COP21: Power Dynamics of Loss and Damage
I was raised in an environmental family. One of my earliest memories is protesting the creation of 11 new coal-fired power plants at the Texas State Capitol with my mother, and as I’ve grown older, concerns about sustainability have stayed with me. November 2015, I was fortunate to be part of a group of 10 students from Macalester College that attended the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. I care about climate change because of its human impacts, so at the conference it was important to me to hear what individual people had to say. I wanted to be able to come home and share a story that was not just about the evolution of a document but also about the people involved. This is that story.
“Where are you from?” The speaker was Wadzanau Mudzongo, a woman from Zimbabwe. She was wearing a bright red ActionAid t-shirt, which is what had started our conversation, because I admired the international aid organization’s work. She had just finished telling me why she was attending COP21: half of her country was drowning from flash floods and the other half was starving since drought had killed all the crops, so she was advocating for a loss and damages clause in the agreement to protect human rights.
“I’m from Minnesota, in the US,” I said. I told her I was a college student learning about how the conference worked and studying climate displacement from small island nations.
She asked how climate change was impacting Minnesota as we shuffled forward in the never-ending security line to get into the civil society zone.
I explained that, though we fortunately didn’t have large numbers of people drowning or starving, we were worried about increased rainfall and our moose migrating north. Then I mentioned that not everyone in my country even believes in climate change.
She just shook her head.
I asked if she was going into the Blue Zone, the area where the negotiators were arguing over the text of the document.
She explained that ActionAid only got a few access passes, but the people they sent in were working hard. This was a problem I could relate to, since my school group had also only received a fraction of the passes we’d requested. I understood the motivation to keep numbers inside the Blue Zone under control, but it worried me to know that my country, whose Congress had spoken out against the agreement before it was even written, had over 200 negotiators in the Blue Zone, while some people doing humanitarian work to counter the impacts of climate change couldn’t get in.
Later that day, I decided to go to an event outside of the conference venue. I recruited a member of my class so I’d have someone to get lost on the bus with.
“Hey, want to come with me to hear a president speak?”
“President from where?”
I explained, clumsy because of how new the knowledge was for me, that Palau is an island country in the western Pacific Ocean.
After getting slightly confused navigating the Paris transit system, we walked into a small tent on the shores of the Seine River. It was the onshore meeting place of conferences hosted by the crew of the Tara boat, which had been traveling around the world collecting oceanic climate change data. Entering, I was a bit concerned because I wasn’t sure whether the online sign-up had gone through.
It didn’t matter because no one asked us to sign in. There was no security. But there was the President of Palau, Tommy Remengesau. When President Obama spoke at the conference, I watched him on a television screen because everyone in the live audience needed an invitation. The UN tries to make all voices equal, but I worried about whether the section on Loss and Damage that Palau, like Zimbabwe and ActionAid, wanted in the agreement, would make it in, since Palau’s president didn’t have the legions of security that I’d come to associate with important negotiators.
The following day, returning to the civil society zone of the conference, I went to a panel where Tony de Brum, the Minister of Environment for the Marshall Islands was speaking. Afterwards, I went up and asked him about the losses and damages his country will face from rising sea levels, and how the Marshall Islands delegation planned to address the potential that their citizens might have to leave their homes. He was refreshingly honest. “We don’t want to talk about it,” he admitted. “No one does. But we will talk about loss and damage, for the sake of your generation.”
At first, I felt discouraged by the power disparities I saw in Paris. But when the Paris Agreement came out, there, in the document, was a short section on Loss and Damage. It didn’t have a lot of the pieces that Ms. Mudzongo had told me she hoped for, but it was there, when it had never been part of an international climate agreement before. It only made it in because thousands of people stood behind it, bridging the gaps of power between a woman without access to the Blue Zone and a president without security guards and a US delegation that the whole world was following, but that was locked in a struggle with its government back home.
Reading the Loss and Damage section, short though it was, I realized that though there are obstacles based on political power and voice, these obstacles can be overcome when we stand together and tell the world what we want. The Paris Agreement was only the beginning. Though we are all from different places, I hope that we will continue to listen to and think of each other as we decide where we want the world to go.