In Pursuit of Justice: My Experience of Nine Years of United Nations Climate Talks

by Anjali Appadurai   |   December 16, 2019

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The decade is drawing to a close, and my social feeds are full of wistful ruminations about accomplishments and highs and lows from the past 10 years. I write this perched on a balcony in Madrid, Spain, overlooking a bustling courtyard, the smell of freshly fried churros drifting up from the street. 

Madrid was the host city for this year's United Nations climate conference—the "Conference of the Parties" or "COP" as it's more commonly known. The COP was meant to be held in Santiago, Chile, but because of the history-making protests rocking the nation, Spain offered an emergency alternative venue. I can't help but feel, as I flip through "Best of the Decade" lists in a country thousands of miles away from where Chilean government forces have been violently repressing their people and shooting them in the streets, that this is a grimly appropriate way for the past decade of climate change to end. 

As we enter the age of climate chaos, the world's largest polluters—governments and companies alike—would like nothing more than to distract the world from their actions. Instead of seeking climate solutions in good faith, this COP and the ones before it have seen pervasive attempts by the largest polluters to wiggle out of their responsibilities and ride the wave of fossil fuel-driven growth for as long as possible. 

A Year of Global Unraveling

This year, Latin America was rocked by major political and environmental events. The Amazon burned for weeks, far-right governments took power in Brazil and Bolivia, and Venezuela entered the worst economic crisis in its history. The protests in Chile were an explosive, clear outcry against the U.S.-imposed neoliberal economic order that has defined much of Latin America's recent history. The COP being hosted by Chile this year was a chance for these issues to be centered on a world stage, but it was also a chance to make critical connections between neoliberal logic and the climate crisis. Moving the COP to Madrid allowed the world's eyes to be drawn elsewhere, reducing the pressure on business as usual in Latin America. 

I'm exhausted from the COP this year, and not just because it is a grueling two-week marathon. I'm exhausted from the aching gap between those in power and those whose lives are affected the most by climate change. In the halls of the UN, young people from Indigenous and Global South communities spoke out strongly every single day, delivering their message through creative actions and impassioned interventions. They fluttered blue streamers representing the rivers, and they floated cardboard clouds, chanting "The sky is not for sale!" as government negotiators walked by grim-faced. They did mass sit-ins, stormed stages, and led a 500-person occupation of the entire COP. Still, inside the meeting rooms, the world's largest polluting nations did their best to block language about human rights or more ambitious emissions cuts, gutting the remnants of the hard-fought Paris Agreement.  

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Young activists enact a symbolic representation of the waters and clouds, chanting “the sky is not for sale!” Photo by Victor Barro, Friends of the Earth International

As the year closes and we take stock of a "lost decade" of climate action in which countries of the world essentially did the opposite of what climate science was asking, I reflect on my own journey as a climate activist, and wonder what keeps bringing me back to the UN space year after year. 

Durban and the Loss of Naivety 

In 2011, I attended the COP in Durban, South Africa, with a team of fellow students. While we were in the first few hours of the talks, the nearby neighborhood of KwaZulu-Natal was lashed with an extreme storm that killed six people and destroyed 100 homes. The visceral reminder of how climate change was affecting the real world outside stayed with me as I moved through that COP. 

Durban was the first COP experience in which I began to notice, with horror and wonder, the deep imbalance that lies at the heart of the climate change question. The countries that are most well-off today—known as the “developed” or “industrialized” countries—were able to achieve this through a process of industrialization that pumped tons of carbon into the atmosphere and kick-started the climate crisis. Those countries that hadn’t yet gone through that process—known as the “developing” countries—found themselves suddenly facing the worst impacts of the crisis that they didn’t create. This is the injustice at the core of the climate dilemma: those who are least responsible for the crisis are the first and hardest hit by it. 

A problem as complex as climate change and with so much to lose requires every country to come to the table in good faith, showing respect for the process and desiring a good outcome for all. One of the principles enshrined in the UN's Framework Convention on Climate Change is called “Common but Differentiated Responsibilities” (CBDR). This principle encapsulates the spirit of the cooperative approach needed to reach a good agreement on climate change. It essentially says that every country needs to do its fair share, but that fair share will look different for each country. Rich countries must do more than developing countries. They must steeply cut their emissions at home while—critically and equally importantly—providing necessary streams of finance to the developing world to support a transition to a low-carbon society. 

"A problem as complex as climate change and with so much to lose requires every country to come to the table in good faith, showing respect for the process and desiring a good outcome for all."

In Durban, I witnessed a cold, calculated attempt on the part of rich countries to undermine the principle of CBDR, and to assert that they should have the same level of responsibility as the developing world. Watching these dynamics play out in the halls of power stripped me of any naivety I had held about the multilateral process. I realized in Durban that the COP wasn’t just a place to talk through dull and inconsequential policy points. Within those meeting rooms was a moral battle for equity, for justice, for survival and dignity of millions around the world. I recognized that since most of the world doesn’t have access to a space like the UN, I felt lucky to be there and help communicate these moral issues outside the halls of power. 

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A young, furious Anjali addresses the UN delegates. Photo by Democracy Now.

Toward the end of the climate talks in Durban, I made a speech to delegates on behalf of the youth constituency of the UN. In it, I poured out our collective feelings of rage, helplessness, frustration and grief. I said what many youth had said before me, and many would say after me. I brought up the plight of KwaZulu-Natal and called out the lack of courage in the room. The speech went viral, and I was honored that it touched many people around the world. To me, this was a small assurance from the universe that I was in the right place, and speaking truths that needed to be spoken. 

Hungry in Warsaw

Two years after Durban, I found myself in a football stadium-turned-conference center in Warsaw, Poland, squinting under harsh white lights as I tried to navigate another COP. The previous year, in Doha, Qatar, had seen another bitter fight for equity, and the tentative agreement reached in Durban had been further watered down. In Warsaw, I came prepared to stand by developing countries as they fought for their most vulnerable populations. As young people, we were ready to disrupt the space, take a stand, and do whatever was necessary to promote the truth. Within the first few days of the conference, however, this job was done for us, resoundingly, by an unlikely character. 

Yeb Sano was the lead negotiator for the Philippines. He led a delegation of several government officials, and his job as lead negotiator wasn’t what I would have called exciting by any means. Negotiators usually spend the two weeks of COP poring through documents, getting very little sleep, and arguing over wonky policy points. 

On the first day of the conference, the superstorm Typhoon Haiyan tore through Yeb’s hometown in the Philippines, devastating his community. Helpless and stuck on the other side of the world, Yeb had to deal with this reality while preparing to lead a nation through two weeks of negotiations. In the opening session of the COP, he delivered what would become one of the most powerful speeches to grace the halls of the UN. He spoke to the reality of climate change: a superstorm was ravaging his home while delegates sat around negotiating without urgency. He wept during his speech, moving many others in the room to tears. And finally, at the end of his address he pledged that he would not eat food or drink water until real climate action had been taken at the COP. 

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Yeb Sano delivers his opening address at COP19 in Warsaw, Poland. Photo by Democracy Now.

The announcement of Yeb’s fast sent ripples throughout the conference, and overnight he became a media darling and the unassuming hero of the talks. Hundreds of us followed suit and began fasting as well, inspiring a global fasting campaign and the hashtag #FastfortheClimate. Yeb would emerge after days of intense negotiations, looking thin and drawn from exhaustion, but his eyes were determined and filled with fire. 

We tried our best to tell the truth to the rest of the world, calling press conferences, writing articles, shouting the truth from the rooftops. We moved through this powerful collective experience that was distinctly spiritual in nature. I experienced for the first time the enormity and multi-dimensional nature of climate change: it is intensely political, deeply spiritual, and viscerally raw all at once. It is about bare survival, but it is also about vast questions of power and justice. 

Bringing It Back Home: The Padma Centre for Climate Justice

I became disillusioned from years of attending the COPs and experiencing the jumble and tangle of the often blatantly false media narratives that were broadcasted out to the world about who was to blame for climate change and what really happened in these international talks. I began to realize that I wanted and needed to build power back at home. I also noted the lack of diasporic voices in the climate debate, and I wanted to see more immigrant young people feel a connection to the climate issue.

Perhaps most powerfully, I felt that in North America, we are served too “green” a narrative about climate change. If there’s anything I have learned in my years of engaging in an international setting on climate change, it’s that climate change is far from an “environmental” issue. It is deeply, irrevocably an issue of economic and political justice, of lifting up marginalized voices, of true solidarity. Through the education and experience I’ve been privileged to have, I know that global economic issues and climate change issues are inextricable. 

"If there’s anything I have learned in my years of engaging in an international setting on climate change, it’s that climate change is far from an 'environmental' issue. It is deeply, irrevocably an issue of economic and political justice, of lifting up marginalized voices, of true solidarity."

All of this led to the creation of the Padma Centre for Climate Justice—a climate justice storytelling, public education, and media hub that aims to deepen the conversation about climate justice and uplift voices from the Global South and Indigenous peoples. Named after my grandmother and embodying the indomitable spirit of the lotus, this project is the culmination of everything I’ve experienced in the wild world of the global climate movement. I wanted to build something that would ensure that justice would never be lost in the discussion about climate change.

You can read more about the issues that Padma will tackle on our Medium page

“La Lucha Sigue”

A dear mentor of mine and long-time activist from the Philippines once told me, “for our people, there is no choice but to resist.” This, to me, is the core motivation that drives me to engage in the COP battlefield, and in climate justice movements at home in Canada. For me, resistance is a privilege. If I choose to walk away, I could have a comfortable career as a lawyer or a consultant or something of my choosing. 

For the most climate-vulnerable populations in the world, the struggle is not a choice. It’s a way of life, and the only possible response to the lived reality of climate change. I choose to not look away from this truth. I choose connection and solidarity over the politics of separation that neoliberalism would impose upon us. 

Year after year, the COP talks continue, and year after year they become less effective, condemned by civil society the world over. Some bright voices, like supernova-status activist Greta Thunberg, refuse to accept climate inaction, and use their voices to speak out. Those most impacted by climate change—namely those in the Global South and Indigenous peoples—however, must witness governments slowly giving up on them, condemning them to a future of forced migration or unlivable conditions. 

For them, “la lucha sigue”—the struggle continues. I plan to be by their side, amplifying their voices in every way I can, forever in pursuit of justice, together.

Anjali Appadurai spent her early career organizing young people from all over the world to build a strong civil society voice at the UN Climate Convention. She continued this work with the Global Campaign to Demand Climate Justice (DCJ), working with social movements from around the world to demand climate justice at a multilateral level. Today, Anjali is passionate about making the links between climate change and globalization, colonization, and economic inequality. She recently founded the Padma Centre for Climate Justice, and is a Climate Justice Campaigner at Sierra Club BC. She is working toward building a strong base of informed and inspired young immigrants who will build and carry this work forward.