Poznan: "Such a catastrophe"

It’s not even a full sentence, but when Katherine Trajan uttered those three words - “Such a catastrophe” - it seemed to sum up perfectly the declining state of our natural world and the tragic inadequacy of our response.

Trajan is just 25 – too young to be jaded, too bright, too pretty and too generally promising to be giving over to despair. Yet, as the 14th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was drawing to a close in Poznan, Poland, there was surely a note of despair in her voice.

Originally from the Canadian town of Nanimo, B.C., she had come to Poland as one of 27 non-governmental observers in the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition, and she had come with high hopes. “I came believing that these world leaders were going to come together, recognizing the seriousness of the (climate change) problem, make an agreement and then go home and do something about it.”

As it turns out: Not.

“This has been a momentous experience. It’s revolutionized my understanding of how international political processes like this take place.”

What would the answer to THAT be? Slowly? Not at all?

 “Well, this is NOT where real action on climate change is going to happen. This has really shown me the importance of acting at the national, regional and local levels. I thought that world leaders would decide something here, but all these countries know exactly what they’re going to do before they come here. No one is being pulled into doing something they weren’t expecting to do.”

And that means we all have to work harder at home to make sure our governments are ready to do a great deal more the next time they meet, because, as Trajan says, “so much more needs to be done.”

The youth delegations at this COP were a breath of fresh air – apparently they always are. While the “adults” are running around obsessing about minutiae, celebrating the tiniest victories and sputtering outrage at each meter of lost ground, the youth are getting in people’s faces. When an environment minister spouts a load of twaddle about the indispensability of the Alberta oil industry – as Bob Renner did – when he likens living downstream from the toxic ponds of the oil sands to living in the lee of Calgary as a resident of Medicine Hat, the youth delegates don’t “tut” importantly and offer a diplomatic counterpoint. They burst into tears or storm from the room. They call bullshit.

(No report yet as to whether Renner was listening. We can only hope.)

The youth delegates are also in charge of Fossil of the Day, another opportunity for plain speaking. Identifying a Fossil of the Day – a country that is acting counterproductively – is a tradition at COPs and, again, a very effective way of cutting through the blather, the endlessly polite nonsense, the exhaustive effort to maintain decorum even as we preside over humiliating failure.

Trajan was deeply involved in the “Fossil” process, leading as one of two daily “hosts” and singing the Fossil of the Day song. (The quality of her voice owes something to a music teacher named Sharon Wishart. The quality of her conviction must be a tribute to her mother, Rae Trajan.)

But regardless of being in the room as a mere “youth,” as a volunteer who had to fundraise to get herself into the building, Trajan is no naïve dilettante. She just finished a Masters Degree in water policy and management at Oxford, a university she was attending as a Rhodes Scholar. She wrote a thesis on environmental decision-making in the Alberta tar sands.

For this, she documented the “multi-stakeholder platform” that the oil companies and the government of Alberta have so consistently overwhelmed. She followed the whole process from the establishment of decision-making bodies that are dominated by industry to the highly suspect input, provided by monitoring that is conducted almost exclusively by the same industry. And she recorded the recommendations – sorry, make that, the total absence of recommendations – from a “consensus” process that has given industry a veto at every turn.

Having seen “process” perverted, the young Trajan “came here (to Poznan) expecting to be disillusioned.” But not quite so badly.

Particularly disappointing was the almost daily inclusion of Canada in the Fossil of the Day line-up. “At first, I thought it was just because I’m Canadian that I was noticing Canada all the time. But then I started to realize that Canada is really acting out of line with other developed nations. Canada really is the bad guy.”

So, it’s been fun to sing the Fossil song, or the quite hilarious rewrite of My Heart Will Go On castigating Canada’s government. But at the end of the day, Trajan was left with this:

I’ve taken CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) courses three times, and each time they taught it a little differently. And I started getting worried about whether you were supposed to pump the chest 10 times and give five breaths or five times and give three breaths or – well, then I just realized that if someone is having a heart attack, you just act. You don’t worry about whether you’re giving the most effective CPR. You just do what you can, and right away.

But here we are, here’s Canada, and because we’re not clear on what’s the best thing to do, we’re not doing anything.”

And that’s about the point where the pretty, promising ingénue, the Rhodes Scholar with the world by the tail, took a deep, despairing breath and said those words:

Such a catastrophe.”



I knew better, thus I’ve given up except at my personal, family and local levels. World, national and regional levels have become morally bankrupt, since MLK days.

More experienced observers wouldn’t have expected much from Poznan, given that Obama has not announced what the US is going to do.  I don’t say Katherine is not right to declare Poznan a catastrophe, but I saw changes in the world this week that are lifting a great darkness from my heart.

Gore’s call for all to accept Hansen’s science at last was the most refreshing thing I’ve heard for a long time. 

Twenty years ago, I was the only voice at the Changing Atmosphere conference in Toronto who dared to say to a plenary session of the delegates that the changes that were happening to the atmosphere could even be reversed.  They were going to put it into their final statement that the changes couldn’t be reversed.   In my mind, this was the same thing as saying we might as well give up.  The line there was the best that we could do was slow things down a tiny bit.  I stood, alone, to protest.  No one supported me, but no one stood against.  They left those words out.  

Although delegates were unanimous that the consequences of climate change could only be exceeded by “global nuclear war”, they signed off on a prescription for action that would merely slow the rate of acceleration into that catastrophe. 

The task of turning this around was regarded as so impossible for so many years it was taken to be a sign of insanity or some kind of mental loss of contact with reality to state the obvious:  if you are headed towards a planetary catastrophe, the only thing to do is turn the situation around.

It has been that way ever since, although the recommendations have become more and more aggressive over the years. I never understood people who could look at a target like 550 ppm or 450 ppm, and say we’ll aim for this because there is some kind of border between “safe”, and “dangerous” climate change.

Delegates in Toronto were astonished to hear me say what no one else would say, i.e. call for adoption of a realistic target.  However, many felt in their hearts that I was speaking the truth.  As the conference drew to a close, Stephen Lewis, Canada’s Ambassador to the UN at the time, interrupted the closing plenary session to ask me to stand and be recognized for my contribution to the conference.

Hansen announced in December 2007 that his latest research has given him a clear understanding that 450 ppm isn’t “safe” at all.  It is, he says, a “recipe for global disaster”.  We can’t possibly adopt as a target for the international commuinity to aim for, that after 42 years of working together, we’ll arrive at “global disaster”.  Many campaigners have not understood this. Gore has now understood, and he will be influential.  It was a good day when he made that speech.

This isn’t like estimating how many angels will fit on the head of a pin. 

When the English saw Hitler rising in Germany, there were many who wanted to deny it, and many who did not want to face what they saw.  A target like 450 ppm in that context is to say let’s slowly ramp up our military efforts for the next 42 years and then we’ll be able to invade Europe and defeat Hitler.  The main thing wrong with it is that reality isn’t going to cooperate.  Hitler’s plan was to invade England and cause the English to lose everything they valued. 

A target like 350 ppm accepts that its too late for anything other than moving as quickly as possible, without any certainty that there is anything that can be saved.  What we have to do is stabilize the composition of the atmosphere as soon as possible and then start removing some CO2 and other greenhouse gases, if we are to have any hope of leaving our descendants anything like the planet we were born on. 

It is incredible that until now this target has not been able to be mentioned in international negotiations. This dawn of acceptance that the goal must be changed is a ray of hope on this long road. 

We will never get where we need to go unless we adopt where we need to go as our goal.

Other news this week that I found cheery was the appointment of Stephen Chu to the US DOE, as well as Carol Browner to be the climate czar.  Chu knows the issue, and Browner knows how to get things done.  Obama is living up to his campaign talk to try to do something on climate.  The entire world has been waiting for some sanity to appear at the highest levels of the US government.  Its never been so clear that its actually going to happen, and it feels wonderful. 

The EU in Brussels, for all the signs of crumbling, held on to the main thrust of their world leading climate position, in the face of severe economic problems.  If it weren’t for the leadership emerging in the US, the bit of backsliding in the EU might be a cause for concern.  I envision Obama revitalizing the EU’s effort as the US moves to lead the world.