January 20, 2012

RY Exclusive: youth climate activist on Durban

Meghan McCarthy is a Newfoundland Climate Activist

The most recent fight for a legally binding global climate change agreement took place from November 28th to December 9th 2011 when world delegates, environmental ministers, monopoly capitalists, media personnel, NGO representatives, and impassioned activists collected in Durban, South Africa for the 17th annual Conference of the Parties (COP 17) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Meghan McCarthy, native of St. John’s, Newfoundland, was one of the six members of the CYCC (Canadian Youth Climate Coalition) to attend the conference as a delegate to represent the voice of youth and students. Meghan was born and raised in Newfoundland and Labrador. Meghan became active in the climate movement in 2009, as one of the founders of the NL Climate Action Coalition.

The COP is responsible for adopting decisions and resolutions, publishing the results to establish rules and methods of implementation in detail. The UNFCCC is the body that is responsible for reporting to the UN the recommended procedures to ensure its ultimate objective: “to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations at a level that will prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system.” With 194 parties, the COP is the most political and most publicized convention for global climate legislation in the world.

The results of COP 17 are complex and commentary on the results varies widely in opinion. While some say more was accomplished than thought possible, the results are nowhere near what the scientific community said was necessary. While a timeline for climate negotiations was established, the time for creating timelines has passed where action is needed immediately. The new planning to cut emissions includes agreements by the major polluters of the world, though the proposals for cutting emissions are very relativistic in respect to strong economies and weak economies.

Interview by Richard Williams for Rebel Youth.

R. Y. - How are you? How was the trip?

M. M. - I’m just finishing up my final papers right now. The trip was in some ways really great (with) the opportunity to work with fantastic organizers from all across the country and really make, what we view as, a positive impact in term of how aware Canadians are of the negotiations and of Canada’s position, but at the same time, Canada’s position and COP essentially being a failure. Our actions there were worthwhile but it wasn’t a fully positive experience in that respect.

R. Y. - What were your first impressions of South Africa?

M. M. - What hit me most was the aftermath of colonialism. I’ve studied colonialism a lot in school and African and South African history specifically. Seeing the clear impacts of (colonialism) through race and disparity of wealth, and me as a western white person was treated related to other people in the community I was living, that was something that was really startling and something that I didn’t expect would take such a toll on me every day.

R. Y. - Was it just the language that was different towards you? Perhaps people were approaching you as a tourist that could afford more merchandise?
M. M. - The language was no different. English is prominent and we were mostly in the wealthier, white area for most of the time. My time actually spent in the typical South African communities wasn’t as much as I would have liked it to mean. It was more so that self-consciousness (and) the power and privilege that I felt that I had, realistically, in just being white (and) the consciousness of how lucky I really am. In Canada we tend to forget that privilege. Seeing others who have a lot less privilege and power because of it… There were a lot of people from Durban and from other South African missions who essentially had very little voice at the negotiations. Seeing that and seeing wealth and privilege and race was really hard to deal with, but also I like to think that we challenged, at every opportunity, that privilege that we held.
R. Y. - hat were your expectations going into COP17?
M. M. - We knew that they weren’t going to end well or, we figured that they weren’t going to end well. Canada, in the past, had been effective in actively blocking most of the negotiations. So, we didn’t really have high hopes for the actual talks, but they ended up being a lot worse than I originally had expected. (Also), in terms of expectations for the Canadian Youth Delegation, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I worked with these people a lot over the internet (and) a little bit in real life before going. But, working with them far surpassed any expectations that I could have hoped for. We worked almost seamlessly together, challenging each other, really pushing each other, and that’s the most effective I’ve ever been in my whole life. I also expected to be really depressed when I came home, and that’s definitely not the case. I’m very hopeful and excited to keep organizing, especially with the people that I was there with.

R. Y. - What, if any, progress was made at COP17?
I think, when you look at progress in terms of negotiations, I’d say that there was no progress made on the Green Climate Fund, which was supposed to be a fund to help developing countries adapt to climate change; it is empty. The second commitment period of Kyoto only covers 15% of polluters globally and they made a big commitment next “x” amount of years to come up with another treaty. So, in terms of COP17, I would say there was no progress made. (I think) the progress that was made, and the reason why I feel our time at COP17 was successful, was because of the peoples’ movements: the actions of the youth on the ground made a substantial difference in effecting people around the world (and) their views on the process, but also on climate change. The Canadian delegation was successful in sending the message to other Canadians that Canada is the worst country in the world when it comes to climate change and that they’ve been putting their trust in polluters instead of people. In that regard, I think that there was some progress made in bringing Canadian consciousness and awareness of this country’s policies to the forefront.

R. Y. - How do you describe what was done when Canada’s environmental minister, Peter Kent, took the stage?
M. M. - As Peter Kent stood up in plenary, which is the largest and highest decision making body of the United Nations Framework for the convention on climate change and COP17, (and) took the stage to give his opening address, myself and five other members of the Canadian Youth Delegation stood up and turned our backs with t-shirts saying “Turn your back on Canada” on the back of them, and essentially disrupted his speech. In doing that, security was alerted that what we were doing was against UN security protocol and came over and asked us to leave. They tapped us on the shoulder, were promptly escorted out by those security guards and promptly ejected from the conference centre. The reason why we were ejected was that (we were) not allowed to target a specific country in our actions. But, for us it was an opportunity to highlight that what (Peter) Kent was saying didn’t represent the view of Canadian youth and that his main goal at COP17 was to represent the interests of the tar sands and big polluters and not the people of Canada.

R. W. - Why did you decide to do it?

M. M. - Like I said before, Canada is the most embarrassing and outrageous country at COP. They not only stall, and in some ways halt, negotiations and progress being made. They misrepresent Canadians but also degrade other countries. For that reason, for many years we’ve tried in every other avenue available to engage in meaningful dialogue with the government and it, on all occasions, including COP17, we’ve been shut out and have not had our voices heard. So we thought that doing this action was the only other way that we could get the attention of our government and to send a clear message to them and to Canadians that what they are doing is unacceptable.

R. Y. - What are your recommendations for the climate justice movement, going forward?
M. M. - I have tons of recommedations, and I’d love to talk to anyone who would like to have a further conversation about this.

In seeing what I saw at COP, I really do feel that the movement needs to come into its second phase of organizing. There’s a lot of climate activists I know who kind of huddle in their beds and have lost hope, but what I’d like to say to them is that I’ve seen positive change and that I’ve seen a difference be made and that difference can happen but we all need collective, direct action in order to continue down that hopeful path and to actually ask for what is needed; (to) organize and be creative and work as hard as we can ‘til we can get what we need. And so, my message is of hope but also one of urgency, in that we have to do this now. We don’t have any time left. Fear and commitments and a lack of will on our part are really luxuries (and) priviledges that a lot of people that I’ve seen when I was at COP17 who are suffering from the effects of climate change today, don’t have. So for the sake of our country and our economy and the people, and people all around the world, I really hope that people will become active and start organizing in their communities and really start demanding the change that we need to see.

R. W. - You mentioned the need for direct action. By seeing the legislative process of COP17, is this why you’re more inclined to say direct action is necessary? Was it a failure of the legislative process?
M. M. - I think that the process will always fail as long as there’s countries like Canada that are allowed to behave as they do. The process, in theory, should work but as long as countries like Canada lack the political will, with the substiantial amount of corporate influence (over Canada), then processes like that will never succeed. As well, in terms of Canada, nationally, the same problems apply, and so as Canadians we need to put our government in a position where they have no other choice but to represent our interests, and so direct action, I think, is important. I think diversity in tactics is important. Obviously, we need people working in policy; we need people who are trying to work within the system. But, as I’ve said before, those avenues for us have been exhausted. We’ve worked for years within this system and that clearly hasn’t worked. We don’t have time to continue doing things that don’t work. So, for us, direct action is a really important and powerful tool that has been used in every social movement for anything that we have achieved in our society. Whether it be the example of the civil rights movement, because today is Martin Luther King Day, or the womens’ right to vote, direct action has always been used. I think, the climate movement now, it’s our time to start making some progress in terms of the social movement that we want to see.

R. Y. - Great. I’d like to thank you for letting me interview you.

M. M. - Yeah, no problem, thanks for having me.

Public access to all press releases and other published materials of COP17 can be found online at unfccc.int

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