Mother Theresa never spoke my language. But Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who I just witnessed deliver the powerful opening remarks at Oxfam’s “First International Climate Hearing” is a man of faith whose charisma, intellect and passion I’ve always admired.
Tutu’s words, along with those of the “climate witnesses,” were the first strident calls to action I’ve heard here at the Bella Centre in Copenhagen. These were words spoken from a place of real suffering and real climate-related anguish. Contrasted with endless blathering about economic profit-driven strategies and gee-whiz green tech spoutings, they were words that recharged me, reminded me why I’m here. It was the human face of climate change that was missing in Copenhagen for me, until now.
The testimony of Cuyetano Huanca, an indigenous farmer who traveled to Copenhagen from Peru, makes it clear that he has a better understanding of both the daily reality and the global politics of climate change than do most North Americans:
“Our glaciers our melting. Our water is diminishing. Our crops do not grow. The food for our children diminishes. We indigenous people shall not pay the consequences. Are we guilty? We beg the responsible, industrialized nations to commit to reduce your emissions at a minimum of forty percent by 2020. We don’t want to see what happened with the Kyoto Protocol. We will keep speaking until we see real change. Our voice is the voice of the earth.”
That’s some plain talk, folks. And somehow the delegates aren’t getting it.
Shorbanu Khatun, a cyclone Aila survivor from Bangladesh related that her husband, forced to forage away from home for food, was eaten by a tiger. Her husband was eaten by a tiger.
These people and their stories of catastrophe, death and survival are beyond sad, beyond imagining by most of us in more privileged circumstances. I sit in front of a laptop in a city of plenty. My bags are filled with cameras and computer equipment the price of which, to the best of my calculations, would feed, shelter and educate thirty-two Ugandans for a year. I feel like an asshole. I feel like I shouldn’t be here, that none of us should be. . .that there should be 200,000 Cuyetano Huanca’s and Shorbana Khatun’s in Copenhagen, not 25,000 NGO reps and media reps. It’s a bit of a disgrace, and a reminder of our hubris, to think we represent the interests of the people most hurt by overconsumption (btw – this should not be a ‘climate conference’ but a ‘capitalism/ overconsumption conference—we should be focusing on the cause, not the effect).
The people these witnesses represent, and their misery, are very real. Every single day they wake and fight against climate-induced conditions. No respite. No day off. No evening at the bar with colleagues to discuss politically acceptable action around which to wrap ‘appropriate messaging strategies’. The nations of the G77 are begging the wealthy nations for help. They ask us to do something. Anything.
I can only speak for my country, the United States, which to date has pledged to do a whole lot of nothing. We have a President without a serious climate team. We have a Congress and Senate unwilling to tackle the issue. And we have a population who rates climate issues as the #21 priority behind, well, just about everything.
In a bar last night, a local Dane put it to me like this. “You Americans don’t feel morally responsible for your consumption habits. You do not connect your plastic gadgets with the pain they cause.” I agree with him, but add that far too many all over the world fail to make hyper-consumption a moral issue.
Constance Okollet, a farmer from Uganda whose village was laid waste by starvation and diseases following unprecedented drought and flooding two years ago, testified, “Your companies have mined our lands and polluted the atmosphere. Because of climate change…we have no seasons any longer. No harvest. We don’t know when to plant or when to harvest. We don’t know when to eat, because you can’t eat air. We ask for what is fair.” And she’s right to ask. Who among those with God in their hearts feels she isn’t?