Another extreme weather event disrupted one of the most popular traditions here in the United States, Thanksgiving. Meteorologists at The Weather Channel named the winter storm “Boreas,” after the ancient Greek god of the north wind, the bringer of winter. They report that at least 14 people had been killed by mid-day Wednesday, and 58 million people had been impacted. Boreas was dumping snow and freezing rain across the northeast of the country on the busiest travel days of the years. TV weather reports follow a standard format: the intrepid crew stands alongside a snowy highway or at an airport with stranded passengers. Why not use these fossil-fueled backdrops as an opportunity to discuss climate change? Why not talk about how our lifestyles, so profoundly dependent on greenhouse gas emissions, from driving cars to flying in planes, contribute directly to disruptive weather?
Climate science predicts that, as the planet warms, extreme weather events of all types will increase in their frequency and their severity. The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research is an organization based in Britain, bringing together scientists and other experts to research, assess and communicate the unfolding realities of global warming. Scientists from the Tyndall Centre attended last week’s United Nations climate summit in Warsaw, Poland. Kevin Anderson is the deputy director of the center. While Warsaw is a two-hour flight from Manchester, he spent 23 hours in transit, taking trains.
“The carbon dioxide emissions from flying … it’s sort of emblematic of modern life, for the wealthy few of us, that it symbolizes what we do, day in, day out. We don’t think twice about burning more and more carbon,” Anderson told me. He says a radical shift is needed, immediately, in how we live our lives, in order to avert climate-change-related disaster. “If you sit in on the big plenary sessions, what you hear are these ministers with sort of platitudes and ‘We must do something about it’ – all motherhood and apple pie … we have our cake, and we can eat it. The science is showing this is completely misguided,” Anderson said of the U.N. climate negotiations.
The conference grants one member of the youth delegation time at the podium. This year, Marian Hussein Osman, a Somali youth climate activist from Mogadishu, addressed the crowd: “Where human existence is non-negotiable, you’ve made a 21-year wager on our future. … Greed and the petty interests of a minority should not rob us of what have become inarguably inalienable human rights. With our homes, livelihoods and even geophysical existences at risk, raised ambition on climate change is not optional; it is vital.”
Near the end of the summit, close to 800 people walked out, declaring Warsaw the worst summit to date. They wore signs reading, “Polluters Talk, We Walk,” since the UN process in Warsaw was, for the first time, co-sponsored by the coal and petroleum industries. As the hundreds of NGO representatives and activists gathered for the walkout in the atrium in Warsaw’s National Stadium, the site of the climate summit, Kumi Naidoo, the executive director of Greenpeace International, took the microphone: “Our message to our political leaders: Understand that nature does not negotiate. You cannot change the science. And we have to change political will. And it’s within their capacity to do that, and they cannot drag their feet any longer.”
Those who walked out wore a second message as well: the Spanish word, “Volveremos,” and its English translation, “We Will Be Back.” Jamie Henn of 350.org captured the spirit of the walkout, and the collective pledge among those gathered to intensify grassroots organizing, on a global scale: “We’re beginning to figure out that to make progress on climate, we can’t just come to these conferences and ask leaders for action; we really need to take on the industry itself.”
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