Wednesday, December 10, 2014

From Facebook to Tuvalu - a Very Wide Gap Indeed

Earlier this week, our public relations office sent out a press release and posted information on the college Facebook page about our participation here at COP20 in Lima.  Based on prior experience, if this was the local paper, I would (sadly) expect the trolls to make snide remarks.  You know -- how sending students to our college is a waste of money, something about climate denial, and the liberal “crap” we teach in higher education.  (It's true.)  I wasn’t, however, expecting negative comments from our own alumni.

ID-10-T error.  I'm so ashamed that my Alma mater is sending people to this farcical conference.

I should know better than to respond to Facebook comments like this, but nevertheless, I replied:

I would like to hear more about why you feel this way. The process is by no means perfect, but do you have a better solution as to how we address the major global issue?

The response:

The people at these conferences are all "watermelons." They pretend to care about the environment, but they're really just communists looking to redistribute the world's wealth. If the United States agrees to meet certain targets, we risk ruining our own economy. Remember, the people at the conference can't commit the US to do anything. Only the Senate can ratify international treaties. Nothing will be accomplished at this conference.

Well, if this individual had heard the fiery speech from Evo Morales, President of Bolivia, at the Opening Plenary of the High Level Segment, he would be further convinced of his claim.  Personally, I interpreted the comments from Morales as a call to rethink our unsustainable economic systems and consumptive lifestyles, and to allow others the opportunity for a fair, safe, and healthy standard of living.  I suppose that would mean a redistribution of wealth.  Because this speech was from Bolivia, – the first country to include Rights of Nature in its national constitution – there was also a call to protect Mother Earth.

Evo Morales at the Opening Plenary of the High Level Segment, COP20
It was another tactical error, this time on my part, to continue the conversation with a lengthy response:

I am well aware of the inability of the US to ratify agreements here and with the political environment in Congress, chances are slim that anything environmental will get ratified back home. Sadly, much talk here is to find a way to come up with an international agreement that bypasses the U.S. -- a country that is still one of the largest greenhouse gas emitters, especially if you express this per capita.

Are there some here who are interested in redistribution of wealth? Perhaps, but they typically don't express it so blatantly. Rather, there are discussions of "Polluter pays" - e.g. for the alleged damage that has been caused by greenhouse gas emissions leading to climate change.  There are calls for help with the development and transfer of new clean renewable technologies so that developing nations don't make the same mistakes that the US, EU, China, etc. have.

I will disagree, however, that an agreement/compromise/treaty will ruin our economy. There will be some adjustments in the short term, but as a scientist who has carefully studied the data, if we don't rethink our fossil fuel use and adapt, the longer-term impacts will be much, much worse for the economy.

But I would also add that there is no better way to hear all of the perspectives and be educated about the complexities of the issues than to be here with students and to bring these perspectives back to the broader community at home in an unbiased a way as possible.

End of that conversation.

The second alum to comment played off the first:

I agree a liberal arts college and professors that think liberal and teach liberalism - if only they would research and get their facts correct.

Hmmm.  Being curious, I had to inquire what facts/research were incorrect, but received no response to that question.

Since I was on a roll, I continued:

I also suggest that you look up the original meaning of the term "liberal education" and then ask you how participating in international deliberations about a globally recognized challenge is not something we should be doing as educators and researchers?

To that, he replied:

Goggle the true facts and stop agreeing with another liberal Huffington Post - Your telling us if Goggle the true facts and stop agreeing with another liberal Huffington Post - Your telling us if we stopped exhaling carbon dioxide the planet would be better off?

There is no response for a statement like that.  But for the record, as a scientist and academic, I prefer peer-reviewed scientific literature over things that someone might find on Google.  And I won't repeat some of the other comments he made.

Thank goodness for the response of a third alumnus – albeit one that the first two would likely feel had been brainwashed.  You see, this person attended COP15 with the Moravian delegation in Copenhagen in 2009.

I'm ashamed to share the same alma mater with someone who thinks that it is laughable that world leaders are discussing something as serious as anthropogenic climate change (which nearly all scientists studying the data agree exists)... Moreover believes it is a conspiracy theory brought about by world leaders to redistribute the world’s wealth (That is laughable. If that was the case, policy would have been implemented long ago, but it isn't and hasn't due to the many interest groups involved). Discussion must come before policy.

The impact of attending a COP meeting on that student, and the others who have attended, has been profound.  I distinctly remember this particular student sitting on the floor in a circle with youth representatives from small island nations, learning about their fears of having to move their entire country, leaving behind their homes, their culture, their history, their sense of place.  And I remember the passionate description in a post-COP essay about how that experience had changed his perspective on his own life.

I was thinking of that student today as I listed to opening remarks by Enele Sopoaga, Prime Minister of Tuvalu.  This is a small island nation midway between Australia and Hawaii.  It is only 4.6 meters above sea level at highest point, and thus, it is one of most vulnerable nations to climate change impacts, especially sea level rise.

Enele Sopoaga, Prime Minister of Tuvalu 
The prime minister first told of the tragic and historic connection between his country and Peru as there are Tuvaluans buried in this land, those brought over to work in the mines.  But he went on to note that no other leader has had to face question of whether their nation will survive or disappear under the sea.  He added, Think of what it is like to be in my shoes? He then asked the audience if they were faced with this situation, what would they do?

The passionate part of speech that came next was not expected.  My notes captured his words close to verbatim and I include them here because they are worth sharing.

After a reference to Dante (“The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis”), Sopoaga said that this is a time of crisis and asked if [the other leaders] want this [the consequences of climate change] on their conscience.  The prime minister was in New York during the Climate March in September, and said that he was moved when he saw signs for the support of Tuvalu in midst of people – all 400,000 of them.  “I heard their moans, their calls, and share their concerns.  It is time to ignore the voices of the climate change deniers driven by big fossil fuel industries, to ignore the national leaders who don’t believe.  These are shallow creatures who only see face of dollars.  In Tuvalu, we see faces of children, and it is these children to whom they must answer.

...The fossil fuels we use today are from extinct animals and plants,  they signify extinction, we must not condemn ourselves to extinction.

… Ask everyone who leaves this room to look into eyes of first child they see and imagine what those eyes will see in 10 or 20 years.  Will they see hell or a sustainable planet?  Let us try to build a firm foundation here so that we can stand proud in Paris.  ‘Yes we have a future for you’ is what we can tell our children.  Let us make 2015 the year we save the world, save Tuvalu.  Because if we save Tuvalu, we will save the world.

These are the speeches we hear at the COP meetings.  These are the tough questions we wrangle with.  If this is “liberal crap,” then so be it.

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