In November last year, I had the opportunity to go to the UNFCCC in Bonn. Just before Christmas, I reflected on these experiences from the perspective of an environmental historian for HistoricalClimatology.com. ('A' historian or 'An' historian?)
I joined the most recent UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn with a delegation from Monash University, which also included legal scholars, renewable energy specialists, and science communicators. The opportunity to observe and participate in the activities that accompany the negotiations was too good to pass up. Both personally and professionally, I have closely followed the machinations of international climate politics over the past decade, with particular attention to the work of Australian scientists and policymakers in the past and present. Attending and participating in the conference offered the chance to see firsthand how delegates and other actors negotiate and deliberate to shape the future of our planet. Here, I reflect on the different ways that the past inflected these discussions, and how they resonate with the fields of climate and environmental history.
With Fiji presiding, the COP23 had the specific goal of preparing the implementation phase of the Paris Agreement. Having celebrated the achievements of Paris in 2015, now was the time to get down to work to ensure that the rise of global temperatures is limited to 2 Celsius or below. The organisation of COP23 was such that intergovernmental negotiations took place in the ‘Bula Zone’, while about two kilometres away in the Rheinaue Leisure Park was the ‘Bonn Zone’, where governments and all manner of non-governmental organisations showcased their work in events, exhibits, and demonstrations. I was granted access only to the latter; I gathered from colleagues and other participants that the distance between the two spaces was a shortcoming because it isolated negotiators from the energetic atmosphere in this area, while diminishing the transparency and openness of the negotiations.
In observing how national interests shape global climate policies, I was especially interested in representations of economic development, adaptation, and climate justice, and how these informed the discussions at the COP23. These issues are inherently historical in nature, processes spurred by global configurations of imperialism, capitalism, and (de-)colonisation since at least the eighteenth century. With the small island nation of Fiji as co-host of the meeting, these concerns were front and centre for the duration of the event. The strong cultural presence of Fiji in both the Bula (meaning ‘welcome’) and Bonn Zones ensured that there was both a sense of place and a sense of urgency to the negotiations. As the Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama reminded attendees on the eve of the conference, we are ‘all in the same canoe’.
Here, the inequities of anthropogenic climate change were palpable. Among the worst-affected by the increased frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events of a warmer planet will be those former colonies, such as the low-lying islands of the Pacific, that comprise the Global South. There is a dark irony, as Dipesh Chakrabarty and others have argued, that these peoples and places are bearing the brunt of a planetary phenomenon to which they have contributed little. They have received little of the benefits from economic growth associated with increased carbon dioxide emissions, but face the most immediate costs with the fewest resources to adapt. Having recently relocated the village of Vunidogoloa in the face of flooding and coastal erosion, and with plans to relocate many more, Fiji symbolized just what was at stake in Bonn.
The display and performance of the nation’s culture and history in both zones reinforced this symbolism. Each day, members of the Fijian delegation danced, sang and practiced traditional crafts and ceremonies, enlivening the conference with these colourful and moving expressions of ‘bula’ (also meaning ‘life’). The adoption of the Fijian and Pacific word ‘Talanoa’ to describe forthcoming facilitative discussions (the ‘Talanoa dialogue’) will hopefully ensure that this presidency leaves a lasting local impression on the UNFCCC process.
The attention to material culture continued on the conference fringe, with public art in the Rheinaue Park providing a meaningful connection between the Bula and Bonn Zones that underscored the urgent need for climate action. One striking piece created a ‘sign forest’ of rallying cries from past and current social and environmental campaigns. Suggesting the connection between these movements and the current climate crisis highlighted a sentiment I heard expressed throughout conference that ‘people power’ (and non-state actors) can give ‘confidence’ to governments to act on climate change. Another moving sculpture was ‘Unbearable’, by Danish artist Jens Galschiøt, which depicted a polar bear impaled on an oil pipeline curved upwards to represent increasing carbon emissions. These works, together with the fascinating Wetterbericht (‘Weather Report’) exhibition at the nearby Bundeskunsthalle, reinforce the important role of the arts and cultural institutions in ‘supporting conversation about and action on’ climate change, as the editors of Curating the Future argue.
These exhibits combined with reports of a spike in carbon emissions this year, to remind us of just how far we had come and how far we had to go. At the Bonn headquarters of the UNFCCC, an exhibition celebrated over two decades of international climate change diplomacy, with Paris the crowning achievement to date. But others argued we had not come far enough: Uppsala University’s Zennström Professor Kevin Anderson despaired at the failure of “his” generation to curb emissions and to convince governments of the urgent need for action. Speakers turned to the past to reinforce their message. For Anderson, only an international effort on the scale of the Marshall Plan (1948-51) would come even close to meeting the aims of the Paris agreement. Others pointed to the Montreal Protocol (1989) and its impacts as an example of what could be achieved through international cooperation. These examples left me uncertain as to how instructive they might be for our current condition. On the one hand, they buoy our hopes that change can happen, while on the other, their circumstances suggest the key to action is an agreed threat – whether communism or CFCs. Amid the diffusion of expertise and authority that currently typifies Western liberal democracies, just how we can reach that common ground remains to be seen.
At the very least, these references to historic examples provided temporal markers to accompany the conference’s emphasis on the materiality of climate change. Fiji’s presidency and the displays of material culture that accompanied many delegations reminded participants that climate change, while a planetary crisis, manifests at the local level. The ‘sea of islands’ of the Pacific, the littoral, coastlines, were all sites where climate change was manifesting. Together, their evocation also suggested the importance of the physical properties of the ocean in our understandings of the climate crisis.
Although there was certainly plenty of techno-optimism in the air, many speakers and observers emphasised the importance of engaging with other forms of knowledge. One project involved sharing the fire cultures of Aboriginal Australians with local peoples in Botswana. This initiative was one of many that reflected the meeting’s more inclusive approach regarding First Peoples, whose care for country was finally acknowledged as vital for climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts. FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva, meanwhile, lamented the impact of the Green Revolution on the ‘old ways’ of agricultural production. Both moments spoke to the urgency of redressing the troubling legacies of ‘improvement’ and Western hubris, and for the empowerment of local peoples at home and abroad.
For many participants, such empowerment lay in their faith. Church leaders from the Pacific, Californian Governor Jerry Brown, and former Irish President Mary Brown, for instance, all reflected on the importance of their faith to themselves and to their communities. Worship offered a culture of coping that connected them to each other and to a higher power, while providing an existential framework to make sense of environmental challenges. They and others invoked Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on the environment as a source of inspiration and hope that emphasised climate justice for all.
COP23 was not without its contradictions. Just fifty kilometres away from the host city, for instance, is the site of one of Europe’s biggest sources of CO2 emissions: the large open-cast lignite coal mine near Cologne. Thousands of demonstrators converged there to urge the German government to phase out the mining activity and to deliver on its progressive climate rhetoric. Meanwhile, the Australian government proudly announced further contributions to climate change adaptation measures in Oceania, but were less inclined to discuss the future of the Adani coal mine or the health of the Great Barrier Reef. These examples alone speak to the complex knot of labour, energy and conservation that continue to stymie climate action.
Perhaps the greatest contradiction of them all was the sheer size of the meeting, and its accompanying carbon footprint. So great were the demands of hosting such a conference that Fiji was unable to hold the event at home. To the enormous infrastructure required for the meeting itself, add the toll of international travel of some twenty thousand delegates and observes – it all makes for an eye-watering sum. Many scholars in the sciences and humanities have long questioned the environmental ethics of conference travel (particularly by air), and are exploring alternative ways for meaningful and productive scholarly exchange. Geography certainly presents something of a challenge for Australian academics, but taking a more strategic and judicious approach to the frequency of my own travels will be an important start. Attending COP23 made it clear to me that learning how to live and work more lightly is a challenge I can no longer afford to ignore.