At the moment I’m sitting on a fourteen hour flight, the last leg of my journey home. My round-trip flight from London (where I live and work) emitted about 3 tons of carbon dioxide. When I started a Facebook group to support youth activism at the Bali conference, one of the first comments I got was “Isn’t it ironic that you’re all flying to Bali for a climate change conference? You’re better off spending all that money on local climate change efforts at home.” It echoed a sentiment I had heard from a number of people, including my own partner. I wasn’t the only one going, of course; I was part of a delegation of 22 young Americans and approximately 150 people under the age of 26 attending the conference. I fully recognize that flying halfway across the world and staying in a big, air-conditioned hotel is hardly the most obvious way of living out my principles. So what possessed me to go? And what did I do when I got there to justify the expense and the emissions?
Although Bali is a fine slice of tropical paradise, I didn’t exactly get a beach vacation. I spent most of my time sitting on the floor underneath the conference center’s rear stairwell, which the youth delegates had informally occupied as our ‘bunker’. I started every day with a 7:30 meeting and usually finished the day around 10:00, after strategizing with other countries’ youth delegations, blogging back to supporters at home, lobbying country delegates, organizing actions such as handing out ‘climate emergency kits’, putting on press conferences, following negotiations, and constantly running back and forth between two conference venues which were about a mile apart. I began by optimistically bringing my swimsuit along with my laptop, but by the third day of negotiations I realized that I was only rarely going to see the clear blue Balinese ocean. There was simply too much work to be done. As an American, I represented the country Al Gore referred to as “the single biggest obstacle to progress in these climate change negotiations.” Growing up in the richest country in the world, I have benefited from the carbon emissions generated by our industrial development; I am already richer than the vast majority of people in the world. Nonetheless it is the poor and vulnerable, particularly in developing countries, who will suffer most from climate change. I can’t understand how the current administration can reconcile this injustice – and their criminal inaction – with their purported Christianity and ‘compassion’. The official delegation continued to obstruct the process at nearly every turn. This included key agreements to foster the sharing of clean technologies, which will help countries like China and India develop without endangering our future. As the talks dragged into an unexpected extra day of negotiations, I was sure that my country would cause the summit to collapse, wasting even more time as we creep ever closer to catastrophe.
Yet even the State Department couldn’t handle the pressure after being booed by 189 countries. “Please, get out of the way,” pleaded Papua New Guinea, a small island nation which stands to be washed away by sea level rise. And, astonishingly, they did. They were greeted by cheers of, if not approbation, at least relief. The youth contingent, which had earlier moved delegates to tears with a plenary address begging for action, were nearing tears themselves. This is not to say the outlook is rosy. The US government is already contesting the Bali roadmap, expressing “serious reservations” and returning once again to China and India, the red herrings of US climate change policy. The administration didn’t so much turn around as gingerly step to one side, carping and bitching as the world stampedes past toward a binding international agreement which might, hopefully, save us from the world’s largest climactic mess. But that’s enough for me right now. November 4, 2008 gets closer every day.
So, was it worth it? Did I earn my 3 tons of carbon dioxide? The problem with work like this – which is, essentially, simply a form of high-level nagging – is that you can never really tell what you’ve achieved. You can count your blog posts, or the number of hours you’ve spent watching ministers talk, or the number of times that one Reuters photograph of you in a reindeer suit has circled the globe. But it’s never just you; in the case of this summit I was surrounded and supported by scores of the most amazing, passionate, intelligent people I have ever met. And we’re all working together, not just in Bali but in our own countries, all over the world, to ensure strong, decisive action to protect our future. The agreement in Bali sets the stage for the global solution to the climate crisis, which is a pretty big prize to keep our eye on. We have at least two more years of work to hammer out a new agreement, and then we may spend our lifetimes developing it, protecting it, and implementing it in our own communities. It’s going to be a lot of work, but as my friend Karmila said, addressing ministers from all over the world: “The world is watching. The youth are rising. Join us.”