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.”