I am writing in the midst of a dramatic shift in global climate policy. The official President’s Summary of COP-14 bears witness to this shift and signals the guiding principle of a just and equitable post-2012 climate agreement next year in Copenhagen. And this outcome is due in large part to the work of young people. Over the past 48 hours, youth from around the world have been instrumental in changing the terms of the debate around climate change by refocusing the international community around a unifying concept:
Survival strikes to the very core of humanity. It is the most basic and powerful of all human needs, a precondition for literally any further evaluation in anthropocentric terms. And, perhaps because it is the foundation upon which any debate around climate can occur, it has been entirely left out of the discussion.
In the last few days international youth have gotten over 80 countries have signed a pledge promising to “safeguard the survival of all countries and peoples.” The United States was notably absent from industrialized countries signing on.
In turning discount rates upon their head, Sir Nicolas Stern’s findings on the economic necessity of drastic action on behalf of the climate pointed out the inadequacy of traditional concepts to negotiate the importance of survival. But the humanistic simplicity of his assertion is lost in its translation into economic concepts. Economics lacks the moral clarity of those in the direst vulnerability from climatic crisis.
But the Alliance of Small Island States is not so privileged to think in the abstract. Rising sea-levels threaten to literally wipe low-lying countries off the face of the earth. A global climate deal is about survival for these countries. AOSIS came out strong at the beginning of these proceedings by taking countries to task for hedging on the very existence of countries. The International Youth Delegation, a group of 500+ young people from 50+ countries, heard in this dramatic language the essence of our call for action that safeguards our future taking place in a world worth inheriting. In an unprecedented effort, we did something that our leaders have failed to do: We came together to ensure that the guiding principle for Copenhagen meets the basic bar of humanity.
This principle, if manifest, has serious real-world implications. Let me be clear — survival is a radical departure from business as usual. We are currently on a path to global ruin from a destabilized climate. Even the wealthiest countries will feel the force of climate change within our century without a peak and decline in global emissions in the next few years. But safeguarding the survival of the most vulnerable — that is a tall order. Tuvalu, a small island state in the Pacific, is decades away from ceasing to exist. Poor people and others on the margins of society in countries around the world are in peril from climate change now, not at some distant point in the future.
Inclusion of this language in the Copenhagen vision was so critically strategic because in order to actually follow through with it, deep emissions cuts by industrialized countries would be necessary in the immediate future. According to the scientific consensus emerging in response to key indicators that we are nearing a climatic point-of-no-return, we need to stabilize atmospheric CO2 below 350 ppm. Even at 450 ppm, the mid-level projection in the latest IPCC report, we would need large-scale action now. By signing on to safeguard the survival of the world’s vulnerable people, world leaders have endorsed a loaded goal with serious implications.
Realizing the opportunity to frame the discussion around Copenhagen (and beyond) in the universal call for survival, the youth took action. We embarked upon a simple effort — to get every country to acknowledge that the next global climate agreement has to safeguard the survival of all countries and peoples, and to pledge their delegation to uphold that vision. In less than two days, youth secured signatures from over 80 countries out of 193 present. More procedurally important than widespread support, was the explicit inclusion of the principle by key speakers in the “informal ministerial round-table” plenary. We systematically set out to achieve the inclusion of our principle in the speeches of countries in high risk and high emission. And we were successful. Countries like Sweden and Uganda displayed “Survival.” placards when speaking and Norway, Australia, and Grenada included our text in their speeches.
In short, we organized on the international stage and won! One of the many lessons to take from this feat is that this grassroots model can work at the U.N., something to keep in mind over the next year in planning the lead-up to Copenhagen.
Including this language in the official COP summary was a tremendous victory, but guaranteeing that the language receives the weight it deserves is a new challenge. We need to elevate these particular words as one of the main accomplishments to come from Poznan. And while giving the survival principle its due weight is one challenge, defending its integrity is an even taller order. Italy exemplifies this challenge. On Thursday morning their delegates in Poznan pledged to an agreement that safeguards survival for all countries and peoples. On Thursday afternoon, their Prime Minister pledged to veto the E.U. domestic climate package because it would set the E.U. on the path to following through on that commitment. Empty words from Italy.
The next high-priority country to watch is Australia. Environment Minister Penny Wong quoted verbatim the IYD vision statement as the closing words of her round-table speech after a constructive dialogue with the Australian youth delegates. This statement was received with great enthusiasm amongst the IYD, as it indicates a willingness to follow through with the promise initiated by the election of new PM Rudd to take bold action on climate change. When Rudd announces domestic carbon targets and timelines on Monday (conspicuously after the session in which they could be most useful on the international stage) we will see whether Australia intends to follow Italy’s lead in sabotaging global action while making progressive statements or whether they will take the moral and economic high-road.
If the survival principle is to govern our shared future, we need the grassroots from every corner of the world. We need to ask ourselves as individuals if our actions are safeguarding the survival of the world’s most vulnerable people and force our countries to grapple with the same question. And then we need action, not just words.