Matt and Ashley write about their experiences as part of the youth contingent of the Copenhagen negotiations on climate change, or COP-15.
The second week of COP-15 was one of highs and lows from all angles. Negotiations sped up, then hit roadblocks, and ultimately resulted in a weak agreement. Poor conference organization left thousands of people stranded in the cold who had hoped to take part in negotiations. As we sum up our experiences of week two at COP-15, we hoped to be reporting that a strong international agreement had been reached with binding targets. There are certainly positives to be taken from the end result of the conference, such as the participation of India and China in the final Copenhagen Accord: while the agreement is vague and is not legally binding, the framework for further negotiations has been set and includes the countries that will soon be the largest emitters of greenhouse gases.
Our own personal journey featured its own ups and downs as well. We arrived in Copenhagen to find we were locked out of the conference as the amount of United Nations invitations far exceeded the capacity allowed in the Bella Center conference hall. It was a fate shared by many at all levels of importance, as we met one of Bangladesh’s top climate scientists, Atiq Rahman, who expressed frustration at the lack of organization: “There has been huge process failure in the management of [entrance]. If someone is registered then they have a right to come in.” The latter half of the week found us in the midst of the action including getting inside perspective from U.S. Senator John Kerry, former Prime Minister Paul Martin, Liberal environment critic David McGuinty, New Democratic leader Jack Layton, and top climate scientists from the global south, among others.
Our goals going in as delegates were to educate ourselves on the latest science and technology surrounding climate change and sustainable energy; to information the public that despite the actions of our government Canadians care about climate change; and to push for a legally binding international agreement to combat climate change. We paid close attention to what was going on in the plenary and attempted to structure our work around the main themes.
Perhaps the most dominant theme in the early parts of the negotiations had been the rift between the developed and developing nations. Views ranged from fears of large-scale global wealth transfer to ideas that the developing world is owed an enormous sum of money by the developed world as reparation for causing the climate crisis. We made it part of our mission to talk to the representatives from the developing world and exchange ideas. We were surprised to see how many of the representatives had knowledge of Canada’s reluctance to participate in a constructive way and had strong criticism of our country. Speaking as a global citizen, Wahu Kaara of Kenya warned that “the Canadian people must wake up and say no to the kind of pollution and the kind of mismanagement of the oil [sands] in Alberta.” We learned from spokespeople across Africa and the global south that climate change is no longer a future threat and that everything from drought to flooding to food shortages are already happening as a result of unrestricted emissions by the Western world. Mr. Rahman of Bangladesh echoed these sentiments saying, “Canada should wake up.” It is clear that Canada’s inaction has not gone unnoticed by the international community.
The frustrations with the Canadian government of course did not stop with the international community, as two of Canada’s main opposition parties sat down with us to outline their thoughts on the government’s position and what they would do differently. The Liberal environmental critic David McGuinty expressed frustration in the government’s lack of preparation for the conference. According to McGuinty, “the United States is moving forward, and they are already extremely well prepared for this conference… The Waxman-Markey Bill is 1,428 pages long. While we came here and we essentially have a blank page.” The Liberals were not alone in this type of critique, as NDP leader Jack Layton and his wife and fellow MP Olivia Chow noted, “we’re here to make sure that the people at this conference have the opportunity to know that the majority of Canadians have a view rather different than the one expressed by our Prime Minister.” Both parties agree on the lack of leadership on the climate file and urge the current government to make stronger commitments.
Perhaps the most talked about topic of the entire two weeks was the action of the United States and the anticipated arrival of President Barack Obama. Mr. Obama’s announcement of attendance reignited hope that something significant would come out of the conference and also convinced other world leaders to attend the conference, including Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper. We were also extremely interested in what was going on with the United States due to our Environment Minister Jim Prentice essentially stating that Canada will wait to follow the U.S. lead on climate change action. We lined up early for a chance to listen to and meet Senator John Kerry, who most in Canada will remember for his unsuccessful presidential bid against George W. Bush in 2004. Mr. Kerry was extremely optimistic that meaningful climate legislation would make it through the U.S. Senate in 2010 and that targets would not only be met but exceeded. “Once countries get started, I think they will find it is much easier than they think to meet and even to exceed their targets,” said Kerry. While a deal coming from Copenhagen was thought to be of extreme importance, particularly from the perspective of China and India, there appeared to be a very positive feeling in the speech that things were about to happen. Mr. Obama did in fact take initiative engaging in talks with both countries to achieve a framework for future discussions.
Ultimately, this agreement falls well short of what we had hoped for – one that is legally binding. However, we applaud Mr. Obama for his efforts, leaving us to question our own government’s inaction. Looking forward to COP-16 in Mexico City and beyond we feel encouraged by signs that the developing world is ready to act. Our concern now is that the clock is ticking, and the window of opportunity is slowly shrinking. Climate change won’t slow down to make time for further negotiations.
Ashley Bigda is a recent graduate from the University of Toronto – St.George with an Honors B.A. in Political Science and Environmental Policy and Practice. Her love and passion for both politics and the environment began at an early age and led her to join the Liberal Party of Canada where she has actively been involved for the last few years. Currently she is working for the Halton Federal Liberal Association as Candidates Aide, Youth Committee Outreach Co-Chair and Social Media adviser to Halton Liberal Candidate Deborah Gillis.
Matt Juniper is a recent graduate from Ryerson University with an Honors B.A. in Communications/Public Relations and Psychology. Matt has been a Liberal Party member for over two years but his interests and passion for politics has grown immensely since the election of Stephen Harper. He is also currently working for the Halton Federal Liberal Association as Candidates Aide, Youth Committee Outreach Co-Chair and Social Media Advisor to Halton Liberal Candidate Deborah Gillis.