Awesome WesKids doing awesome stuff about an awesome cause in an awesome place. Six months ago.
In late November 2012, three WesKids, Samantha Santaniello ’13, Sophie Duncan ’13. and Chloe Holden ’15 went with Professor Michael Dorsey to the United Nations Climate Change Conference (UNCCC) in Doha, Qatar (that’s in the Persian Gulf, which is in the Middle East, for the geographically challenged). There they helped Professor Dorsey with his research, kept a pretty informative blog for the College of the Environment, witnessed firsthand the wrangling of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as part of the 18th Conference of the Parties (COP18), learned a bunch of acronyms, and generally did “a lot of typing.”
Shortly after they returned to Wes, just in time for Fall finals week, I sat down with them to talk about their thoughts on the conference, the future of climate changed, and generally speaking exactly how screwed we all are. Enjoy!
pyrotechnics: I’ve been reading your blog. How successful do you think the conference was?
Sam: It was completely unsuccessful. The only thing that is really being discussed further is loss and damage which is really important for small island states and less developed countries. Loss of coastlines and stuff in Africa. That will hopefully be negotiated at the next conference. But yeah, everything is pretty bleak.
Sophie: It’s hard to say whether such as big conference with so many different goals is successful or unsuccessful. I would say they failed to meet the very low expectations that were set or the achievements they wanted. They failed to create any sort of significant agreement that would be legally binding or include really high-polluting countries like the US or Canada.
Chloe: It wasn’t the goal of this conference to create a legally binding agreement but you could talk to people who walked away from it with very specific agendas, like people who are involved in accountability measures; there was progress in that, in little areas. Overall, in the negotiations as a whole, across recent years, doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.
Sam: Obviously the small island states and less developed countries were very important and with their agenda they called for a five-year second commitment period and they ended up with eight because the EU and a lot of the negotiation coalitions with more political clout were able to get what they wanted as opposed to the small island states who really needed it, because this is a huge threat to them.
pyrotechnics: What would you say was the biggest barrier to success in the negotiations? I remember that you wrote on your blog about the US agenda as being not optimal at the conference.
Sophie: The biggest barriers: countries like the US and Canada being unwilling to make progress. That’s because the US was negotiated basing on what they thought could get through the House and Senate, and I don’t think that that’s necessarily the right way to go into the conference, based on domestic politics. You can still make a commitment internationally that’s symbolic and that we will try to aim for and then have it be shut down in the House.
Sam: I don’t necessarily agree with that though, because you have the US saying they can’t do something because there’s gridlock in the House and the Senate, but is it better that they make some sort of commitment, a promise that they can’t keep?
Sophie: I agree with that, I just think in some ways it’s better to make an international goal that will show the rest of world that at least some part of the US, including the leadership, is on board, as opposed to ‘no, no, no, we can’t commitment to anything.’
Sam: I still think it’s better that US say ‘we can’t commit beyond this year because of these reasons’ than making some far reaching goal that they can’t meet.
Sophie: Yeah, it’s obvious that we aren’t in a political position to do that, but the US shouldn’t set a tone that we’re not here and we’re not going to do anything, as opposed to ‘we will try our best on the domestic front and really push what we can for international progress, but we’re limited by our domestic politics.’
Sam: Did [REDACTED] not say that in [hir] off-the-record…?
Chloe: In [hir] off-the-record talk, the [REDACTED]…
pyrotechnics: Which is now on-the-record…
Chloe: [Ze] said, in this conference, the United States wasn’t going to commit, there was no chance the US was going to sign the Kyoto Protocol, that’s not on the table. But what was on the table: there are always opportunities for negotiators to change their rhetoric slightly and to make small steps and small commitments when they’re discussing…
Sophie: How small is small though?
Chloe: There are many meetings all the time and many different tracks, and the impression that I got from [REDACTED] was that [ze] didn’t have any autonomy as a negotiator. And politicians are all bound by commitments they have to interest groups they represent. When you go to a conference you imagine that people are there to make choices, and what it felt like in Doha is that all of the choices by the major emitters were already made. Even the promises that had already been made earlier, like the agreement to create a binding treaty by 2015 and enacted in 2020, some negotiators from countries that are in favor of emissions reductions are not even optimistic that we could do that. A diplomat from one country (who is very insistent that they remain anonymous, and gender neutral) says that they don’t know that those promises are even ensure. And part of that is because the rhetoric is so… stagnation is accepted. It’s not like ‘we’re stuck right now, but we’re moving forward.’ Yeah, it’s stagnant.
Sophie: There’s all this rhetoric from literally the Secretary of the UNCCC all the way down the line that we need to scale up ambition, and then it’s like, if everyone agrees on this, why has ambition not been scaled up? Why are we still at this same level of sameness over and over again and not having it be realized.
pyrotechnics: Very optimistic.
Chloe: Yeah. It’s really a challenging experience. It was a great experience for all of us, personally, but…
Sam: It’s just an inside look at a negotiation process, it just opens your eyes to why all of this happens, in any country.
Sophie: One that was really encouraging that I got from it was that even though there may not be significant movement forward and progress on the conference-wide scale, there was a critical mass of people, really smart people, who are incredibly dedicated to putting their heads together and trying to work on it. Even people who have been to so many of these conferences and have seen their hopes crushed over and over and over again and know the full extent of how awful climate change is and will continue to be, but who continue to really work at it, and continue to come back and have their hopes crushed, again.
pyrotechnics: So is that encouraging or discouraging?
Sam: I don’t think they’re optimistic, but they have to come back. You know?
Sophie: Yeah, but there are so many people who are there voluntarily. I mean, climate negotiators, yeah, that’s their job, but I don’t mean on the negotiator level. I mean on the NGO level and business people, people who do care. Even ministers have the option of moving into a different policy area.
Chloe: It was encouraging to see so many people who believe that climate change is real. [Laughs.] It’s encouraging to know that the US is kind of on the caboose of this change train here. We are kind of like the last major last population to not have awareness of this issue, not in the same way that European countries do, granted they lean more liberal but climate change and environmental policy is viewed as more centrist in Europe whereas in the US it’s viewed as a more liberal point of view. It’s not debated so much.
pyrotechnics: Is that a thing to pin on the American population or on the government? The reason I ask is because Obama in his acceptance speech in November specifically mentioned a few pieces about climate change and how we need to stop bickering and get our act together (which has clearly not happened).
Chloe: I do think that we need to stop bickering about whether or not this scientifically and well corroborated trend of warming is real or not is evidence of a larger trend in the US.
Sam: I think after Hurricane Sandy a lot more people started to jump on the climate change, um… train, I guess? America in general just hasn’t taken action. In analyzing the conference, I was focusing on India. But countries like India, China, Brazil are major emerging economies and if the US or Canada invest in climate change policies while these countries aren’t bound under any sort of emissions restriction legislation then probably the US wouldn’t be able to compete with them. I think it’s an interesting way to look at it, as to why the negotiation process is stagnant.
pyrotechnics: I recently wrote a paper in which I suggested that the reason climate action is more stagnant is because other international problems are perceived as more ‘immediate,’ more ‘tangible,’ and climate problems always feel very distant. Would you say that that’s true?
Sam: I don’t think they [national states] discount the future enough.
[General semantic arguing that continues for two minutes.]
Sam: I mean they don’t take the future into account. Enough. Yeah.
Chloe: That’s pretty classic of climate negotiations. People argue about really tiny stuff. These big leaders, these really important people, just bicker.
Sam: I was talking to one of my professors, and I was talking about how they put these stupid little words like ‘and’ and ‘it’ in brackets and then they argue over where it should go. And I’m liking sitting in these freaking meetings for two hours while their dictating what people are saying and I’m just like ‘why is this necessary?’ If two countries can’t agree on the implications on that word and where its placed, and it’s a legally binding document and that’s why they have to clarify what that means to them and make sure that it’s clear to everyone. And that’s why there’s so much, you know, argument over where, you know, an ‘and’ and an ‘it’ and a whatever word, and that’s why…
Chloe: I think your point about legitimacy is valid. It’s kinda like what we were saying about the Senate, and how there’s that critical mass of NGOs and stuff at the conference; there’s not that critical mass of public investment in the issue. A lot of countries, including developing countries and small island states, whose populations recognize the immediate implications and it’s more visceral for them, they do [make commitments]. In developed countries, for some reason, awareness isn’t as high, in the US especially, because they don’t see the issue as pressing for whatever reason; their governments don’t need to make major steps on climate change because they retain their legitimacy with inaction. Until the don’t, inaction will continue. Or at least that’s how it seems.
Sophie: And also, I think also in terms of your point about immediacy, things that seem like immediate threats are dealt with first, that’s definitely true. The financial crisis has had a really terrible effect on climate change negotiations. And trying to fill the Green Climate Fund, and having countries make financial commitments, they just feel like they can’t.
Chloe: You know the Green Climate Fund…
pyrotechnics: It’s best to address this conversation as though I’m an idiot.
Chloe: Yeah, so there’s various things relating to the UNFCCC and to the Kyoto Protocol. There’s the Green Climate Fund which is funding for countries to deal with the effects of climate change and help them make transitions to sustainable alternatives that they might not be able to do otherwise. So there’s this fund, and it’s supposed to raise 100 billion dollars per year. Now there’s 12 billion total committed to it. It’s scary.
Sophie: And there are also all these programs in place within Kyoto and within the general conference that are kinda being implemented but the policy frameworks aren’t really in place. I was talking to one person who knew a lot about REDD (Removing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, a UN program) projects; the idea is that they provide incentives to countries and individual groups of people, communities, to protect forests. You reforest them or conserve them, with particular practices. This person was telling me that there have been extreme negative responses to it in a lot of areas because people have signed on to these programs and have changed their practices, the way they use the forests they live, but haven’t received the monetary benefits they were promised because that hasn’t been figured out yet. So these people are left being all “so you promised me this, and it was never fulfilled.” There are just, there a lot of problems on the very low down level of implementation all the way to the overall negotiations. Same with the language stuff. There are disagreements about huge conceptual things in the documents and then also down to like this “and” or “but.”
pyrotechnics: Change of topics. Tell me about the march. Was it talked about much in conference? Did it have any impact, or was it just people holding signs?
Sophie: I think it was largely symbolic, but it was definitely a morale booster.
Chloe: In terms of the negotiations… it wasn’t just people holding signs, but in terms of the negotiations, things like that help a little bit. And this something that we thought about because a lot the people we met who are our age aren’t really doing this through organizations, they’re doing it through activism, through small non-profits, or they’re blogging, or they’re trying to pressure negotiators by making short speeches, things like that, or twitter blasts, various public protests… things… in the spirit of the march and that stuff. It’s hard to say what kind of impact it has, something definitely does, and one of the few questions you thought ask was about the march. The media likes that stuff, they like to take pictures of a 16-year old holding a sign at the climate change thing. It has the emotional impact. So maybe because of what the youth are doing and because of the march, there’s more immediate awareness, and that in turn leads to people pressuring governments and governments responded. It’s a delayed effect though. Not much of an immediate impact on the conference.
Sam: I think they definitely noticed it though. You saw a lot of the delegates walking into the conference center, stopping and looking and taking pictures of the youth gatherings. All these actions. But when it comes down to the negotiation process and when they’re actually room, I don’t think that’s what they’re thinking about. I don’t think that’s the first thing on their mind when they’re constantly on their computers and texting and calling to see what’s going on in another meeting room. As much as we’d like to think that it does have an effect, it all comes down to what they do in the meeting rooms. And we say that that was pretty unsuccessful. As much as we’d like to think it did, it didn’t work there. But I think it could. I think the youth movement could definitely have an effect, but, as you said, in the future.
pyrotechnics: So it was primarily the youth in march?
Chloe: There were adults for sure.
Sam: I think it was mostly organized by the youth. There were so prominent there! It was cool. At first I was skeptical, but then I saw it was just such intelligent people and it just doesn’t make sense why the negotiators don’t listen to them.
Sophie: I think it’s important for building more urgency on an individual citizen’s basis.
Sam: And encouraging more people to get on the train. Yeah, let’s get on the caboose!
Sam: You said caboose before!
pyrotechnics: I will populate this entire post with trains.
Sam: Make sure its an electric train!
Sophie: You can put that in. In conclusion.
[General discussion about the phrase “shweeb halib” and its spelling. This quote is from Jonas, the assistant. Much giggling. I still have no idea why. They demanded that I include this.]
pyrotechnics: Can you guys talk about your role in the conference, and how did you guys get selected to go? What are your individual interests that have brought you to this junction? [TRAIN REFERENCE. SCHOOL HOUSE ROCK, ANYONE?]
Sam: We got an email from our professor at 9:30am, that went to the College of the Environment. It said if you answer these four questions by 1:30pm you’ll have a chance to go to Doha, Qatar. I thought it was a joke, but then I thought maybe not, maybe I’ll jump on this train.
[Eruption of laughter. ANOTHER TRAIN REFERENCE. FUCK YEAH TRAINS.]
Sam: It was quick. He just needed volunteers fast. He wanted people who could just jump in. 13 hour work days and all that.
pyrotechnics: Did any of you intend to become climate change specialists who work for the government and go to these conferences all the time?
[General emphatic “no.”]
Sam: I don’t think I could sit through that like our professor. On the last day, it ended up going over the scheduled day, so now here’s there even longer. We were in the airport when we got his email about a meeting still going. They’re in these for ten, 12, 14 hours at a time without breaks. I wouldn’t be able to do it.
[Heated discussion about what coffee was consumed at the conference.]
[Disgruntled discussion about how there was bottled water everywhere at the conference.]
Chloe: I am interested in international environmental policy, which is why I was pretty juiced about this trip. Part of why this is a great trip is you realize that it’s a very, very diverse community, and there are a lot of people working on these themes in different ways. We crossed paths with a lot of people who value this in different ways. And have different goals. Kind of the same goals but also pretty diverse.
Sam: Ostensibly the same goal.
Chloe: And that connects to what we were actually doing at the conference, which was doing research on the business community there. It was ethnographic research on people who are interested in carbon trading and market mechanisms.
Sophie: And also on the role of business in climate change policies. So we were transcribing panels.
pyrotechnics: That sounds… exciting.
Sophie: We learned a lot.
Chloe: We did learn a lot… but it was a lot of typing.
Sophie: It was a lot of typing.
Chloe: And then we conducted surveys afterward, for each of these events we were attending. We would go up to people and explain briefly the research we were doing and hand out surveys to them. We have 132 surveys.
[Argument about the number of surveys entered.]
Sophie: We got a lot of surveys. A lot of typing. Hard to transcribe.
Chloe: Data collection essentially, for research that our professor is doing.
Sophie: It’s sort of an ongoing project.
Chloe: He’s never had so many people doing surveys, so maybe this will be a wider data set.
Sophie: It was interesting, even the finance world is very male dominated, but climate change is also very male dominated. People’s reactions to us were different if we had been college guys.
Sam: Men in business suits! Very misogynistic.
Sophie: There were a lot of friendly people. Majority friendly people.
Sam: 98.5 percent friendly people.
pyrotechnics: Can I quote you on that?
pyrotechnics: What role do you think the youth in general played at the conference? How effective was it?
Sophie: I think they’re an important reminder about the ‘future generations’ concept. For people who are general negotiator age, the repercussions of climate change in many of their countries may not be so immediate, but there is a generation of people who will be experiencing drastic changes. Many countries already are.
Sam: Seeing the youth reminds them of their families too. Many of them are older, and they have kids who are the same age as people in the youth organizations. And I think that also serves as an important reminder that they have to try to do something because it is their family that will be affected by it. And who wants to be the cause? Who wants it on their conscience that they didn’t do all that they could in these negotiations to help future generations?
Sophie: I think there’s also an aspect that it’s important to have fresh ideas and fresh commitment, especially in a conference that can be so discouraging. I’m sure a lot of the negotiators and incredibly jaded and it’s good to have fresh hope on the scene.
Sam: [funny voice] Hope on the scene!
Sam: I bet you can’t transcribe this.
pyrotechnics: I won’t. [I LIED.]
pyrotechnics: So how about the backdrop of Doha? Where there are no sidewalks because everyone drives and it’s in the desert?
Sophie: It was definitely a weird place. Our experience with it was limited because we were at the conference center, which was inside the city but was definitely in its own little world.
[Discussion of the sandwiches, and how they contained both cheese and tomatoes. Chicken Caesar salad wraps were apparently the only thing edible.]
Sam: The food was very… international.
Sophie: Can I tell you that the Greek salad had cut-up peppers and chunks of feta cheese?
pyrotechnics: I will quote you on that.
Chloe: Usdan has better food.
Sophie: So our experience was pretty much limited to the conference center, our hotel, the immediate area around our hotel, the diplomatic area. And then some little side event places.
Sam: The city had a beautiful skyline though.
Chloe: The city did have a beautiful skyline, but the thing about the city… the articles don’t mention that ‘how ironic that a country that gets all of its money from oil rents is hosting this climate change conference.’ People compare to a massive construction site because there are so many buildings under construction. And it’s in the middle of a desert, so almost all of the materials and things are imported. And that’s not a sustainable society.
Sophie: They import 90 percent of their food and have to desalinate almost all of their water supply. They’re trying to irrigate little patches of flowers in between lanes in the road. I mean, really?! I think this can be put to better use.
Sam: And they have no animals! Not one bird.
Chloe: Yeah, no wildlife.
Sophie: In the [a word that sounds suspiciously like soup, but I expect is a location] there were a lot of cats.
Sam: Oh! But we didn’t go there. I think the one bird I saw…
pyrotechnics: I changed my mind. No commentary. I’m just gonna type up this whole conversation and publish it.
Sam: That would be really funny, actually.
Sophie: Shweeb halib!
pyrotechnics: I won’t actually do that. [I LIED AGAIN.]
Sam: I think the skyline is really beautiful at night.
Chloe: It’s a luxurious place. We were definitely in a different in a social place, and the trappings of that were really luxurious. Most of the people who live there don’t have all that stuff though, mostly an immigrant population who work.
Sophie: The majority of the population is non-Arab.
Sam: For the Qatari people though, from the time they’re born until they’re 18 they get like $2500 a month [from the state]. You have to be sponsored by a Qatari to own a business there, and the Qatari person automatically owns a majority stake in the company. So it’s always 51 percent to 49 percent, so that’s how they keep all the money in the country.
pyrotechnics: Final question. [I LIED AGAIN.] How do you pronounce Qatar? I’ve heard all sorts of things.
[My question was answered but I’m not telling you.]
pyrotechnics: Final, final question. [AND AGAIN.] On a scale to from one to holy shit, how fucked are we? A number is fine.
Sam: Fucked. I don’t know where holy shit is.
Chloe: 9.2. Like an A- on the fucked scale.
Sophie: Is an A+ fucked?
Sam: I would say fucked. I worked primarily with small island states so I’m completely biased towards that side of the world, and for them, fucked. On a scale from one to 100, it would be 150.
Chloe: I don’t know.
Sophie: The dialogue in the United States, for people our age, we’re like ‘we’re fucked’ but really we’ll be fine for a long time. People in poorer countries are going to die. People are already dying.
Sam: Like five million per year [as a result of climate change], if we make no reductions in emissions. So five million people a year will die until 2020.
Chloe: Right now, we’re on track for four to five degrees Celsius warming. Right now we’re at one degree. Four to five is where we’re headed. They want to get emissions down so that we don’t go past two degrees Celsius. It was agreed on what’s politically feasible, but even at that level will be warmed more because of geographical differences. Some countries will be…
Sam: Small island states…
Sophie: I think some oil tanker just sailed through the Arctic Ocean.
pyrotechnics: That’s symbolism for you.
Sophie: Yeah, right?
Chloe: The areas which are going to have the first iceless summer, the predictions keep bringing it closer and closer…
Sophie: We have resources to deal with this to a certain extent. They’re calling for more financing to deal with hurricanes and stuff. I mean if we can’t get the resources to get this stuff, how do we expect poorer countries to get the resources to adapt to these changes?
Sam: And is that even adaptation at that point? I mean when we’re at two degrees or where we’re headed, literally thousands and thousands of people are just going to have to pick up their stuff and their families and just move somewhere where they can be safe. It’s just such an existential threat.
Chloe: I feel that we’re going to make a leap from the thinking about climate science and ‘oh, it’s happening’ to suddenly having to do sociological analysis of ‘oh look, millions of people are now in another country, let’s deal with this.’ It’s hard to figure out how to avoid that. We were there and now we’re doing other stuff, it’s hard to make that belief.
Sophie: It’s funny, not funny, but terrible how even at this conference there was such a disconnect at times. Chloe and I went to all these schmancy fancy climate business events. Like one at the Ritz Carleton, a world climate summit, which was basically all businesses. It was and an international emissions trading association meeting at the diplomatic club. There was actually a man next to me checking oil and gas prices online, and it was a panel sponsored by Shell, on how to create a global policy framework to deal with emissions and emissions trading.
Sam: And they all just want to profit off climate change, which is so frustrating.
Chloe: There are lots of policies that were discussed that would just… there are lots of people who are invested in these corporate frameworks and they think that climate change needs to be addressed. But the solutions that they’re suggesting are ones that allow fossil fuel companies to continue to profit, or at least to buy them time.
Sophie: They don’t address the structural issues head on.
Chloe: They do, what is reassuring, the corporate people who speak they do seem to believe that this change, the shifts towards renewables, are going to happen, the economy is changing. One of the questions of the survey, “are there winners and losers on climate change…”
Sam: [sarcastically] Winners!
Chloe: … people say that renewables will succeed because that adaptation will be needed by corporations, by companies, because we need to move toward renewable solutions. People recognizing that that’s happening.
Sophie: But as this guy is checking his oil and gas prices only and Shell is talking, that was when we got the news that this enormous typhoon had just wreaked havoc on the Philippines and people were dying. So we’re sitting in this plush room with our bottled waters in front of us and little… it was just really weird.
pyrotechnics: So you guys are sticking with the 34, fucked, and a 9.2?
Sophie: Yeah, I don’t know.
Chloe: I don’t really know.
pyrotechnics: It’s really just kind of a silly thing.
Sam: Yeah, you can totally quote me, I don’t mind. But you have to make sure that I align myself with the small island states. That’s really why I say fucked.
pyrotechnics: So any final thoughts?
Chloe: Um, people should educate themselves. People should try. That sounds really stuck up, but it’s true too.
Sam: EDUCATE YOURSELVES!
[Giggling and funny voices.]
pyrotechnics: I’m quite offended. You should be ashamed, really.
Chloe: I think that being able to talk to people from other countries that have perspectives that we don’t have, that there’s a lot coverage out there of organizations working, anyone whose interested can get involved. A lot more pressure is needed, and a lot more manpower is needed.
Sam: I feel that the process in general was that you have… it almost seemed like armies, from the developed world, like the United States had forty or fifty delegates there and they were able to cover most of the meetings that were going on. But then you have countries like Nauru and Palau; they had one or two representatives and they can’t go anywhere. So working with Islands First, which is an NGO, people were going into these meetings (like students from Yale and Duke were there), they can go into the meetings and give feedback but they have no real power or influence in any sort of negotiation. So I guess having some representative there rather than no one is good but that’s… not unfair, but it seems…
pyrotechnics: It’s like the Olympics.
Sophie: It’s also that as discouraging as it is to see how slow progress is on a large scale, international scale, I think it’s important to remember that that doesn’t mean that it’s that hard or that it’s anywhere near-impossible to make small changes on a local level or however you want to go about it. There are ways that people and small organizations, individuals and small organizations, can make big differences. And while they may not stop climate change, and they won’t address the whole problem, it’s important to keep chipping away at what you can do. And keep small goals.
Chloe: Yeah. I think on the main thing, a main trend in American thought about the environment is that you make your own changes in your personal, like you turn the water off when you brush your teeth, and people think about ‘well, I take two plane flights a year, that really hurts the environment much more than anything I can do to fix it, like my lifestyle already wastes a lot’ and so people think that their lifestyle changes don’t do anything. On some level, most importantly, there needs to be regulatory stuff for corporations and on the policy, on the large scale, those are the changes need to be made. But lifestyle changes, and especially community changes, like at Wesleyan, towards sustainability, those kinds of things effect the youth and encourage creating cultural change. And that’s important.
Sophie: You need to be working at both ends of the spectrum.
pyrotechnics: Cool. Thanks for taking an hour.
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