If not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here, then where?’
These were the questions put to a filled Warsaw conference hall by a man whose eyes were bright with anger. It was at the 19th conference of the parties (COP) to the UN Convention on Climate Change, the man’s name Yeb Sano, and he was speaking as the chief climate negotiator for the Philippines. As the negotiators had gathered and prevaricated in Poland, his family, friends and countrymen were searching for the thousands missing and dead amongst the devastation left by super typhoon Haiyan.
As emotions filled his eyes and thickened his voice, he continued, ‘What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness. The climate crisis is madness... we can stop this madness right here in Warsaw’.
Yeb had asked those same simple questions at the COP preceding Warsaw, and doubtless anticipated being at the subsequent meeting. However, as negotiators gathered in Peru for the 20th conference and yet another typhoon made lethal landfall in the Philippines, Yeb did not appear. He had, it seems, been replaced as chief negotiator because of pressure exerted by the USA and EU.
A climate negotiator denied a seat at the table because he demanded real action. A man from a developing country who defied the odds and structure of these COPs, to make his voice heard, prevented from even taking his seat. This within a structure which allows the rich and powerful nations to decide the outcomes in unofficial secret talks, and where the influence of the fossil fuel industry and corporate lobbyists is ingrained, literally and figuratively as part of the furniture, as the exhausted negotiators sprawled on the infamous Emirates Airlines beanbags in Warsaw could almost comically attest. A system where the smaller delegations are overwhelmed by the multitude of meetings in the official negotiation process. A process where the direction is backwards, away from states taking responsibility for the damage they have caused and towards blaming the lack of action from poorer states for the lack of action from the rich.
The USA and EU cannot be said to be participating in the international climate process in good faith, if they are prepared to pressurise the Philippines to exclude their chief climate negotiator, because he called for action, rather than further prevarication and procrastination.
As no credibility can be attached to such a negotiation process, and with the 21st COP meeting in Paris in December this year, we need to hold a spotlight to the international climate negotiations, show the corruption at its heart, stand with those most affected, and call for real action.
But we also need to make that step change to a low carbon world, and we need to organise and make it happen. Because really, neither the market nor the climate negotiators in Paris are going to do it. We need to get beyond turning off lights and recycling and ask the real questions on what we need to do here in the UK.
How do we run our energy sector so that we can plan strategically for the future and provide the energy we need at reasonable prices? Do we need to renationalise our utilities and railways? How do we divest from fossil fuel companies, whose business plans take the climate over the edge, and who fund climate change misinformation? How do we make our pension funds support long term sustainable development instead of speeding us towards that edge? How do we reduce the impact of our food systems, but still produce enough? Do we slash emissions and future-proof our homes with mass, street by street, energy efficiency programmes? Creating in the process real jobs, warmer homes, and healthier people? Can we use green quantitative easing to fund improvements in every street and every home? Would this stimulate the real economy enough, improve wellbeing and make that step change to a low carbon world possible?
We ‘saved’ the bankers, temporarily at least, from themselves so surely we can also mobilise real resources to save the world from climate chaos, and build a sane future. I think we can do it, but we need to drop the expectation of leadership from a Byzantine international negotiating process, which as it enters its third decade, has been hijacked by lobbyists, is mired in short term self interest, and where the attendance of eloquent and effective negotiators calling for real action is not required.