The Opportunity of Climate Change -
Yes, Of Course We Can

by Eileen Barker

When I arrived at COP15, the U.N. climate change conference, on the morning of December 7, 2010, Greenpeace volunteers were passing out hot coffee outside the Metro station, and people everywhere were chanting: “Seal the Deal.” There was no doubt this was a gathering of vast, historic proportions. Delegates attended from 193 countries as well as 133 heads of states. Thousands of civil society organizations, large and small, were in force as well. Avaaz.org, 350.org, Wildlife Federation, Save the Children, Global Witness, Oxfam and many other groups were there to raise awareness on climate change issues. Youth groups were strongly represented, claiming their right to a sustainable future. They brought their messages in side events, costumes, flash mobs, music and protests.

I attended COP15 as a delegate from Mediators Beyond Borders (MBB), an international group of mediators from over 20 countries. We were there to advocate for the use of mediation and other collaborative processes in climate change negotiations and disputes. We had the unique position, and advantage, of attending in a “neutral” capacity. Because we were not there to take sides in the negotiations or debates, we gained the trust of many delegates and were able to gain insight into the challenges they are facing.

Officially, COP15 is a large political meeting. The negotiations are highly structured and take place behind closed doors. It quickly became apparent to many of us that the formal negotiation process itself is more of a hindrance than a help. Given the adversarial and political framework in which the negotiations occurred, they were almost certain to result in impasse. As MBB President Kenneth Cloke wrote: "Large political meetings like this one are often arranged hierarchically, bureaucratically and autocratically (even when they adopt a formally democratic official language); around narrow, technical topics that make it difficult for anyone to have authentic, meaningful conversations; entirely in large groups that do not allow for honest inter-personal dialogue; based on formal, arcane procedures that tie conversations in knots; and are increasingly pointless, ineffective, and unnecessary."

Cloke has called COP15 the most important meeting in the history of the entire human race: “We have little time left to make a difference. On one hand, there is ample cause for hope. Never before have so many people around the world been mobilized so broadly, effectively, and passionately about this issue. On the other, we are confronted with outmoded problem solving styles, institutions and attitudes that are keeping us from moving forward. The choice is now ours. We can either join together to make a difference -- all of us, working together, and systematically transform these styles, institutions and attitudes -- or we will lose, and that is not an option you or I should be willing to accept.”

Debate will no doubt rage on as to whether the final Copenhagen Accords rendered COP15 a failure or a success.  However, there was much more occurring beyond the formal meetings and accords.  One of the most significant things occurring in Copenhagen was the gathering of individuals from all corners of the Earth coming together for a common purpose. Despite whatever differences they may have, the fact is over 45,000 people came to Copenhagen with a shared intention to create a sustainable future. And that was only for the official U.N. conference.

In addition to the events at Bella Center, there was a huge alternative conference, Klimaforum 2009 which adopted the motto “Hopenhagen” and was attended by thousands more. Throngs gathered as well at Christiania, a self-proclaimed sovereign village established by hippies in the early 70’s in the middle of Copenhagen.  There, banners affirmed simply and powerfully: “Yes, Of Course We Can.”

Over the weekend of the conference, 100,000 people gathered in the streets of Copenhagen in a candlelit vigil led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu demanding a “real deal.” Another 100,000 gathered in Australia and millions more across the world. To date, over 15 million people have logged onto “tcktcktck.org” to support the formation of a fair and binding climate treaty.

On a vast scale, people are connecting, human being to human being. In just one day, I spoke to delegates from China, Korea, Namibia, Cameroon, Kenya, Madagascar and The Gambia. Suddenly the climate issues have faces and names. The vulnerability of the small island states that could disappear in the next 20-30 years is no longer faceless and far away. The plight of West African countries is no longer impersonal and unknown. Everyone is finding their voice, often in coalitions, and groups are helping one another to build capacity and strategic alliances.

Climate change is one of the greatest challenges humans have ever faced. It is also a great opportunity. Climate change can divide us or unite us. The choice is ours. Like every conflict, this is a chance to grow, evolve and learn what we most need to learn:

• We must learn to solve disputes peacefully  To listen and respect the rights of all stakeholders. To communicate effectively, using the most constructive processes available for resolving differences.

• We must enlarge our thinking beyond interests defined solely by national identity.  The problem of climate change is global and will require a global consciousness to address it effectively.

• We must commit to finding solutions that are fair and leave no one behind. This requires us to address issues of accountability for those who contribute disproportionately to climate change, and consideration for those who are most vulnerable to the impact of climate change.

• We must realize the enormity of the issues and that there is no politician, corporation, world leader, nation or entity “out there” that will be able to resolve them. We all need to take responsibility for the problem, move beyond blame, and focus on finding solutions.

The good news is that we have the resources we need to address climate change.  One of our greatest resources is the ability for people around the world to communicate, to a degree unparalleled in history.  We have the means to get to know each other, understand one another’s needs, share information, build interdisciplinary teams and work together collaboratively.

The challenge is upon us. We have everything we need.  We have the power to come together quickly. We have the technology, the intelligence and creativity.  And, most importantly, we have the heart.  It is not too late to find a solution.  But neither is it a moment too soon.

Eileen Barker © 2006, all rights reserved.

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