[Episcopal News Service] Hotel 64 on Gordon Road features a nice breakfast spread. On a recent morning, I sat next to Professor Jesse Mugambi, a theologian from Kenya, who has a slightly unnerving tendency to keep a smile on his face while speaking of things that are no laughing matter.
As we started in on our granola and fruit, the professor, almost in passing, characterized the United States as a “rogue state.” I’m in Durban, South Africa, for COP (Conference of Parties) 17, the United Nations’ 17th annual conference on climate change. And, at least where climate change is concerned, describing the United States as “rogue” doesn’t seem too far off.
In the international, U.N.-related world, Professor Mugambi reminded me, states are designated rogue by the International Criminal Court. Such states are considered bullies, operating outside international law and generally accepted norms of behavior. (It’s interesting to note that the United States has not signed on as a member of the International Criminal Court.) The United States also has the unique distinction to be the only signatory country not to have ratified the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 agreement requiring 37 industrialized countries to slash carbon emissions to 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. (Developing countries, under Kyoto, were never required to commit to emission reductions.)
The United States has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol and yet it is far and away the world’s largest carbon emitter per capita. (Until about two years ago the U.S. was the largest emitter, period. China now carries that dubious distinction, though they of course have more than three times the population of the United States.)
Earth’s immune response
Our body’s immune system protects us from infection. Not that the Durban climate change meetings were making me ill — though that would be, frankly, an understandable reaction. But they were overwhelming, confusing and, I found, discouraging, the latter partly due to my citizenship in a rogue state. After all, after 17 years of negotiations, last year’s worldwide greenhouse gas emissions were the highest ever. We’ve talked and talked, but the world gets warmer and emissions increase.
I shared some of these feelings with a colleague and she reminded me of something that I often find very hopeful: that Earth too has its own “auto-immune response.” At least that’s the metaphor Paul Hawken uses in his 2007 book, Blessed Unrest, in which he compares the environmental movement to the body’s complex immune system.
The Earth’s immune response to climate change, to all of the injustices suffered by creation, is seen in the explosion of non-governmental organizations across the globe, by those driven by peace and justice to work toward a more compassionate world. When Hawken speaks about his book, on a screen behind him is projected a scrolling list of organization names, which continues long after the end of his presentation.
Empathy and justice, a possible cure
At the end of the first week of negotiations, I gathered with thousands of other representatives of Earth’s immune system for a civil society march through the streets of Durban. They included campesinos from Mexico; rural women farmers from across Africa; climate activists from Europe; a group of African youth who had caravanned from Nairobi to Durban; and a network of interfaith leaders.
My favorite sign carried the message that empathy could cure climate change. The sign was very simple: black magic-marker letters scribbled on white tag-board. But it caught my attention. What if the climate change negotiators from more than 190 countries decided to operate out of empathy, rather than self-interest and self-protection?
Empathy mixed with justice would be a good start. Empathy asks us to pay attention to the stories of others whose lives have already been impacted by climate change; justice then asks us to act on their behalf. The adverse effects of climate change can already be seen in developing countries and island nations, with indigenous people often being affected first.
I witnessed this fact firsthand when in April 2010 I visited Kivalina, an Inupiaq village on a sliver of land jutting out into the Chukchi Sea above the Arctic Circle. Sea ice used to protect Kivalina from the first of the October storms, but that’s no longer the case as ice in the Chukchi Sea now forms later in the year. And without a protective ice shield, waves batter and erode the shoreline and the village has become vulnerable to storm surge flooding. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates the island will be inhabitable for only another 15 years.
Kivalina, incidentally, is home to a very active and engaged Episcopal congregation.
When you read this, the COP 17 deliberations will be coming to an end, but there is still time for the U.S. to become somewhat less of a rogue state. It’s possible that the messages from Earth’s immune system will seep in, that justice and empathy will have a say.
To follow the latest outcomes of the deliberations, check out the US Climate Action Network’s website.
— Michael Schut is economic and environmental affairs officer for the Episcopal Church. He attended COP 17 in Durban, South Africa.