York gains observer status at UN climate change conference

Above: People gather at a water collection point in India. Photo by York grad Paul Marmer (BES Hons. ’86).

There’s nothing like a good bit of networking – and a signed affidavit confirming you exist – to get the United Nations to take notice of you. Especially when you want to say something about the injustice of climate change on marginalized peoples at COP15, the next United Nations Climate Change Conference being held in Copenhagen in December.

Right: Speakers at the IRIS conference in April

Members of York’s Faculties of Environmental Studies, Liberal Arts & Professional Studies and Science & Engineering, and the Institute for Research & Innovation in Sustainability (IRIS), following up on a successful conference on climate justice held at York’s Keele campus in April (see YFile,  April 3), acted on a suggestion by some of the participants and applied for observer status at the UN conference in order to take a message about the plight of poor and indigenous peoples affected by climate change to those who are planning the global response to the greatest challenge of our time.

After completing the rigorous application procedure, which included sending an affidavit signed by York President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri confirming that York University exists along with a copy of the York Act, the University is now recognized as a civil society organization eligible to observe the proceedings and participate in UN-sanctioned side events around the conference. York is co-sponsoring an official side event aimed at bringing attention to the issue of climate justice.

At least seven York representatives are being nominated as delegates: Professors Anders Sandberg, Ellie Perkins, Jose Etcheverry and Dawn Bazely, and Annette Dubreuil, manager of the International Polar Year Gas, Arctic Peoples & Security Project at IRIS, and coordinator of IRIS. Two Faculty of Environmental Studies graduate students, and possibly others, will also be nominated.

There will be an information session for people interested in participating in York’s delegation to COP15 on Nov. 4, from 10 to 11am, in 305 York Lanes.

Attending COP15 with official observer status is a boost for York’s reputation as a centre for research into social justice and sustainability, and follows recognition recently given to the Schulich School of Business at York University by the Aspen Institute as the No. 1 business school in the world when it comes to teaching corporate social responsibility and sustainability.

Last April’s conference, Strengthening the Ecojustice Movement: How Will Disenfranchised Peoples Adapt to Climate Change? didn’t draw many members of the public but, says Dawn Bazely, IRIS director, it helped bring the work being done at York to the attention of a select group of international activists who are leading the fight to have the social justice aspects of climate change brought into the discourse at events such as COP15.

Dawn BazleyLeft: Dawn Bazley, director of IRIS

“We are building on our strengths to highlight the issues that are not often talked about,” says Bazley.

The genesis of the effort for UN observer status was a Canadian International Development Agency-sponsored project, Sister Watersheds (see YFile,  July 14, 2008), which Perkins started in 2002, that linked York and FES with the University of São Paolo and the ECOAR Institute for Citizenship, a highly respected non-governmental organization in Brazil. The education project allowed 15 graduate exchange students to visit each university and created a network of people in both hemispheres working to promote knowledge of climate change. It was that connection that led to the climate justice conference and more important networking opportunities.

In São Paulo last summer, Sheila Embleton, then York’s vice-president academic & provost, and Adrian Shubert, then associate vice-president international, met Miriam Dualibi, director of ECOAR, where plans for the April conference were first made. “Miriam said York should have a conference on climate justice,” says Ellie Perkins. And so it happened. Now the partnership is continuing with the side event at COP15.

Ellie Perkins

Right: Ellie Perkins

“What Miriam told us,” Perkins adds, “was that what you quite often get is wealthy countries telling the global south how things are going to have to be, but many of the messages can’t even be applied in global south countries because people who already have such small ecological footprints can’t actually adapt. They don’t have the capacity to use less energy.” And, Perkins adds, “this whole idea that climate change is going to happen in the future? In fact it is happening for many people in the world right now.”

In addition to a display about the injustices caused by the world’s wealthier inhabitants to the existence of marginalized peoples’, the York team will be mounting an art exhibit documenting how poor people are responding to climate change, with contributions from some of the other observer organizations. The team also plans to work with ECOAR to build a Web portal where community organizations around the world can share stories and information on how they are trying to adapt to climate change.

The fifteenth Conference of the Parties under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, popularly known as COP15, is taking place in Copenhagen, Denmark, from Dec. 7 to 18.