While Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP, can offer insight into the ongoing political and practical negotiations surrounding climate change, Ellie Hopkins – former Student’s Union Ethical and Environmental officer – speaks the other side of the same truth from the heart of the debate in Cancun.
In Brighton and more specifically at Sussex, people often speak of a certain sense of solidarity amongst students and residents alike, in the move towards slowing climate change. Ellie Hopkins, former Sussex student and current member of climate change activism group UK Youth Climate Coalition (UKYCC), experienced this first hand and decided to pursue the cause.
The issue of climate change, that during the Cancun climate change talks, appears to be once again on people’s lips, is something that needs to be addressed. Not just by individuals but indeed by corporations and indeed institutions such as the University of Sussex. Hopkins is a firm believer that ‘As a university institution, we have a huge resource at our fingertips. With departments like those at Sussex, including the Sussex Energy Group (SEG) and the engineering department, there is a huge capacity for the campus to be used as a testing ground for new carbon reduction technologies to be tested – saving the university carbon and money, and giving the students and staff a ready-made canvas with which to work. By utilizing the ideas, skills and knowledge on campus the university could reduce still the costs of implementing these ideas. Whilst the university is starting along the right road, they need to bump climate change issues up the agenda as a way of saving money which is so vitally needed during times like these.’
As a member of the UKYCC, Ellie is making the inevitable trip to the conference in Cancun this month. The goals of the organisation are many, yet they maintain their focus and believe that being a youth organisation is advantageous in the negotiation process. The former Sussex Ethical and Environmental officer explains that, ‘The UN climate group (the UNFCCC) recognizes that specific groups in society have a bigger stake in getting a climate deal than others, so indigenous communities are given special rights, as are women and groups working on health. ‘Youth’ are one of the latest demographics to be recognized as a ‘constituency’ that has a special stake in the negotiations. It is, after all, our futures they are negotiating with. So we go to join our voices together with those of other youth groups from all over the world and make sure that this special status isn’t lost or ignored.
As a result of this ‘special status’, Ellie and her organisation believe it imperative to reinforce the youth movement, as once it gains momentum, reflecting the recent fee protests, it will be difficult to silence; ‘Each year the workshops that we have at COY and the relationships that we forge over the course of the fortnight of UN meetings, bring us together as friends as well as colleagues. That makes us so much stronger than the negotiators are ever going to be because we trust one another. When people ask me why it’s worth flying all this way when there is a chance that not much will come out of these talks, I say that even if nothing came out of it at all, just a meeting and strengthening of the youth groups would be a success in itself.
One of the key elements of the UKYCC’s plans is to make the UN meetings more accessible. The United Nations’ notoriously jargon-heavy meetings are a world away from the average citizen’s grasp. It seems to prevent people from engaging and being actively involved. Hopkins understands ‘[…] that it’s hard to blame them for not being more engaged and involved. We hope that by making the meetings more accessible, letting people know what’s going on, reporting back with videos and blogs and using more diverse communication channels like comedy and dance, we hope that we can help people to understand just what leaders and decision makers are doing with the futures of their people.
Something that is rarely discussed at length is the issue of scepticism. There is an increasing number of people that cite seemingly accurate scientific evidence that the change in our world’s climate is merely a cyclical occurrence that takes place naturally. The UKYCC refutes these claims and deems them irrelevant when there is so little time to waste; ‘To be honest, I rarely agree to be drawn into that debate these days. Scientific consensus is scientific consensus. If 99 doctors told me I had appendicitis and needed to have my appendix out, and 1 told me I had an ear infection, I wouldn’t listen to the one rogue doctor, I’d go with the consensus and take the necessary action. Why is it that for climate change the people who have no scientific training (i.e. most of us in society) refuse to trust those who do know and who are therefore in a position of authority on this subject? It’s just not an argument worth having anymore, especially when we don’t really have time.’
Although an issue recently at the forefront of politics, climate change seems to have settled on a back burner after the Copenhagen climate change conference took place in 2009. Green Party leader and Brighton MP Caroline Lucas decided to opt out of attending the eagerly awaited follow up meeting that was being held in Cancun, which began at the end of November. She says that ‘it’s more of a priority to be in the UK – keeping pressure on the government here’. Many activists were dissatisfied with the ‘white wash’ politics of the 2009 conference. What went wrong? Who was responsible and who precisely did these negotiations benefit?
‘One of the problems,’ Lucas believes, ‘is that Western governments are trying to impose their rules on the governments of developing countries. The richer nations need to actively demonstrate that they are dramatically reducing emissions at home now, before they can succeed in persuading poorer countries to make changes in their production and consumption patterns. We need to be able to show the social and economic benefits of the transformation to a low-carbon society, including energy security, strengthening local communities, and the creation of lasting, skilled jobs, rather than preaching what we ourselves are not practising. Significant financial support, in addition to existing aid budgets – along with technology transfer – must to be part of the deal.’
With such sentiment firmly in mind, it begs the question; what changes can we make politically, as a public or simply as students, to attempt to unmask the seemingly self serving agendas of the Western governments? Lucas’ answer is succinct and clearly expresses her disappointment at lack of independent constituency support: ‘[…] public pressure has to be much greater. I was at a parliamentary debate on Cancun last week and, shockingly, only 12 MPs were present. They need to know the public is watching what parliament, and government, does.’
The politics-savvy it seems, often over-analyse the political processes that take place here in the UK. But when thrust onto the global stage with all eyes focused on the collaborative outcomes and cumulative benefits, why is it that many decide to blame international governments for the conferences shortfallings? Lucas argues that ‘As China continues to develop and its economy expands, so will its Carbon emissions. The worry is that the US – and other Western countries – have set the example for the standard of living that people in developing countries understandably aspire to. We certainly can’t lecture other countries not to do as we have done, unless we demonstrate first that we are now doing things very differently, and second, that we give serious funds to support the transition to a low carbon economy in developing countries too.
This is why it is important to find ways for people in both developing and developed countries to enjoy a high quality of life, while still living within the collective means as a planet. To demonstrate its seriousness about this agenda, Western countries – which are historically by far the most responsible for climate change – need to urgently reduce their emissions now.
Can this buck passing and blame placing now be bypassed? Looking towards the highly anticipated Cancun conference, the Green Party leader expresses her scepticism: ‘Unfortunately, the chances of achieving a global binding emissions reduction deal still look to be remote. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make progress at Cancun, particularly on agreeing a full financing mechanism, and on reducing emissions from forests in a fair and sustainable way.’
It appears that despite a strong will, the reality of changing the environmentally detrimental nature of both public and industrial emission output is distant. None the less Lucas’ resolve to support change in the face of pressure from giant international economies is unwavering, ‘The UK must not bow to political pressure in the face of countries like the US and China, who have vested financial interests in business as usual. All nations have a vested interest in halting the effects of climate change, and preserving the planet for future generations.’