Copping out at COP 23

Photo: Twelve-year-old Timoci Naulusala of Fiji gave an impassioned speech to delegates at COP 23. Photo: @COP23/Twitter

During the recent Bonn Climate Summit, a taxi driver provided a succinct summary. Asked what he thought of COP 23, he replied, "the climate is in crisis, but here, this is about money." He had provided a clarity that had been missing inside the event.

As we race toward certain and expanding catastrophe, he simply underscored that profiteering off a destructive cycle of production, consumption, shipping, the unnecessary transport of products over vast distances, and continuous growth models, form the basis from which these discussions are framed. It is as though the elephant in the room, never acknowledged, hides out with few exceptions.

We all play along to some extent. In North America, you can try this experiment. Turn down the volume of your TV and watch the myriad of commercial advertisements where someone is unhappy until they possess a certain product and suddenly, presto! Everything is great and everyone is smiling.

The same rubric repeats, again and again, buy and smile. Smile and buy. Buy and be happy. Crave to belong, as if this will somehow connect us together and create momentary windows of happiness and titillation while the earth burns. A crude system of modern feudalism has engulfed the planet, where a handful of men, eight, to be precise, own half the planet. In this obscene reality, a man can be worth more than several nations. Political leaders and major institutions act as though by convincing a handful of rich sociopaths, we can save life on our planet. 

Yet power does not, and never has, surrendered anything without a fight or creation of something new. Our uncomfortable future demands that climate criminals not be enabled further while we carry our caps in hand with appeals to do the right thing -- certainly, those outcomes have been far too modest to date. The rules of the game must change. Social power that rules would remove them from their pedestals of power, and along with it, our addictions to things we really do not need (having them increases the cycle of destruction and need for more). Such things are no longer the place of dreams but necessary adjustments to a livable planet of nurture. We can alter the current definitions of value, the ones that underscore the COP talks, and the thousands-of-years-old patriarchal systems that strangle compassion and hope by competition and "winning" at the expense of another.

At COP, we were like hamsters on a wheel, living off the ripples of colonialism and wealth accumulation while discussing the speed at which the wheel turns through a series of silos and frameworks. COP is driven by a series of "interests" underlined by systems that accumulate vast wealth for a few driven by unsustainable destruction. We need to get off that wheel and reconnect with our essence, the earth, and one another.

In this madness, the darker your skin the more you pick up the slack, now resulting in myriads of climate refugees fleeing a crisis created while a privileged minority of the planet went shopping. Under current conditions, this phenomenon will play out repeatedly. Hungry people intent on survival will be blamed and shamed, even attacked, for doing the only thing left to them: escape to a better place. This won't stop. It will accelerate. When people are hungry, what can you expect?

Famine breeds war and conflict. The world's greatest militarist, the United States, a nation built on dispossession, has essentially been at war with someone on a continuous basis for nearly two centuries of conquest, often aided by one ally or another. Since 2001, that nation alone has spent $7.6 trillion on the military and Homeland Security in an ongoing war economy.

Little was accomplished at COP, a few very modest breakthroughs (or diversions) lacking any significant enforcement mechanisms or incorporating a gender or Indigenous analysis into the core of the action. While climate talks are essential, they are rendered ineffective by living in this bubble. One former UNFCC official told me that people know this but remain locked into a series of "frameworks" and disconnected silo building. These things do not upset the apple cart. This centuries-long mercantilism built on exploitation, greed and accumulation at the expense of the other and living systems carries on without shame. A process that subsidizes carbon to fill the atmosphere as a chemical sink for profit. The oil continues to flow and the coal dug.

No longer can it be business as usual where the new normal is unprecedented and frequent catastrophic weather conditions (which can only get worse) that will be normalized for new generations. Whom are we kidding? A tweak here and there will not cut it.

Some get off the hook entirely at COP. Who will take on international transport, shipping and aviation? If these sectors were a country they would be the seventh largest polluter and rising. Products that could be produced locally, at less environmental cost, are shipped vast distances. The shadow of speculation, profiteering, and poor earth practices, remains.

Indigenous peoples appear to have a better grasp of living with the earth rather than against it. Indigenous voices are tolerated, welcomed even, but rarely is this wisdom applied to our reality. This knowledge never forms the core of how we relate to the earth. The exploitation of resources and destruction for profit continues. Pacific Island nations and home are flooded and face disappearance. Indigenous peoples in Canada, having faced centuries of settler driven occupation and catastrophe, remain undermined by living under a settler culture of destruction.

It does feel good to see any progress whatsoever and we hang our hat on that. Playing to domestic audiences as part of this theatre can earn some political cachet. No better example exists than the myth of Canada as a progressive nation, climate leader, and its new proposed phase-out of coal policy. Through carbon offsets, the coal burning shall be kept burning until at least 2060 and exports will continue after that date to be burned in someone else' jurisdiction. While presented as progress it is ineffective, and a diversion which obscures the continuing plan to build pipelines and keep dirty Canadian oil flowing. The tyranny of extraction and the use of the atmosphere as a chemical sink for profit remains. The human and animal population subsidizes this senselessly unnecessary tragedy.

What does this mean for workers? We cannot merely oppose without proposing better options. The union I represented at COP, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, knows that a just transition out of destructive practices requires better approaches that we all need to claim. We live in a society where some work too much and others have no possibility of work at all. Incorporation of other more holistic and sustainable values allows us to step outside the box and refocus.

We can consider alternatives. Our Delivering Community Power initiative includes the use of renewable non-polluting energy, transforming and retro-fitting post offices to produce energy at the local source and eliminate carbon from delivery systems -- the latter which  has already happened in over 20 cities in Norway (and is growing). Putting more postal workers on the street and fewer cars also means more face-to-face contact and added community value by checking in on isolated senior citizens. Postal workers put climate change on the bargaining table. The current round of negotiations includes demands for a radical shift in the way Canada Post operates. It also aims to put public postal banking, in a society so long ripped off by the banks and major corporations, on the table. These are modest and important steps in changing direction. They require boldness and a resetting of future agendas. No matter where we live or what we do, the system is killing us.

Delivering Community Power was inspired and energized by the LEAP Manifesto. It calls for a restructuring of the Canadian economy and an end to the use of fossil fuels and framed by respect for Indigenous rights, internationalism, human rights, diversity, and environmental stewardship. We cannot leave it to corporations and politicians now. We are all part of this solution now and have the opportunity to create space to do it.

The course is changeable. By incorporating Indigenous and feminist values of nurture and care into our present, we shift the nature of work and can become meaningful actors in solutions, rather than waiting for the obscenely wealthy or political representatives to approve in a fixed game.

There is an Indigenous saying about the seven generations. They say that for every move we make, it must always be done with a view on how it could affect people seven generations from now. The Anishinaabeg had a prophecy that stated that when the earth and water had turned bitter from disrespect there would be the choice before us between materialism and continued destruction or another path. We have reached such a time. That taxi driver and Anishinaabeg wisdom both point us in a direction of clarity. The leaders of this planet would do well to listen.

We require a new kind of COP. There will be no shopping on a dead planet, and rearranging the deck chairs of the Titanic will not help. Creativity and better value systems can.

Dave Bleakney is the second national Vice-President of the Canadian Union f Postal Workers and was a delegate to COP 23.

This article was first published here

Photo: Twelve-year-old Timoci Naulusala of Fiji gave an impassioned speech to delegates at COP 23. Photo: @COP23/Twitter

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