, singing. From participating in a giant photo stunt to highlight the plight of the Amazon, to peddling through the dense congestion of Lima to reclaim those smoke-clogged streets. As the negotiations drew towards their final moments the streets filled with 15,000 people – young old local international artists unionists teachers feminists – and you could not move for all the beautiful banners, fiery samba troupes, and contagious protest songs for land and water.
Young people worked together with indigenous communities, organisations, local activists and artists from all over the world to put pressure on the negotiations to deliver, and to celebrate and support the growth of the Latin American climate movement.
But perhaps the most beautiful and powerful of all our actions was the creation of the CasActiva, a space hosted by organisation Tierra Activa Peru and Bolivia for people to come and work together. To eat together. To debate, plan actions, make art and share our solutions together. Risen from the dust and debris of a soon-to-be-demolished sprawling old property, electrified with endless activity, the house produced its own radio station, screen-printing room, conscious food kitchen, art studio, composting site, bike workshop, programme of events and ceremonial space. La Casa became the lived-practice of the alternative, sustainable world that we are all working towards.
The road ahead
And yet despite the force of our voices, the strength of our actions, the power of our community, the climate talks left us with little to smile for. Emissions targets were weak. Rich nations wouldn’t discuss transferring technology to help with adaptation, and fought to use climate funds to make our planet even less hospitable with even more coal plants. Carbon traders and petrol states pushed hard for false solutions like carbon capture and storage.
The sky looked bleak from the roof of the CasActiva.
And so as 2015 opens her eyes wide to face the gigantic task of reaching a fair, ambitious and legally-binding agreement at COP21 in Paris (not to mention the global effort to create a new set of global development goals), we know that we have all got some choices on our hands.
On the one hand we have the UN. The failures and the successes. Incremental as they are.
As Collin from the SustainUS youth delegation reminded me, “we didn’t get what we wanted, and we never will through the UNFCCC process, but it would be a hell of a lot worse if we weren’t here at all.” The absence of critical voices would leave a vacuum in which governments could avoid action with impunity, and allow corporate influence to continue unchallenged. By participating, we also have the power and the duty to carry the voices of those who are denied access, those who are already fighting on the front lines of climate impacts.
And on the other hand, there is us. Our communities. Our homes. Our environment. Our lives.
Outside the endless dull grey corridors of the UN, our world is bursting with solutions. So, in 2015 let’s bring our voices to the UN once again for the big Paris showdown, but let’s make sure that they carry the knowledge that the UN can only ever get us so far in this fight, that we have a LOT more work to do at home, in our local communities. From building community wind turbines, to developing new environmental curricula. Constructing new bicycle lanes, to growing our food locally. Inventing new zero-emissions housing, to training more environmental lawyers. Resisting new coal power plants, to lobbying for lower emissions. Switching our banks away from fossil-fuel investors, to making the connections between the environment, food, inequality, women’s rights and poverty.
Because as Natalie from the New Zealand Youth Delegation wisely put it – “we are not going to have the same kind of lives as our parents, as much as some of us may want that life. And if we choose to accept it, this can liberate us. We don’t have to follow predetermined pathways. We can live the kind of lives that we want to lead.”
Something strong, fragile but lasting remains here in Lima. Something that will live long after the protest banners are re-purposed and walls of the CasActiva are replaced by shiny new apartment buildings. A community of climate fighters that have re-inforced their ties, re-sserted their local people-powered solutions, and re-invented the story of our future.