Part of: Communicating climate change
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Can U.N. climate negotiators connect with the real world?

by Megan Rowling | @meganrowling | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 30 September 2014 10:30 GMT

Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner (L), a poet from the Marshall Islands is greeted on stage by her husband and her baby, after performing at the Climate Summit at United Nations Headquarters in New York, Sept. 23, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Segar

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After Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner's tour de force poem in New York, how can we bring more emotional power into the climate talks?

Something very special happened on Sept. 23 at the U.N. Climate Summit in New York. Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a young poet from the Pacific island nation of the Marshall Islands, stood in front of more than 100 world leaders and passionately performed a piece she had composed for the occasion, dedicated to her seven-month-old daughter.

Part of her heartfelt poem - which inspired tears and a standing ovation - went like this:

we are spreading the word / and there are thousands out on the streets / marching hand in hand / chanting for change NOW / and they’re marching for you, baby / they’re marching for us / because we deserve to do more than just survive / we deserve to thrive

Jetnil-Kijiner's poem was powerful because it injected the human face of climate change into the heart of a place that, an hour or two later, was ringing once again with the rhetoric of politicians and their less-than-inspiring promises to tackle climate change.

The summit in New York was not part of the tortuous U.N. climate negotiations, and - to be fair - dealt with climate change in a far less impenetrable way. But Jetnil-Kijiner's tour de force begged the question of how to bring more emotional power into a process that is uber-complex, incomprehensible and often removed from reality.

When the people who organise official events like this invite artists or musicians in to shake things up, "it doesn't always work", observed Saleemul Huq, director of the Bangladesh-based International Centre for Climate Change and Development.

Pleasingly, in the case of Jetnil-Kijiner, it did, acting as a graceful link between those suffering the worst impacts of climate change, those who had marched two days earlier demanding bolder action, and those tasked with making important decisions about cutting planet-warming emissions and raising climate finance.

And conversely, in a rare turn of events, the “People's Climate March” saw the U.N. secretary-general, France's foreign minister and other high-level politicians join the 400,000 or so ordinary folks out on the streets of NYC.

Both of these happenings suggested the two worlds don't have to remain so far apart.


When it comes to the U.N. climate negotiations themselves - where the hard work of hammering out a new binding climate treaty will happen, first in Lima this year and then in Paris in 2015 - the stiff, grey-suited, jargon-laden nature of the proceedings has to be seen to be believed.

"I have the impression that the negotiators are in a kind of bubble - they negotiate with each other and there's no real pressure," Mary Robinson, U.N. special envoy for climate change, told me before the New York meeting. "So this climate summit is bringing it up to the heads of state and government level; it's created a big interest in civil society around the world, and it has also galvanised the private sector and U.N. agencies and (their) partners worldwide."

The big challenge now is to sustain and harness that momentum to push governments into raising their game for a more ambitious global climate deal that can limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, as they have promised to do. The jury is still out.

Huq described climate negotiators and those who give them orders as "disconnected from reality". "It shows how screwed up the world is. We are being ruled by people who move to a different tune - they don't move to the tune of what the people of the world want or the planet needs," he said. Breaking that "global democratic deficit" won't be easy, he added.

Some doubt whether it's even worth trying, arguing that actions out there in the real world - by individuals, organisations, businesses and others who are greening their lives and ways of working - will change the game more than a text haggled over by faceless bureaucrats.


But Naderev "Yeb" Saño, climate commissioner for the Philippines, thinks "there's got to be a way into their hearts". He has proved successful at bringing the U.N. climate talks alive over the last couple of years with impassioned speeches about the damage done to his country by extreme weather events like super typhoon Haiyan last November.

"Often, the decibels in the streets are muffled by the clinical nature of negotiators. But negotiators are people too," he wrote in response to a question I asked about how to "humanise" the U.N. climate talks in an online Guardian debate last week.

In Warsaw last year, a negotiator from an industrialised country approached Sano and said his wife had called and told him "Have you met this guy Yeb Saño? You better start listening to what he is saying."

Saño proposed that children write letters to the negotiators about climate change. "I know this is merely tactical but it disrupts the system and that can make ripples," he wrote. Maybe they should become pen pals?

The Philippines negotiator - who fasts regularly in solidarity with the survivors of Haiyan, and to raise awareness about climate impacts - said those taking part in the "People's Climate March" had little power to "change the rehashed promises and rhetoric" at the New York summit.

But at December's Lima conference, "we will be dealing with actual words that will go into the text of the Paris agreement".

"When we start working on words and brackets, there is give and take (although for most vulnerable and poor countries, it's more of give and give)," Saño wrote. "This allows us to arrive at compromises, and since it is a negotiating session, we can harness the power of the social movement to change those words."

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