by Dena Merriam
Since 2009 The Global Peace Initiative of Women has been attending the annual UN COP (climate change) meetings and has seen the gradual shift from a language of prevention to one of adaptation: how will the human community adapt to potential scenarios that lie ahead and can we avoid the worst of these possible outcomes? The calls from scientists become more urgent as each year new data is uncovered and governments fail to take the necessary steps for transitioning to a carbon neutral world. This year, at COP 25 in Madrid, the goal of the official meeting was to resolve article 6 of the Paris Agreement, which deals with carbon markets, the trading and off setting of carbon emissions — a complicated matter with many opposing views.
One story we heard was of a certain large corporation planting a pine forest in Patagonia, Argentina to offset its carbon emissions in a distant part of the world. While this may on the surface seem like a good thing, the land, which had previously been accessible to the indigenous people of that region, was now off limits, and the trees planted were not native to the area, and so there was much local opposition. In a panel with indigenous leaders from various parts of the world, the leaders pleaded to have a voice on article 6 as often it is their communities that are most affected. As one indigenous leader from Kenya said, “we need nature-based resilience actions and not market-based actions.”
At sessions devoted to the cryosphere (ice and glaciers) we discovered how much scientists still do not understand and how much more research is needed. We learned that the last time earth’s atmosphere had the co2 levels of today was 3.5 million years ago when global temperatures were about 3 degrees Celsius higher. We also learned there is much at stake with even a half a degree further increase in temperature. The threshold for big ice loss in the Antarctica ice sheet is 1.5 degrees Celsius, which would cause sea levels to rise 4 meters (approximately 12 feet) by 2100. A rise of 2 degrees would lead to a 10 meter (30 feet) increase by 2500. In terms of human casualties, the difference between 1.5 degree (Celsius) rise and 2 degrees is 150 million human deaths, and with each half degree this loss is multiplied. Even with the current modest rise in temperatures (about 1-degree Celsius), indigenous leaders testified to the big changes they are seeing in agricultural cycles and the need for adaptation. As one scientist claimed, the longer we delay, the more likely we will see long term irreversible climate conditions. Another stressed that a long-term whole-economy view is essential, and a full transformation is needed across all sectors of society.
Of all the regions, Europe seems to have progressed the most. We heard from a German official that their government will have phased out all coal by 2038. There are still 20,000 coal workers in Germany, and they are being brought into the transition process so they can gain the skills needed for new jobs. When comparing this to the conversations about coal in the US, it was sad to realize how much precious time is being lost. At this point, Europe may be the only region to meet the Paris Agreement target of becoming carbon neutral by 2050. As one speaker said, there is increasing risk of the goals of the Paris Agreement slipping out of reach, and those goals were modest at best.
There has been increasing focus of what is being called “climate grief” and this was evident among the many young people who participated this year. The fact that there is already so much biodiversity loss and that there are so many unknowns about the future is causing fear, anxiety and anger among young activists. Again, this year there was tension between the small island nations, for whom climate change is a current not future crisis, and the wealthier nations who are unwilling to make commitments that may impact their economies.
One striking feature of this and all COP meetings is how they tend to be human-focused. Yet, we are far from the only species who will suffer from the climate crisis and ensuing ecological decline, and yet all discussions revolved around how we humans will be affected. But if we are not willing to act to save our fellow humans, those most vulnerable, it is unlikely we will act to spare the whales or any other species.
There were bright spots to the meeting. Because Chile was co-chair of the summit, there was a large delegation from Latin America in the civil society section, and many indigenous representatives who spoke of earth’s ecosystem, with us humans only being one part. On one panel with indigenous leaders, a speaker from Kenya was asked what it means to be indigenous. He replied, “being indigenous, to me, is about the right to self-determination, the right to shape initiatives to self-determine who I want to be.” Another of the speakers said, “we are fed up with tokenism. While it is politically incorrect not to recognize indigenous knowledge at the policy level, it has not translated to practical action on the ground. We need equitable partnerships.”
Our small delegation of spiritual teachers held a session with two other NGOs — Dharma Drum Mountain Buddhist Association and Sustaining all Life – on the theme of Reclaiming Sacred Earth. For us it was a continuation of the many dialogues we have been organizing around the world on the Inner Dimensions of Climate Change, which focus on the shifts in mindset needed to help us address the climate and ecological crisis. We speak about awakening love for the earth, for the rivers and oceans, mountains and forests, plant and animal life and coming to see them as living beings, not commodities to be traded and abused. As one of our speakers Swami Atmarupananda from the US said, “If we silence our minds, we begin to experience a unity that is holy, the sense that the earth is a living conscious being. That is a reality….. it is only when we begin a real process of inner transformation that we can begin to solve the problem of climate change. The solution is inside of us.” Another speaker, the Buddhist teacher Ricardo Toledo from Argentina expressed, “Something has to die for something to be born. Our destructive way of life must die. The civilization that is dying is a paradigm of separation and superiority.” A certain way of thinking and living must die for a more ecological and spiritually aware way of being to be born.
One of our speakers from Greece spoke about how she moved from the rural area to the city to bring her connection with nature there. “I heard the voice of nature calling me to the city. Part of the sacred is to be alert, to see where I must be. It’s not what we do but how we do it. We have to ask, am I fully present.” It is the consciousness we bring to the climate crisis that will make the difference.
We deeply believe only a change in consciousness will enable humankind to evolve into a new partnership with earth’s community of life, one of respect, appreciation and gratitude. Despite the frustration and despair these meetings can evoke, we continue to attend in the hope that we as a human community will come together to act out of love for the earth and gratitude for all she gives to each and every form of life.