“And when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” – Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
Perhaps the German philosopher is not the first name that comes to most minds when thinking of the climate talks, but amidst the abyss of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), I can think of no one more appropriate to describe my thoughts.
People with previous experience of the climate talks had talked about disempowerment, a prevailing sense of helplessness as negotiations on the survival of humanity grind to a halt in esoteric acronyms and quixotic discussions on brackets around sentences. Watching close to two hundred delegates simultaneously editing a word document on a giant 3-metre screen is nothing short of bewildering – how does society even function when our survival is somehow dependent on the most illogical procedural vagaries of the UNFCCC? To hear the strange tales of geopolitical battles in mind-numbing editorial sessions is one thing, but to experience the diplomatic maneuvers that could be straight from Game of Thrones – added with the complete lack of progress – is something I could have never prepared for.
I have seen the abyss. While few would describe the beautiful summer nights along the banks of the Rhine as anything resembling darkness, the city of Bonn hides within it a dreadful darkness. At the Free World Conference Centre delegates bustle about, running from session to session, seemingly never done with the day’s work. And who could blame them, for surely the task ahead of them is the greatest ahead, the very survival our civilization? Yet survival seems far away from this surreal bubble; the world of the United Nations climate change negotiations is not dominated by a sense of urgency or panic – and certainly not of hope – but a strange, weirdly familiar sense of apathy that hangs in the air. Even though the scientists warn us of the consequences of failure – the destruction of our cities, the displacement of millions, the catastrophic droughts, and ensuing famines – what seems to matter is not survival, but procedure, mutual consensus and whether the 256th paragraph of a 90-page text should have brackets.
As climate change is an existential crisis, so do the climate change negotiations resonate an existential angst. Very few here, at least in their right minds, will tell you that the UNFCCC can save humanity. No one finds the process efficient or rational, but it is the great God that must be followed, for to do wrong against it is to do wrong against the Parties – a jumble of paper slips with names of countries strewn across the plenary seats, supposedly representing the world’s 7 billion citizens. Yet self-congratulations resound and everyone pats themselves on the back – why do the African delegations rage that their world is burning when we are doing so much good? What does it matter that the science is forgotten when our great industrial nations have promised to phase out the poisons killing our planet by the end of the century? Why is it that civil society and the youth do not understand that our great salvation lies in the INDC’s, the NAMA’s, LULUCF, the GCF and the million other assorted letter combinations? “Long may they live!” cry the delegates as they feast and drink on the banquets of the UNFCCC.
Yet darkness is a strange thing – when one feels the most lost, the inescapable despair, the vast angst that reputedly haunts the German psyche, one suddenly finds hope. Sadness, anger, despair; these are the words I have heard used to describe the endless negotiations to save our souls and I have felt them all too. No, rather been I have been overwhelmed by them too. But it is only in the darkness that the stars can burn – somehow here in Bonn, in the place it seems furthest from, I have found hope again. The disempowerment that characterises the Alice in Wonderland world of climate diplomacy, the sheer madness of the delegates that, like Nero, dance and drink while Rome burns, has somehow let me find power in myself and the movement we are building with millions of others.
As I stared into the abyss, the abyss stared into me. I have no illusions now – no great climate treaty will be our savior, no Green Climate Fund will deliver our salvation, no Messiah will be found in Paris. I see now, the answer was always in ourselves. Having shed all hope in the United Nations and the great wisdom of our leaders – the elected and the self-appointed – the confirmation has come to me that we must deliver our own salvation. Looking at the grand power of our negotiators, the idolised secretariat, and the missing politicians, I see now they were all just figureheads – mere puppets in the wind, turning and twitching to the direction that happens to have the strongest pull. The power is – and always was – with the people. I have heard the mantra a millions times and it became a cliché a long-time ago, but now I see what it actually means. We have forgotten this fundamental truth. Politics, the very art of managing our commons affairs, has to most become nothing but a banality – at best a half-hearted effort to vote once or twice in a decade. We have been dormant too long, but just as the coming of the Winter in the imaginary land of Westeros, so must we be paradoxically woken up from our slumber by the coming of our climate winter.
The task ahead of us is simple, yet the complexity of our chosen undertaking is almost laughable. We must build a movement. And not only must we build a movement, we must build the movement – the movement that redefines our very notions of society, living and existence. As to Nietzsche’s crisis of modernity, the death of God and the end of meaning, our overcoming lies only in the creation of new set of values. We must – and I vow to you, we will – build a political movement that crosses all boundaries, be they national, ethnic, class or any other that we separate our common and intertwined existence. Where all previous movements have faltered, from the followers of Marcus Garvey to the French revolutionary masses, we will prevail. From the ashes of the old, we are building new political ideas, new ways of living, new ways to understand our world – and fundamentally new values that give us purpose and meaning in this little blue speck that swims amongst the endless ocean of stars. We must redefine ourselves and our existence; where we have endlessly consumed merely to consume, where we have toiled merely to toil, where we have climbed supposedly higher and higher, we must now stop and find a new direction. God is dead, we have killed him with our own hands. Now we must create something worthy, something equally as holy.
We have a long road ahead, a war longer than any other, with many battles that we have lost – and many more that we will lose. Our losses count hundreds of thousands lost to drought and typhoons, millions fleeing their homes, huge wealth shifted to the wealthiest and greediest among us and endless efforts wasted on fruitless negotiations. The battle of the climate negotiations has been lost in many ways – the battleground we had chosen could never have delivered the victory we hoped. We marched in Copenhagen, Cancun and Lima, only to see our weather change further, our most vulnerable drown amidst the rising oceans, our most hungry see their crops burn as the temperatures soared. But the tide is turning. We see now our battle lies elsewhere. It is not in the ADP and SBSTA sessions, but in every city, every village and every heart of every human being on this planet. While I do not deny that there are valuable victories we can still claim from the United Nations, from education to compensation, our war will never be decided here. As Nietzsche warned that we must avoid becoming monsters when fighting them, we must see the UNFCCC has come to resemble the monstrosities it purportedly fights.
Instead, we will reclaim and reawaken the power that belongs to us. We will divest, boycott, march, scream and shout. We will stop trains, shut down power stations, and stop the destruction of our lands. We will build community energy, protect our forests and reclaim our sacred places. We will no longer cooperate with a system that can end only with our own destruction. We will no longer consume endlessly, trying to fill our empty lives with TV and other drugs. Amidst the darkness, we are coming together to leave behind the old, and set our own course for the future. Not as individuals, but together, we can be the change we want to see in the world. These are the real lessons of the climate negotiations.