December 14, 2011

Why I Stood Up and Spoke Out

"I am speaking on behalf of the United States of America because my negotiators cannot. The obstructionist Congress has shackled justice and delayed ambition for far too long. I am scared for my future. We need an urgent path to a fair, ambitious, and legally binding treaty. You must take responsibility to act now, or you will threaten the lives of youth and the world's most vulnerable. You must set aside partisan politics and let science dictate decisions. You must pledge ambitious targets to lower emissions, not expectations. 2020 is too late to wait."

With these words, scrawled on a piece of notebook paper trembling between my fingers, I stood up and interrupted the lead US negotiator at the UN climate change talks, Todd Stern.

As I spoke, Mohammad Al-Sabban- the senior economic advisor to Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources- who was presiding over the session, rebuked, “No one is listening to you.”

But what came next, remarkably, was that people listened.

A crowd of negotiators from 194 countries, civil society observers, and press answered my bold call with a standing ovation as I was escorted out of the building.

The applause visibly rattled the normally poker-faced US lead negotiator. Forced to publicly deny accusations of US obstructionism, Stern instantly moved up his press conference, originally scheduled to start hours later. In his opening remarks he directly responded to “a misconception running around and kind of gaining currency… suggest[ing] that the US is proposing that we delay action until 2020.” Stern stated, "I've heard this from everywhere from ministers to press reports to the very sincere and passionate young woman who was in the hall when I was giving my remarks.”

The pressure seemed to have an effect. Stern even indicated his support for the EU roadmap: "If we get the kind of roadmap that countries have called for -- the EU has called for, that the U.S. supports -- we are strongly committed... to move forward on that." He remained adamant on this point, that “it’s also not accurate to describe the US as blocking a legally binding agreement.” In a response to a question from Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman, Stern insisted that, “what the US has been doing over the past two years, with all due respect, is showing the leadership necessary to try to drag this process into the 21st century.”

Despite his adamant support for a legally binding agreement, the next day, Stern was left backpedaling. The U.S. State Department released a statement clarifying that the U.S. would not sign on to a legally binding treaty: "Todd Stern said in his press conference today that the United States could support a process to negotiate a new climate accord. He did not say that the United States supports a legally binding agreement." The whole world was watching his next step.

Meanwhile, mainstream media outlets upped the pressure on the “elephant in the room” – the US – the obstructionist Congress, and the Obama administration of empty rhetoric to combat climate change. While the U.S. was playing “quiet man,” Canada, China, Australia, Japan, and India were put to blame. But if you’re sitting on your hands, you can’t point fingers. The US came into the spotlight as an obstruction to mitigation and adaptation.

Even without a microphone, the youth voice began to reverberate:

Richard Black from the BBC wrote that “Outside the halls of government, it was a very good meeting for the youth. Unfailingly charming, youth delegates brought a freshness, a ‘Yes-we-can’-ness, to the often jaundiced proceedings.” Andrew Revkin, of the NYTimes posted, “Some voices are quiet and hidden, like those of lobbyists for fossil fuels, wind turbines, nuclear power and other special interests always huddled in back corners in the meetings. Some are impassioned and public, like those of the students who gave voice to youth.” Emilie Novaczek, of the Canadian Youth Delegation, reflected that what we saw in Durban was “youth standing up from the ‘kids table’ created for us by our governments and the United Nations. Young people from around the world rejected the old adage that young people here are meant to be seen, seldom heard and never listened to."

Our voices were being heard. But were they loud enough to make the difference?

The “Durban Platform” calls for an “agreed outcome with legal force” by 2015, with full implementation by 2020. Despite U.S. support, in his closing remarks in Durban, Stern shied away from the words "legally binding," "treaty" or "agreement" and said instead that road map proposed by Europe had "the potential to become [pause] an historic document." As a friend, Oliver Hughes, writes, “We're sleepwalking towards calamity, and the world's governments just agreed to wake up at some point down the line.” The politicians are running out of excuses and we’re running out of time. The United States wants to spend the next nine years insisting they need more time to reduce carbon emissions. I spent thirty seconds pleading that it is too late to wait- and was then removed for postponing progress in the negotiations.

Youth around the country are already hard at work, calling on President Obama and Congress to represent the interests of the people, not the polluters. We’re demanding that science, not partisan politics, dictate decisions. We’re calling for the US to commit to ambitious and legally binding emissions reductions as well as funding for vulnerable countries to adapt to already-felt climate impacts.

When I stood up and spoke, I knew I was not speaking alone. Tens of millions of other Americans have made the same plea for stronger U.S. leadership to combat climate change. But even more of us need to speak up to hold our government accountable at home for the decisions they have made abroad. We need to speak with our voices, our dollars, and our votes. We need representatives who actually represent us – politicians who put the safety of their citizens ahead of fossil fuel interests. I believe most Americans already know this. I believe a majority of politicians get it, too. But if we are not willing to speak out, and speak loud, against the minority who are obstructing progress, our country will continue to suffer.

I’ve stopped settling for what is deemed “politically feasible” by obstructionists and started asking for what is morally required and scientifically necessary. The word 'radical' alludes not only to fundamental and revolutionary changes to policy, but also to the “root” source of things. Let’s go back home and address the sources of international inaction in our home communities. Let’s take on the obstructionist Congress. Let’s take on fossil fuel subsidies. Let’s take on climate deniers. Let’s make the courage to do this contagious. We can no longer watch and wait as incremental policy forms at the pace of tectonic shifts. For if we simply sit as passive witnesses to the crime of inaction, we are as culpable as the leaders we criticize.