Climate justice team returns from Copenhagen

Above: From left, Jacqueline Medalye, York graduate student; Annette Dubreuil, IRIS project manager; Benjamin Ramirez Jimenez, York nursing student; and Miriam Duailibi, director of ECOAR and co-head of the York/ECOAR observer delegation to the UN Climate Change Conference, COP15, in Copenhagen

“Great, chaotic, aggravating” – those were the first three words Professor Ellie Perkins used to describe her experience as an official York observer at COP15, the United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Copenhagen in December.

At the suggestion of colleagues from the University of São Paulo and Brazil’s ECOAR Institute for Citizenship, York applied for official civil society observer status at the 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 (see YFile, Oct. 29, 2009.) Of course, while they were there, they kept watch on the negotiations over reducing greenhouse gases, and saw them come to an inconclusive end.

Prof. Ellie Perkins

Right: Ellie Perkins in Copenhagen

“The outcome was disappointing,” said Perkins, a professor in York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies (FES) and core faculty at York’s Institute for Research & Innovation in Sustainability (IRIS), of the conference’s non-binding final agreement that urges major polluters to make deeper emissions cuts – but does not require it. “It raised the question of whether the UN is capable of being the venue for crucial issues of global governance like climate change – and if not, what the alternatives might be,” said Perkins, who was co-head of the York delegation, along with Dawn Bazely, biology professor in the Faculty of Science & Engineering and IRIS director.

Left: Dubreuil at the York/ECOAR booth in the convention hall

Perkins was accompanied on the trip by six other York observers and Miriam Duailibi, director of ECOAR, a São Paulo-based institute promoting sustainability which has a partnership with York. The York group included FES colleagues Professors Anders Sandberg and Jose Etcheverry, and Annette Dubreuil, project manager of IRIS. Four students made the trip: FES graduate students Tor Sandberg and Janina Schan, Jaqueline Medalye, a PhD student in political science, and nursing student Benjamin Ramirez Jimenez.

The York-ECOAR booth was sited right next to a UN media interview location. York’s delegates were able to watch officials being interviewed, including Mohamed Nasheed, president of the Republic of Maldives, whose South Asian nation – much of it made up of numerous small islands – is among the most vulnerable and least defensible countries to the projected impacts of climate change and associated sea-level rise.

York’s observer status at the conference arose from efforts Perkins and other researchers are making to address justice issues surrounding the effects of climate change. “We learned a lot and shared a lot,” said Perkins. “Information was shared with delegates from around the world, and York became known as a centre for work on this issue.”

Left: York team talks climate justice with a conference visitor

Perkins said there were even international students dropping by the group’s booth, inquiring about studying at York. “The booth was beautiful and people were very interested in what we were saying about climate justice.”

Handouts at the booth included ribbons printed with the URL to a new Global Climate Justice Web site co-sponsored by IRIS and ECOAR, and fortune cookies with messages such as “Your future depends on Global Climate Justice.”

The group has already sent in two grant proposals for student exchanges and research, including building a Global Climate Justice for Disenfranchised People Web portal. Dubreuil said the purpose of the portal is to allow people and communities affected by global warming to connect with researchers and to directly share stories of how they are adapting. Their struggles to find solutions will be shared on the site, which will be multilingual. “The problems vulnerable communities face may be different but often the methods they use to solve them are transferable.”

Dubreuil said York’s official side event was hastily presented by Ramirez Jimenez after UN organizers gave them only 24 hours notice of their time-slot, which was on the first day of the conference. The York and ECOAR delegates also made presentations at two side events held by the Brazilian Action/Resilience on Climate Adaptation (BARCA) group and by the World Wildlife Fund. Greenpeace International also made space for the York delegation on the program at their Climate Recovery Station exhibit outside the main hall.

Right: Ribbons for climate justice with a URL for the proposed Web portal

Professor Sandberg gave a speech at one of the “Seminars in the Street” in downtown Copenhagen and Etcheverry gave a talk on feed-in tariffs in North America.

Perkins said COP15 was especially instructive for the students in the group, one of whom was able to do interviews for her thesis with many of the delegates.

Although she was pleased to be able to network with other people from around the world who are working for climate justice, Perkins said the conference’s vague conclusion was disappointing and the challenge of such a complicated problem is daunting. “But there was an overwhelming level of energy and commitment to work on climate justice which we were part of in Copenhagen.”

“I feel that the demonstrations, level of NGO participation and global attention surrounding COP15 showed that climate change is going mainstream," said Perkins. "There’s a process of public engagement and education underway which is promising, not just on climate change but on broader global justice issues too.”

“At the end of the day, having members of the York University community at COP15, was, more than anything, about simply bearing witness to how global governance actually functions today,” said Bazely. “If an observer delegation from one of the wealthy countries in the world found negotiating the byzantine UN bureaucracy so difficult, just imagine the barriers faced by other members of civil society without our resources. Of course, now we’re looking ahead to the next COP, which will be in Mexico City in November.”