A good friend and mentor who works (damn effectively) on ending extreme poverty once said “moral outrage is tedious and exhausting”. It may have been a catalyst for him taking up the fight against poverty as a profession, but it doesn’t fuel his work because it doesn’t actually accomplish his goals. That’s not to say that moral outrage is undue. I could see it in the eyes of indigenous protesters outside the conference center yesterday. They’re losing their livelihood and lives to a changing climate and other rampant affects of unsustainable growth. They’re pissed, and they have every right to be.
Sitting through meeting after meeting as negotiators debate the details of baby steps toward dealing with climate change while extreme weather increasingly wreaks havoc on people’s lives across the world, I could feel the moral outrage bubbling up inside me too.
In the lead up to the Copenhagen climate conference 3 years ago, we were on track to taking big but long-overdue steps toward sustainable growth. There were plans underway to check greenhouse gas emissions and protect carbon sinks like forests; and ambitious plans underway to help developing countries adapt to changes in the climate while still growing their fragile economies to end poverty. We were going big! And we made “measured progress” committing to emissions cuts, framing the institutions needed for the tasks at hand, mobilizing money, and capturing the attention of the world. But measuring that progress against climate change was too little, too late.
What we didn’t achieve is taking it’s toll. We’re suffering from devastating extreme weather without the institutions and resources to bolster our resilience. We’re incurring a massive opportunity cost by not cutting our emissions fast enough (adaptation is way more expensive). And what could have been huge catalyst for reinvigorating economies in the midst of a global recession, instead became market uncertainty and a huge loss in of momentum. So sitting through our 14th session on Long-term Cooperative Action, our 16th session on a second commitment period to the Kyoto Protocol, and leading up to the 17th annual Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP17) – I can relate to the protesters outside the conference center. I’m pissed too.
But no amount of any kind of outrage by itself is enough to change the world. We need tools. We need institutions. We need collaboration. We need global action with real impact, and support for those who must act but don’t have the means. And that work, however frustrating and inexcusably slow, is happening here.
The Panama Climate Change Conference is a step in continuing that vital work. Negotiators have moved into small working groups to draft texts. Their texts have the potential to become actionable decisions when Ministers and Heads of State meet at COP17 later this year. Essential efforts to scale and improve the impact of tools like the Kyoto Protocol; lock down progress made in Cancun last year; and to build the foundations for a global climate deal that actually measures up to the challenges we face from climate change – are all underway.
I don’t accept the slow pace of this work or the failure of our leaders’ to unlock the solutions we need, and neither should you. Their effects on people around the world deserve all the anger you can muster, but moral outrage won’t finish the job. It takes constructive effort that’s even more tedious and exhausting. It’s a hard lesson to bear in mind when negotiators are arguing about words on a page, but words on a page lead to commitments, tools, and resources. And the right words on a page are what this week must deliver.
About the authorJoshua Wiese
Joshua Wiese is Adopt a Negotiator’s Project Director. He is based in San Francisco, where he spends most of his time thinking about how to use technology to make the world a better place.