Yesterday we attended an event entitled “Storytelling for Global Action.” The event flyer advertised actor Robert Redford and “indigenous artists, activists and storytellers” and a discussion of shared efforts to warn the world about climate change. For those of you who don’t know who Robert Redford is, he is an American actor and director and probably your mom’s childhood crush.
The beginning of the show starred none other than the red carpet legend. Although UNESCO representatives introduced Redford as anything but a “red carpet activist,” the event took full advantage of his star status. To be clear, Robert Redford truly is a legend, and his commitment to climate change is admirable. It was inspiring to learn of a star who used his fame to educate others about climate change and dedicate his life to saving the land. That said, putting him at the center of the show seemed somewhat showy, especially as some guests exited the hallway once he was finished (again, mainly middle-aged women fangirling over their superstar).
After an interview with Robert, three indigenous activists took their seats at a panel on stage. Panelists included Kathy Jetnil-Kliner, a poet and activist from the Marshall Islands, Mundiya Kepenga, a Papuan Traditional Leader, and Mina Setra, Deputy Secretary General of Indigenous People’s Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN).
The panelists themselves were impressive. Each shared their concerns about their home countries and the people living in them. Kathy shared a poem about the difference between a 2 and 1.5 degree centigrade increase in global temperature, and how indigenous voices are being gambled upon by world leaders as hospitals on her islands flood from sea ocean rise. Mundiya shared stories of decreased food and water access as a result of outside peoples coming in and cutting down trees from their precious and ancient forest. Adorned in traditional Papuan wear, Mundiya commented on how the issues we face today are a result of not listening to our ancestors from long ago. The final panelist, Mina, spoke about her fight to get indigenous rights into the conversation at the Conference of Parties. Her speech was an emotional one, as she reflection upon her frustrations of not being heard and promises not kept as indigenous rights were once again put up for discussion in the most recent version of the UNFCCC draft documents.
The importance of storytelling has been reaffirmed time and time again in cultures all over the world. Whether they are novels, cultural keystones or chats around the dinner table, we use narrative to connect to others and express complex ideas and emotions through shared experience. It would be impossible to say that these narratives were for naught, as I myself was quite moved by Mina’s tears, Kathy’s poem and by Mundiya’s concern. However, I wonder: was it enough? Though it was impossible to stay in that room for hours on end, it seemed as though the panelists were given little face time and were more of a spectacle than respected leaders. At one point the moderator even cut Mundiya off from explaining hunger in his community only so that she could ask Mina how we can raise the voices of indigenous communities. The presence of the community leaders was powerful, and is an important step in these discussions. However, the lack of time they were given to speak, the structured interview setting and the photo ops of Mundiya before the event left me with a bad taste in my mouth. From what I could see, the crowd was made up primarily of white, middle-aged individuals who were so entertained to hear Mundiya speak about how the “white man” is always in a rush and doesn’t have time to hear him speak. In case no one noticed, he wasn’t joking. It was uncomfortable to be in the audience, as I didn’t know if I should laugh or clap or be silent, and it felt as though I had come to watch a satire.
The climate talks are not only a matter of science and business, but also of culture and ideology. If we cannot give these guests more than ten minutes of our time on a Sunday afternoon, how can we expect to give them much more in the UNFCCC agreements? It has been truly inspiring to see the action taking place in Paris, from the streets of La Republique all the way to the Oval Office. The passion and hard work surrounding climate change is infectious, and it is comforting to know that it is being addressed at every level. That said, if a high-level dinner is happening at the same time as a civilian protest, where do you go? What matters more?
Of course there is no real answer to this question, though some of my colleagues may disagree. Rather, it is imperative that we listen to every story. When we follow the climate talks, or any issue of social justice for that matter, we must listen to all of the narratives. Hear the senators, the workers, the mothers, and the kids. If I have learned anything this week, it is that you cannot just read one chapter of a story, look at one side of the coin, watch one news station, etc., etc. No matter how you put it, climate change is a global issue, and thus must be addressed with a global conscience. My time in the COP was often spent in audiences of panels that were discussing agriculture and food security. Though panels consisted of world-renowned climate experts who have spent years researching climate, each time a farmer from an agriculture-intensive country stood up to question some finding or another that conflicted with their own personal experience. It’s like there’s those who experience climate change, and those who have the power to change it.
If anyone out there is reading this, do some digging. Read “radical blogs,” watch the news, talk to neighbors. If we are going to begin addressing this issue, we need to do so from all sides. Just don’t forget the wine.