Upwards of 5,000 people march through the streets of Durban demanding meaningful action on climate change. A worker from South Africa takes my hand to dance toyi toyi, a traditional dance, singing in Zulu an anti-apartheid tune: "Where was I in the struggle? I was here in the struggle. We were all in the struggle." The streets are alive!
Contrast this with listening to Canada's Environment Minister's address, just a few days later during the UN negotiations at COP17, telling us that Kyoto is in the past. A heavy weight on us, the shoulders of young people from Canada, knowing that our government is complicit with the deaths of thousands of people who will die because of climate change as it not only refuses to take actions, but stops other countries from progress.
Reporting back from the talks, the bad news is that things could not get much worse. Kyoto, the only international and binding treaty, has pretty much been killed, with Canada digging its grave.
The flip side is the air is ripe for rising up. Perhaps it was the air of civic resistance of South Africa, or perhaps we have reached a tipping point, but one thing was clear at this year's negotiations -- we are getting mobilized.
The Copenhagen effect
In the lead-up to climate talks in Copenhagen in 2007, I believed in a safe future and that my government would bring us there because it was what the majority of Canadians wanted. But since then, I've lost all faith in governments achieving these things -- it is truly up to us. Despite that the majority of people in Canada continue to want real action on climate change, the government lets big oil dictate our policies.
The oil and gas industry is drilling holes into our land and into our democracy. In Tar Sands Show Down, Tony Clark explains how before these negotiations, there is extensive lobbying by corporations, for example to reject the Kyoto Protocol. This year, our so-called minister of the environment Peter Kent met with industry more than with civil society groups defending the environment.
The voices of civil society and groups that defend the interests of people in Canada, as well as those most impacted, are excluded from the decision-making process. I saw firsthand that cries from those on the front lines are not being listened to.
Dene Elder Francois Paulette talked about the beauty of Canada, the cariboo, our water, and how a government who does not represent us is ruining it. Ben Powless, who is a Mohawk activist, explained how the government is undermining Indigenous cultures and rights.
Before Peter Kent's speech, Tuvalu, a small Island state, made a plea for action. Due to flooding, the nation's very existence is threatened. Climate change has already rendered Kiribati uninhabitable, and the island state has asked for help to evacuate its population.
A farmer from Somalia here in Africa, where climate change hits people the hardest, explained to me how his family is dying of drought caused by climate change and asked me to send a message to people in Canada to act. I had to do a double take -- what kind of world do we live in when people have to carry a sign that says "Don't Kill Africa"?
Currently 350,000 people die because of environmental disasters caused by climate change, and that will only increase.
Allied with oil
Rather than listen to its people and the frontlines, the Canadian government has chosen to work in the interest of oil giants. They have chosen, for example, to spend more on fueling climate change than on mitigating or adapting to it, giving $1.4 billion per year in subsidies to the oil and gas industry, and only $400 million yearly to countries in the global south for mitigation and adaptation.
Despite the fact that the full development the Alberta tar sands would mean game over for the climate, the government continues to expand the dirtiest project in the world, recently approving a $9 billion tar sands project near Fort McMurray, Alberta. This money would be better directed at green and just jobs. Our government has chosen tailings ponds instead of fresh water, and higher wages for oil executives instead of childcare.
But this vast destruction has been met with incredible surges of people power at these negotiations -- from daily General Assemblies at Speaker's corner, the autonomous space around the corner from the International Convention Centre (ICC) where negotiations are held, to demonstrations between Indigenous Peoples youth from Canada, and South African activists at coal plants. And to cap it off, the occupation of the ICC.
I was reminded that this is a continuation of the anti/alter globalization movement -- of a movement that has been building for years. It was stifled with governments who used fear from the war on terror and the economic crisis to impose draconian policies to keep propping up the war and oil industry -- and the wealthiest -- at our expense. But luckily our instinct for survival is too strong.
On Wednesday, six Canadian youth, including myself, stood up during Environment Minister Kent's address and turned our backs on him -- because the Canadian government has turned their back on us.
On Thursday, Abigail, a young woman from the United States stood up and interrupted the U.S.'s climate envoy to explain she was scared for her future, and called on her government to take responsibility to act now, until security threw her out of the United Nations.
On Friday, hundreds of youth from around the world occupied the ICC. Some sat in front of the UN plenary and refused to move until guarantees for fair, ambitious, and legally binding action on climate change. Two were arrested and 15 were kicked out. People shouted climate justice through the hallways -- loud enough for the politicians failing them could hear.
One possible story of this conference was that the Canadian government and other rich nations ploughed forward with their agenda uninterrupted. But this is a story that ends in death for millions of people and eventually us. So we've started to re-write the story -- from a tragedy, to a story of struggle and of the power of people. It will take all of us to make this happen.