2018 was a year of climate records. The fourth warmest year since the beginning of the industrial revolution, it featured intense drought and wildfires in western North America, a devastating hurricane season in the Southeast, unprecedented flooding in southern Asia, and continued loss of Arctic sea ice. It was also the year that the U.N. International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that humanity had twelve years to stave off global climate catastrophe.
Katowice, Poland, in the depths of winter, was probably one of the most unlikely settings to discuss these problems. Katowice lies in the heart of Eastern Europe’s coal country. As the host of “COP24” (the 24th “Conference of the Parties” to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) Poland chose the byline for this conference, “changing together,” which was something that would not come easily.
During the conference, Polish officials actually argued for continuing fossil fuel development, even while also promoting ideas to tackle climate chaos. Like an increasing number of countries, Poland’s government has been flirting with populist nationalism, which places a strong emphasis on national access to material resources. While some attendees at the conference claimed that Katowice was the worst possible venue for the talks, others of us felt that the venue characterized many of the obstacles we face globally, as we work to make necessary changes.
28,000 delegates, observers, and officials gathered at the conference to participate in negotiations, organizational meetings, demonstrations, exhibit presentations, panel discussions, and press conferences. As observers with the delegation from Quaker Earthcare Witness, we often found ourselves talking to participants from across the globe. Learning from this rich and complicated mix of presentations was like drinking from a firehose.
When people learned we were from the U.S., they often asked with curiosity what it was like for us to be at the conference. We told them that, while we find it difficult, exhausting, and depressing that the U.S. has no national leadership concerning climate change, we also feel encouraged and impressed by the energy and creativity of people working at the local level, like many we were meeting at conference.
Among the people we met were a great number of young people. It was instructive to be in a place where we were in the minority as “grey hairs”; the median age seeming to be around 30 or 40. One of the youngest we met, Greta Thunberg, is a 16-year-old Swede who started student strikes all over Europe. She spoke to the assembled delegates, reminding us that young people’s entire futures are jeopardized by the global climate crisis – and by governments’ inaction. She offered these words of advice: “[W]ithout hope, you have nothing. When you feel hopeless, you must get busy working on the problem. When you work toward a solution, you become hopeful.” Meeting with young people at COP24 reminded us that we cannot look into our grandchildren’s eyes without being very afraid for them. But we were also reminded that we have a duty to support young people with our compassion, our creativity, and our commitment, no matter how small and apparently futile our efforts may seem to be.
In contrast to moments of inspiration like these, we also learned about the complications involved in making the transition away from an economy based on fossil fuels and escalating consumption, towards an economy based on renewable energy, resource efficiency, and environmental justice. Discussions about making the necessary transitions were frequently complicated by situations like Bangladesh, where petroleum companies are providing much-needed local employment through the expansion of their operations, even though this further endangers the area’s environmental survival.
Similarly, the difficult political and economic dilemmas confronted in Katowic highlighted the need to focus our efforts for change on the people who are getting hurt and on ways to support all the people – those who are directly suffering from climate change as well as the workers who depend on fossil fuels to put bread on the table.
One irony underlying the placement of COP24 in Katowic was that the local arrangements were largely funded by Polish coal producers. This, and other examples of excessive influence of the planet’s wealthiest energy companies on the U.N. climate conference, caused a number of activists to claim that the entire U.N. climate negotiations had been corrupted beyond redemption. However, that judgment may have been premature. Even though many of these companies seem intent on pursuing short-term profits regardless of long-range environmental and cultural damage, many also possess the massive technical expertise and infrastructure that will be critical in moving us back from a climatic precipice. How to bring these enterprises to the table without letting them own the table was a critical question considered at Katowice.
While we heard much about climate-related human suffering, we also saw a great many examples of human ingenuity in response to climate chaos. In some areas, like drowning Bangladesh, people were developing floating gardens. In Kenya, agriculturalists were developing informational matrices, dividing very specific geographic regions into seven different seasonal times, to help farmers decide what to plant and when. These examples of local wisdom derived from local historical experiences were demonstrations of appropriate technology at its best.
We attended a side event that linked climate crises to migration of whole communities. It’s important to remember that, generally speaking, no one wants to migrate. When communities migrate, it is out of necessity. Hunger, drought, and flooding, often brought on by climate change, and the accompanying wars, are common instigators. It is clear that we must address the causes of immigration, not just the impact of immigration.
As representatives of Quaker Earthcare Witness, we were embraced by a globally ecumenical community, including Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and Christians of all stripes – from Unitarian Universalists to evangelicals. We attended a wonderful panel organized by a Quaker from Germany, Lindsey Fielder Cook. The topic was climate justice, and a big concept explored was that the most vulnerable are the most at risk. At another ecumenical event, an official negotiator told us emphatically that the negotiators need the presence of the faith community at these conferences – to serve as a moral compass to counter the hyper-focus on economic and political issues. The longer we were there, the more we realized how comprehensive the talks were, and really how accessible, even to us.
At COP24, it became clear that many nations, including the U.S., seem to be distracted from this existential threat and are focusing instead on political and economic wrangling. In fact, the citizens of all nations have a need and a right to a healthy world. Now it is the time to listen to our better angels as communities, countries, and as a world – before it is too late. Attending the COP24 conference, we felt awash in history, watching from the fringes of a difficult and complex time. The time of climate chaos is just beginning. ~~~
Frank and Annette are both members of Multnomah Monthly Meeting (NPYM), grandparents, concerned citizens from Portland, Oregon, and were part of the Quaker Earthcare Witness delegation to COP24 in Katowice, Poland.
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