Environment

COP21 Diary: From the Pacific to Chennai, Those Degrees Show Us What They’re Capable Of

The Marshall Islands are being eaten by the sea from all sides. Credit: cmichel67/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

The Marshall Islands are being eaten by the sea from all sides. Credit: cmichel67/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Paris: At the ongoing world climate change conference on Wednesday, Marshall Islands poet Kathy Jetnil Kijiner spoke before an audience at COP21 about the ocean threat to her home. She spoke of stretches of the islands that are so narrow one can feel Pacific Ocean spray from either side, and makeshift sea walls that barely keep back the water. When people don’t have the money to repair sea walls, they find inventive ways to raise funds within the community. “Our community is figuring out their own ways to adapt to climate change,” she said. The small nation of 60,000 people – scarcely larger than the 40,000 at this conference – is not asking the world for handouts, said Kijiner. They are asking the industrialised nations of the world to work harder to stop fossil fuel emissions.

Representatives from the small island states of the world are here at COP21 begging for a deal that will restrict temperature rise to 1.5oC. The negotiations themselves have an aim of “below 2oC” (although commitments on the table have not hit that mark). Thus Kijiner’s poem, “2 Degrees,” which she reads out to the crowd. “For my islands 2 degrees is a gamble,” she says. “At 2 degrees my islands, the Marshall Islands, will already be under water.” The poem speaks of her small daughter walking “on the edge of the reef / not yet under water” – her daughter who, Kijiner worries, may one day lose her home.

What Kijiner speaks of is not an eventuality on the horizon: the Marshall Islands are already seeing the effects of rising seas. We are at a point where we need to speak not only of ways to reduce and ultimately eliminate greenhouse gas emissions, but also how to adapt and become resilient in the face of the changes that are here to stay.

“Adaptation” and “resilience” are difficult words, with their ring of defeat. Yesterday, an activist mentioned to me that “it’s just so hard to make environmentalism sexy.” There is certainly something decidedly unsexy about accepting responsibility for what the human race has done to this planet – accepting that we have no technology to turn the clock back, and instead focus on ways to minimize suffering and keep the damage from getting worse. Perhaps that is why the hall had so few people during the documentary on the UNFCCC’s “Adaptation Committee” that preceded Kijiner’s reading. This room, full beyond capacity for Modi and Hollande’s announcement of an International Solar Alliance on Monday, had just a scattering of thirty-some people this Wednesday morning, looking around themselves in slight bemusement. The promise of green technology and renewable energy to lift us out of the mess we’re in carries a certain appeal, perhaps – a certain sexiness, if you will. It is not as easy to come face to face with the inadequacy of the solutions we have at hand, and then to work steadily, anyway – to rebuild sea walls, year after year.

“Resilience” was one of the themes at COP21 on its third day, with an announcement in the afternoon of an agreement under the LPAA (Lima to Paris Action Agenda) to mobilise a total of $1 billion to protect vulnerable nations (including island nations and so-called “least developed” nations) from the impacts of climate change. This includes not just finances for disaster relief but also for disaster preparation, such as the implementation of early warning systems. Later in the day, the African Union also announced that $4 billion had been promised by world leaders and international agencies to fund desertification prevention in Africa, through the planting of a “Great Green Wall” of trees in the rapidly degrading Sahel-Saharan region, along the edge of the Sahara Desert.

No amount of resilience will do us good, however, unless we find a way to drastically reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. On that note, the climate campaign organisation 350.org announced this afternoon the success of its fossil fuel divestment movement, which encourages organisations, cities and individuals to de-invest in fossil fuels and re-invest in renewable energy. Thus far, commitments to divest have surpassed $3.4 trillion.

“If it’s wrong to cause climate change, it’s wrong to profit from climate change,” said May Boeve, head of 350.0rg. But the argument of the divestment movement is not just a moral one, but also economic. Stephen Heintz, President of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (which divested in 2014), emphasised at the 350.org press conference that the unsustainability of fossil fuels in our world makes it economically rational to invest in renewables instead. “Sixty per cent of the known fossil fuels have to remain in the ground, unburned if we’re going to stay beneath the 2 degree cap,” he said.

Soon after the press conference came sobering news from India that for the first time in its 127 year history, The Hindu newspaper could not be printed in its home town  – because after weeks of heavy unseasonal rainfall, Chennai is under water. I am having Katrina flashbacks this evening, reading notifications about families stranded and seeking help as flood waters rise. Go due west across the ocean from the beaches of Chennai, tracing the path of the sun for 10,000 kilometres, and you will reach the fragile reefs of the Marshall Islands where Kathy Jetnil Kijiner’s small daughter walks. We are not so far apart.

The phrase “climate change” can only be used to refer to a statistical trend, of course, and not a single incident. But statistically speaking, there is little doubt that unseasonal and destructive weather events are on the rise within India and across the globe. Chennai will need to learn how to deal with floods, just as the Marshall Islands will need stronger sea walls. What happens at COP21 is vital, but it will not be able to undo what has already been done. We need to adapt to an altered planet.