Thursday 26 November 2015

Climate change on ice … and pallets! - reflections on COP1 SWANSEA by Anna Pigott

'Surprising' was the word that I chose when it was my turn to sum up my experience of COP1 as we reflected on the afternoon's activities at the end of the day. I chose this word because, from my point of view as a member of the organising team and someone who had arrived at the event with just a bit of trepidation in my heart, it turned out to be very pleasantly surprising day. People had turned up! Up to 40 people all in the room at one point, all giving up their Sunday afternoons, all with a shared concern about climate change and a desire to talk about it. That seemed pretty amazing to me, and I don't think I was alone in agreeing with one person's glowing summation at the end of the day which was simply, 'I love Swansea!'.

But that wasn't the only way in which I was surprised, it turned out. COP1 had other tricks up its sleeve for me. I'll come back to that later. First, perhaps you'd like to know what on earth we did for six hours in a room with climate change.

It began – as all good climate change events surely do – with trying to draw a complete stranger's face while looking only at them and not at the piece of paper. Well, it certainly broke the ice! (Get it? Sorry).  We spent some time getting to know our fellow COPers, lounging on the fabulous Cinema & Co pallet sofas, laughing, drawing, finding out what we had in common, and generally easing ourselves into the day.

Credit: Eleanor Flaherty
With a reshuffling of the pallets, we were ready for Philip Ralph to take the floor with his One Eyed Man performance/stand up/improvisation/dialogue (it defies definition!). The atmosphere was somewhat tense, and while some people needed to get some thoughts off their chest in response to Phil's musings, others simply needed to listen to him lay bare his own feelings about climate change, and about life, with remarkable honesty. As a group, guided by Phil, we grappled with issues about blame, about who's 'we' and who's 'they' and, most importantly perhaps, where's 'I' in all of this? I personally found it hugely affirming just to hear another person talk candidly about how climate change makes them feel, however grim that might be.

Credit: Eleanor Flaherty
It's not easy to know what to say after an experience like that (and I don't just mean Phil's impromptu George Michael impression), and so afterwards we dispersed, blinking, into a welcome tea and cake break, and a few more people drifted in from the street to join us.

Then we got to the film bit. Chasing Ice is a documentary which follows the attempts of photographer James Balog and his team to document the retreat of glaciers in Iceland, Greenland, Alaska and North America. It is both beautiful and distressing at the same time. Although I found the personal narrative a bit OTT at times, the imagery spoke for itself. The reality of man-made climate change is inescapable in this film and that was the difficult bit. I suppose there is always a tiny part of me that likes to cling to a hope that it isn't happening – that the earth is not loosing its wonderful icy landscapes and that there aren't a host of scary consequences for life on earth that go with that. It is easier not to be reminded. But the film reminded me that it is happening, and that I am nostalgic for ice I have never visited. In fact I am terribly sad about it. And so were other people, it turned out. In the small group of people I sat with after the film, some reactions included 'bleak', 'sad' and 'helpless'.

After the film and some time for us to reflect there was a lovely, peaceful, half an hour with a kaleidoscope of things going on in the room – some people drawing and writing their thoughts on the boards up on the wall, others choosing to stay huddled in their groups, mulling over the film, sometimes with visible emotion. Some people ate lunch, others browsed the reading material left out for sharing. Eleanor Brown played some much-needed soul-soothing music. This was certainly unlike any cinema experience I'd ever had before.

Eleanor Brown - Credit: Eleanor Flaherty
The final part of the day was spent turning our gaze towards action and inspiration. Sometimes a gloomy prognosis can be a perfect spring board for optimism – as long as there is space and time for that to happen. We had more flipchart sheets' worth of ideas and projects than can be shared here, but words flowed and connections were made between people and projects previously unknown to one another. We heard about local co-operatives and democracy initiatives, useful websites, inspiring philosophies, emerging campaigns and much more (watch this space for full details!).

So, back to the surprise. When I got home, despite COP1's optimistic ending, I was jittery and depressed. I didn't expect that. You see, I like to think I'm one of those people who 'gets' climate change. I know it's a big deal, and I make adjustments to my life and my work and so on .. so I know how to cope with it, right? And I know how to think about it, of course ... I mean, after all, this COP thing was more for other people than for me, wasn't it? Hum. That evening a cloud of gloom caught up with me – the one that I generally manage to avoid by not actually thinking about climate change too much and just trying to do stuff about it. And here's the melodramatic bit: I had an existential crisis. Yeah I know! An actual one, right there in the living room listening to Enya (don't ask – it was a coincidence). I was suddenly all adrift, and panic set in: what the heck does it actually mean to be human if climate change really does spell such terrible consequences for life and – perhaps more poignantly – what does it say about us as a species if we fail to do anything about it? If we are just living to eventually go extinct and cause horrible suffering and joyless societies in the mean time – well what's the point in that?! It's not exactly easy to figure out the meaning of life at the best of times, but the prospect of catastrophic climate change doesn't make it any easier!

This catastrophic view is not one that I necessarily think will happen (because I hold on to a hope we can turn things around, and in many ways already are), but the day's activities forced me to confront the 'worst-case' as a possibility and, I think really for the first time, meant that I allowed the full significance of climate change in. That's why six hours in a room with it was necessary. I couldn't go and distract myself, and I was confronted with the sadness and fear that other people feel about this too. There is nothing like witnessing another person's emotions to make an issue more real. But there is also nothing like shared emotions to feel solidarity with one another.  It was impossible to leave COP1 and and still think 'no one else cares about climate change'. While the existential crisis has (thankfully!) subsidised for the time being, I am left with a hugely liberating sense that it is OK to talk, and that other people do care. Let's see what surprises COP2 and 3 have in store!

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