Saturday, August 30, 2014
Dear Maria Theresa Nera-Lauron,
We are pleased to inform you that the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Change Support Team (CCST) has selected you to receive an invitation to attend the 23 September 2014 UN Climate Summit.
Congratulations and best regards,
In the search for CSO representatives to be invited to the Ban Ki Moon Climate Summit, 544 CSOs from all over the world applied for a place to rub shoulders with the who’s who of the debates over climate change. Of these, 76 were shortlisted, but only 38 made it to the final cut (and only 4 actually had speaking roles, 1 keynote and 3 panel speakers).
Naturally, I felt very privileged, and I was actually quite excited – star-struck even – to be in the same room as heads of states and other luminaries. But then, slowly I realized this was a tall order, a position that carried the responsibility to represent all of civil society from the world over. And then it dawned on me—hey, this is the UN, an intergovernmental space, and I realized that I was being invited to attend; being invited to observe, and (let’s call a spade a spade) – being invited to WATCH.
How surreal it felt: that endless line to get the observer badges for the Climate Summit and staying up till the wee hours of the night—only to end up going to the corner of 46th and 2nd Ave at 6 AM (which means getting up at 5AM) to pick up the badges before queuing up endlessly through security checks and being ushered into Balcony 4 of the UN General Assembly Hall.
The roadshow unfolds with a video on climate change and the urgency to act, complete with a god-like voice over by Morgan Freeman. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon opens the session and one by one, keynote speakers come in and give their three-minute speeches, from Leanardo DiCaprio to Marhsall Islands poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner who brought the house down with her powerful piece dedicated to her seven-month old son.
Curtains close. End of opening ceremony.
The main area of the General Assembly Hall was at best one-thirds occupied as country delegations only stayed there until after their Presidents finished their speeches.
And it went on just like that until the end of the day, with Ban Ki Moon closing with the obligatory back-patting session – saying ‘what a success the day was’ – and congratulating everyone for putting climate change back high on the global political agenda.
From observing on the sidelines to real action
So, what were we doing as observers?
As observers, there were some areas and sessions where civil society did not have access to. I attended the afternoon session ‘Voices from the Frontlines’ where three CSO panelists spoke of their own experiences with climate change—struggles to adapt to its impacts. But it‘s difficult to imagine how anyone can ever truly have successful adaptation after being displaced and uprooted from their communities. Consider the case of the Agnes from the Carteret Islands, which earned the distinction of being the world’s first official climate refugees.
All throughout the week, security was super tight at the UN headquarters. And everyday, our routine was pretty much the same. Corner of 46th and 2nd Ave one hour ahead of the side event you want to attend. Get special event passes. Queue up and clear security.
The other sessions at the UN where I was able to get access to pretty much went the same. Member states came, made big speeches, while everyone else observed…no, we just watched.
Some, who were probably stepping inside the UN building for the first time had their tourist moments, taking pictures of themselves with the UN logo as a backdrop. Some were tweeting away quotable quotes (like me). Others were busy typing furiously on their laptops (like me), recording “pledges” from world leaders promising to “act” on climate change.
It was a bit like a show-and-tell session back in grade school where the teacher would ask us to present our artworks to class—only this time, we didn’t get to “show” and “tell” anything at all. President after President, luminary after luminary, made big speeches about what their countries are doing to achieve low-carbon development, to shift to renewable energy, and how climate change is a global problem and how we should all work together.
But the only sensible speeches I heard were from Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro whose brave calls for the need to respect the rights of Mother Earth resonated with the voices of the tens of thousands who marched in New York that week, calling for system change, not climate change.
After sleepless nights and the flurry of day-to-day activities, I have come to realise that the UN is an institution that’s got a lot of catching up to do to keep up with the times. While there are already good examples of meaningful civil society engagement, the UN by far remains an intergovernmental space, where civil society can at best expect three minutes of airtime and no real follow-up.
By the end of the day, I could not help but compare my confinement at the UN premises with what took place earlier that week. From the People’s Climate March, the Flood Wall Street movement to the People’s General Assembly—where people—tired of being the subject of development but not really having a say on decisions and policies made in their name—took to the streets and claimed their rights. I remember one of the chants at the march “this is what democracy looks like!” And it gave me fuel and fire to last through a weeklong of being an observer.
Maria Theresa Nera-Lauron (@tetetlauron) is one of the co-chairs of the (CSO Partnership for Development Effectiveness (CPDE). She is also co-chair of the Working Group on CSO Development Effectiveness and, the CSO representative to the Building Block on Climate Finance (now called Busan Partnership for Climate Finance and Action). She is also the chairperson of the Asia-Pacific Research Network (APRN) and helps coordinate the Peoples’ Movement on Climate Change (PMCC) – a global network of individuals and organizations campaigning for a Peoples’ Protocol on Climate Change.