27 November 2011

The Real Deal!

The real deal! Get it? They're negotiating a new climate deal at COP17! Oh no she didn't! Yes, I did. Anywho, my dry sense of humour aside (I still find it highly amusing) - yesterday the real thing started, the reason I'm here in Durban - the 17th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the 7th Session of the Conference of the Parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol, otherwise known as COP17. It actually feels so strange typing COP17 without a hash tag in front. But I'll get back to twitter-talk later.

The excitement of COP really started to hit on Sunday when I got my badge to enter the ICC. I've been in Durban since Thursday and I was starting to get a bit sick of being driven around the ICC, navigating blocked roads and whatnot, but not actually being allowed anywhere too close to it. So finally being able to enter the complex, beyond the central transport hub was a massive deal (there she goes again with the puns!) to me. On top of that, just like when I interned at WWF, the excitement of having an official lanyard with UNFCCC on it was possibly the coolest thing in the world. In fact, the novelty of the badge still hasn't worn off.

I had to
Sunday was also when I finally met the kids I'm supervising. It's something I had been anxious about ever since it was organised. I knew nothing about the children, how old they were, if they spoke  fluent English, what I would have to do with them in Durban - all I knew was that with them I'd be at COP17. Now, I know it all. There are four of them, two boys and two girls - Shreya Bharti, Lakshay Rastogi, Vineeth Udayakumar and Charu Dixit. What I instantly loved was that all of them are from four completely different corners of India and that they're all only in 11th grade. There's Lakshay from Gurgaon - an area on the outskirts of Delhi, which in my lifetime has developed at a ridiculous rate. So he comes from the land of skyscrapers and shopping malls. Charu is from Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh - India's most populous state. Shreya comes from Jammu, all the way up north, in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir. And then Vineeth who's come all the way from the Lakshadweep islands, which are actually closer to the Maldives than India (which I also imagine are very relevant when it comes to climate change and sea level rise). Through a selection process which lasted almost a month, the four of them were eventually chosen to be the lucky students to attend COP17 in Durban with the official Indian delegation. As an initiative of the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests' Centre for Environment Education, they did online quizzes, essay-writing competitions and workshops to get here. Now that they're in Durban, I'm their local guardian and "mentor". The fact that they're here and attending COP17 is huge and I want them to feel like they're in the most important place in the world right now (because it is). They need to realise the gravity of the negotiations and take that back with them, regardless of the outcome of the talks.

Sunday night ended with a dramatic thunderstorm, so appropriate on the eve of COP17. Ironically enough, the next day there was news of people dying due to flooding in the region. But to put a more optimistic spin on it, as Christiana Figueres mentioned in her opening speech at the talks, "the gods rained on us with blessings before COP".

Day 1 of COP17 was overwhelming, to put it simply. The venue is massive, there is so much happening simultaneously in so many places, so many people buzzing around and so many documents to collect. Absolute madness (though very organised madness I must say - well done Durban!). However, once you finally get your bearings and figure out what's happening where, it doesn't get much easier. The first event we attended was a meeting of the G77+China group. To be honest, it made no sense to me. They just dealt with formalities and a provisional agenda and it was difficult to follow. Only later, when speaking to one of the Indian delegates, did I realise that what they were talking about is actually really important. There was a lot of debate over the agenda because India added three new points of discussion to it, which they want to have considered in the negotiations but some countries disagree with. I won't go into that now because it's too long to explain but when I do a post that's more about the substance of the negotiations, I'll mention it. Then there was the opening plenary session, which was straightforward as it was just a series of opening speeches, the highlights being President Jacob Zuma, Christiana Figueres and Minister Maite-Nkoana Mashabane. JZ didn't say anything too special, in fact many people think he didn't show enough leadership. But the two women were absolutely inspirational, I've become a huge fan of both. Another thing I still can't get over is how cool it is to be in the room where an international UN conference is happening. It's everything you expect from TV! UN flags and rows of tables with country placards, each with the little mic to speak from - amazing. For the rest of Day 1, we sat in on the rest of the plenary and the beginning of the CMP to the Kyoto Protocol session. Again, the formalities and the jargon were a LOT to keep up with and only made sense when broken down to us by one of the Indian delegates. Mr. T.S. Tirumurti, one of the men who helped organise me being at COP, has regularly been meeting with the kids to check in with them and also to give them little briefings on what's happening at COP and what India's stance is. It's been so valuable, both to them and myself. After his first briefing to us yesterday, the children had two interview sessions with the press where they each got to tell their story. After a long day at the ICC, heads full of technical jargon and climate policy, we came back to the hotel.

My second day of COP17 couldn't have started more gloriously. I left early without the kids so that I could make it to the ICC in time for the YOUNGO (Youth NGO) spokescouncil which I had missed yesterday. They arrived later with some of the other Indian delegates. Firstly, while on the shuttle and driving past Umgeni River, I saw a group of pelicans. If that's not a good start to a morning, I don't know what is. I arrived at the Durban Exhibition Centre right on time for the meet. Once again, I was in a room of vocal young activists, including many familiar faces from COY, and the inspiration was back. I said this enough in the last post, but I really can't believe how pro-active these guys are. One of the actions they carried out today was to deliver an intervention at the plenary meeting on the Kyoto Protocol. At the meeting, one of the youth delegates read out a statement drafted by YOUNGO members, which urged nations to sign onto a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. A Canadian delegate was chosen to deliver the statement because Canada is one of the countries most strongly opposed to the second commitment period. The fact that we can make our voices heard in front of all the negotiators is amazing. Whether they listen to us or not, a document drafted by us, the youth, was directly delivered to the Conference of Parties. It's pathetic that YOUNGO talk always makes me so emotional, but when I read the intervention statement, my eyes tingled a little. Another thing which is fuelling my excitement about COP17 and YOUNGO is Twitter. Every time I open it on my phone it's full of tweets about COP17, tweets by the various youth coalitions and people engaged in discussion about the talks. It's so encouraging to see COP17 being spoken about so widely. What I love even more is that just because I've tweeting regular updates from COY and COP from my own account @jessleena and from the GCI's @greencampus_UCT (promotion, yes), the number of followers and general viewership has gone up madly. It's amazing that a social networking site like twitter is being used at this kind of scale for an event this significant. I now appreciate Twitter so much more! The fact that it's being used as a platform for activism and awareness on an issue like climate change calls for some twinkles. Don't ask, new thing I've picked up from YOUNGO and am loving. It's like jazz hands. Anyway, because of the buzz, I've been tweeting like a maniac. Follow me and the GCI, it would be much appreciated :) (by the way, I'm aware of what a cliche it is to blog about the power of social networks - apologies but I'm excited by it)

After the YOUNGO meeting I made my kids have a good look around the stalls at the Exhibition Centre. I'd spent all of yesterday in the main ICC building so I saw all the stalls for the first time today and went mad. Every environmental NGO I could think of had a stall with pamphlets and whatnot. I picked up so many things I don't know how I'm going to take it all back to Cape Town. But I did get to pick up stickers - I'm a sucker for stickers and badges - and have put them on my laptop. Little Blue Bear (yes that's my laptop's name) has finally fulfilled his destiny and has a 350.org sticker on it. Get me WWF and Greenpeace and we are in business!

From the stalls, we were called down to the Indian delegation office. The delegation offices at the ICC are being housed in the basement parking lot - serious optimisation of space happening at COP17! It's a labyrinth down there. I got lost repeatedly. We were given another debriefing/policy lesson from Mr. Tirumurti and then the kids were taken to the office of the Executive Secretary for a special meeting with Christiana Figueres. The fact that she took 15 minutes out of her insane schedule to meet the kids says so much about her. As soon as we walked into the conference room of her office, she took a piece of paper and told the kids "whichever one of you is good at drawing, draw me a map of India and then show me which part each one of you is from". She asked all of them about the selection process and about their backgrounds and also taught them a couple of things about what they should take away from their COP17 experience. In short, she was lovely and inspirational!

We also later sat in on a press briefing the Indian delegation gave to the (mostly Indian) press and NGOs. It was an awesome insight into the behind-the-scenes working of such a large conference. The journalists were raising things like "in the media there's a strong impression that India is blocking negotiations on signing a second commitment period, etc, is this true?" and then the delegate answered back - amazing! I even recognised one of the guys from my WWF-India internship last year. Incidentally, I remember sitting in on his post-Cancun debriefing presentation and have the notes from it in the same notebook I'm using here. These interactions with the Indian delegates has been amazing, because we get to hear directly from our country's negotiators on what's going on. I love it!

Christiana Figueres stressed the importance of youth in climate change, and also on how the kids must realise that as important as international level measures like COP and KP are, they need to also understand the impact of lower level work done within countries by NGOs etc. So since there were no sessions to attend, I took them back to the stalls in the exhibition centre to look properly. I've been trying to be more mentor-y by giving the kids little inspirational talks and by testing their knowledge, but I'm not sure how good I am at this. I gave a little lecture to a couple of them about how top-down and bottom-up efforts have to work alongside each other and right after that they went and had a closer look at the NGO stalls. I was well chuffed with that :p I'm going to also try arrange for them to meet with some people I met at COY so they know about the youth climate coalitions and the work they do. Maybe they'll be inspired like I was!

The whole of today was spent between the exhibition centre and the Indian delegation office so I think tomorrow it'll be time to get back in touch with what's going on in the negotiations, but as far as I know, the first couple of days don't cover much of substance so we should be fine. I've currently got a countless number of tabs open on my browser, as I'm busy researching the UNFCCC, previous negotiations, expectations from COP17, country policies and so on. It's an overwhelming amount of information to take in! The whole process is so complex. But I'm starting to get a better grip on it all so that hopefully, once the negotiations start to heat up, I'll know what's actually going on.

Tomorrow won't be too active because I'm first taking the kids sight-seeing, starting with Phoenix - where Gandhi lived when he was in Durban. Only after lunch will we be back at COP17 and the side events. I'm a little upset that I have to be away from the ICC all morning and out of the loop with what's going on. I'd also hate to miss out on cool side events and YOUNGO actions while I'm busy with the kids but I guess I'll just have to rely on Twitter :)

More to come soon!

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20 November 2011


I've been meaning to do a pre-Durban blog post for the last week or so but pre-Durban times have been quite busy so I'm now writing this from Durban. I'm here for COP17, I finally made it! As soon as it was announced that South Africa was hosting COP17 my first thought was "I'm there". I didn't care how or with whom. Sure enough, soon after that I joined the Green Campus Initiative (GCI) at UCT and we got round to planning how we'd be present in Durban for the talks. Alongside GCI action, I've been trying to get into the talks all semester, attempting to secure a place through various organisations. So after months of uncertainty and plans hanging in the air, I'm here and I'm so glad. So let me give a little overview on what's happening and what I'm doing here.

Firstly, GCI - we're here to represent the youth of South Africa at COP17 and to take part in the civil society events as well as COY7 - the  seventh Conference of the Youth. I have so much to say about COY! It's happening this weekend, right before COP17 and after two days of COY7 I am overwhelmed.

COY7 Day 1:
We started off with various ice-breaking activities - lots of mingling and networking and get-to-know-each-other games. I was immediately struck by the diversity of the people attending the conference. While briefly volunteering at the registration desk I was hearing accents from everywhere - Australia, New Zealand, England Scotland, Nigeria, Sri Lanka etc. We were registering people from youth organisations from all over and I suddenly realised how international COY actually was. Throughout the day, I started to learn more about COY. It's entirely organised by the people who have attended it in the past. For instance, this one was mainly put together by the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC) and the UKYCC. These people are so inspiring.

The first speaker took us on a short walk to Pigeon Valley Park, just down the road from Howard College - the University of KwaZulu Natal campus where COY is being held. The park is in the process of being declared a nature reserve. The area it covers is only about 10 hectares but it's amazing to see a practically tropical forest in the heart of the city. The people managing it make an effort to ensure that there are no alien species in the area and that all the plants are indigenous. Because of their efforts, the park, as small as it is, boasts over 100 bird species. The message was all about sustainability and conservation in an urban environment and Pigeon Valley has definitely got it down. As far as climate goes, the forest is also an obvious regulator - the moment you walk into the park's gates, the temperature drops by a good couple of degrees. Durban's urban greenery is such a great sight to see!

The rest of day 1 included a workshop on how youth-led community-based actions can make a  huge difference on a larger scale. It was led by Caroline Howe from UNICEF who is so energetic and passionate about what she does. She started off with the question "how many world leaders do you think are arriving in Durban for COP17 feeling inspired by initiatives they've seen?". She told us about how she managed to get waste compost programs going in Delhi. She started off small, with a little compost pit in her neighbourhood. Eventually, the system ended up in one of Delhi's biggest, fanciest hotels. And that was her main message - if you have the inspiration to get a community-based project going, and if you can prove that these projects can be implemented at a larger scale, then you can show the leaders that it is possible to make a significant change with a bit of ambition.

The event that was the highlight for me, however, was the crash course workshop on the UNFCCC. It was led by a UKYCC member who just knew everything about climate policy inside out. I was completely in awe of how he broke down something so complex into an arrangement of post-it notes on the floor, displaying the structure of the UNFCCC. Have a look at the UKYCC's website: http://un.ukycc.org/ and look especially at the resources tab for a taste of how good these guys are at what they do.

COY7 Day 2:
I missed the morning sessions today, which I'm really upset about because I heard there was some amazing stuff from the We Have Faith group (more about them them below). My first session today was a workshop on climate literacy led by a guy from Germany called Kjell. After yesterday's UNFCCC workshop I was worried by how little I knew and decided to go back to basics. Kjell started off by saying climate change and the politics around it are such complex issues, it often feels like having a book but not knowing how to read. His solution to this was to create a "climate change alphabet" in the form of a wiki site that outlines all the basic components of the issues surrounding climate change in a easy to understand format so that people can become "climate literate". It all sounds very basic, but it's such a great concept, and so useful to have it all put into a nutshell.

We then broke into working groups, I chose the 'mitigation' group where once again, I was in awe of the expertise around me and stayed quite silent for fear of embarrassing myself with my lack of knowledge on all the legal details of COP17. The working group will hopefully continue to meet in the next two weeks to plan actions we want to carry out at COP. Once again, I was completely inspired by one of the UKYCC members. He told us about a metaphor he heard that was used to describe the UNFCCC. "The UNFCCC are like a bunch of kids standing at the top of a waterfall. All of them want to be brave and take the plunge, but they're waiting for one of the 'big kids' to go first and jump". I loved it.

Outside of COY, from tomorrow onwards, I'll be the local leader/mentor for four children from India. They were chosen to attend COP17 with the Indian delegation through a thorough selection process run by the Ministry of Environment and Forest's Centre for Environment Education (CEE). So tomorrow they arrive in Durban and they're mine until the 3rd. With them, I'll be at COP and attending various sessions.

After the kids leave on the 3rd, I'll stick around for a couple days. Three GCI members also got accreditation to attend through the UCT delegation (check out their blog: http://www.cop17plusthree.blogspot.com) so we'll still be doing things together after COY. Plus, like I said, today at COY we established working groups that will hopefully be taking action during COP so that should also shape up in the coming days.

I'm excited about what COP will bring. It's such an amazing opportunity and I feel so privileged to be a part of it. It's not everyday that such a huge conference takes place right on your doorstep. On top of that, COP17 holds so much weight at this point because this is the last year of the first commitment phase of the Kyoto Protocol. From 2012, we need a new legally binding framework and COP17 is the last shot at getting that in place. I'm going to stop there though because to be honest, having witnessed the ridiculous expertise of the other COY participants, I've realised how little I actually know about climate policy and the whole UNFCCC process so between now and Monday, I've got a lot of catching up to do. Maybe I'll do a blog post once I know more and I'll try put some of the key COP17 issues into a nutshell if I know them well enough by then.

As an aside, I must also say - I never liked Durban too much when I first came here about three years ago, but after just two days here I feel like I've seen so much of the city and it's really changed my mind. It's such a beautiful, green place and from my experiences so far, the people are so friendly! I feel so proud to be an honorary South African right now, I'm absolutely in love with the spirit of this country, and the whole continent too in fact. The city's greenery is also a great opportunity to do some birding alongside all the COP madness. Already 6 species up with my spanking new Sasol book - chuffed!

After a lot of digression, back to the title of the post. I've been thinking a lot about environmental activism in recent months. I've been feeling uncomfortable about something that I haven't been able to put my finger on until now. I've learnt that, in the environmental movement at least, it's so easy to lose sight of the meaning behind the word "activism". From what I've seen in the last two days and will probably see much more of during COP, it's actually more about being proactive. There's a huge difference between the two in my opinion. What I've seen so far at COY has made me feel a little embarrassed of myself actually...I'd say I'm one of those more passive ones who likes to label myself an activist but I don't actually take much action. At COY however, there is a group of over 400 young and enthusiastic pro-activists. They've come from all over the world, with such diverse backgrounds to meet in Durban and make their voices heard at COP17. A lot of them are at COY purely out of interest which is amazing, but there is also a large number that are accredited and will be attending COP17 as part of various youth delegations. What's impressed me the most has been the professionalism and expertise of the Youth Climate Coalitions from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK. From the way they all speak about these issues, I'd never guess they're in the same age range as me. Their dedication and knowledge has been truly inspiring. They are true youth leaders. Another thing that's been absolutely mind-blowing is the We Have Faith - Act Now for Climate Justice African youth caravan. About 150 participants from 19 African countries traveled all the way from Nairobi to Durban through 6 countries to come to COP and make their demands heard. They've done this in the form of a petition which they will hand over to Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the faith rally tomorrow.

This whole Durban experience has already been so inspiring. That's probably evident in the amount of times I've used the words inspire/inspired/inspiring in this post. If I were to go back to Cape Town tomorrow, before COP17 has even started, I feel like I've learnt so much and I'd be taking back so many lessons. I now know what activism is really about, what the youth are capable of and what the meaning of leadership is. It's so easy to approach these climate talks filled with cynicism. A few days ago I was filled with thoughts on how COP is just a way to politicise the science behind climate change, how we make all these demands to our leaders to act and solve the issues but come negotiation time, they just end up arguing over irrelevant details, numbers and figures, bargaining with each other. I still do feel that way to an extent, but COY has pushed those feelings right to the back of my mind because I'm now filled with optimism. If a bunch of young people passionate about the issue can make this much noise, surely all hope isn't lost. It all sounds very wishy-washy, I know, but I'm feeling very energised and, yeah, you guessed it - inspired right now.

This post is so long and scattered, I apologise, it's 3am and I delayed it enough already so I decided I had to write it now.  More to come!

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17 November 2011

The Mystery of the Sole

This fish could well be the coolest thing on earth. The sole, Solea solea. I went to the aquarium a few months ago and they were on display in a tank of just sand and a few soles. It's an amazing display of camouflage. You wouldn't know the fish were there until they move. Absolute masters of disguise. But that's not why they're amazing. When you look at them, you would think their bodies are flattened like a ray, dorso-ventrally. Look closer and you can see a little pectoral fin and one of the gills on top of it, but both its eyes are on top of its head. My mind was blown by this. How can this fish be asymmetrical? What does the bottom of it look like? It feels like quite a silly thing to get excited about but I finally looked them up now and solved the mystery of the sole.

When they are born they have a distinct right and left side to their body, with one eye on each side. One eye then migrates to the other side, which becomes the top side of the fish for the rest of its life.
Tell me that's not amazing!! If it's quite a well-known fact then I'm a little embarassed, but it's news to me and it makes these things the coolest fish.

Sole and plaice © Scandinavian Fishing Year Book

Anyway, that's all :) I enjoyed myself. Have a good day!

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