Through The Looking Glass: Our World is Inherently Interconnected

by Leehi Yona | 1/29/15 10:14pm

I never went camping as a child.

The one time my family and I went to a cottage in rural Ontario, I was so terrified of being out in “nature” that I couldn’t eat or sleep. We went back home that same night.

By all means, I shouldn’t really care about the natural world. I grew up in a suburban area of Montreal that has one of the fewest percentages of green spaces in the city (a suburb that continues to develop what’s left). In eighth grade, I dreaded our yearly outdoor education trips, which included canoeing, quinzhee-building and — the horror — sleeping outside.

Loving nature wasn’t something people necessarily expected from me.

Which is why I was as surprised as anyone else to find myself, five years later, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil at the June 2012 Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. I spent most of my time in Rio crying, raging against hope, experiencing cynical spirals and feeling more empowered than I’d ever felt in my entire life.

Several people on campus know I do “environmental stuff,” but few — I’d even venture to say none — know what that means. When I was asked to write about my experiences at the U.N. for this column, I hesitated. I usually talk about my “environmental stuff” without name-dropping. But I want to share some stories with you, stories that will, at the very least, provide some perspective on why the climate crisis is the single most important issue facing young people today.

I don’t think about climate change in a one-dimensional way. I see this challenge from so many perspectives: as a climate scientist-in-training, as a budding policymaker, as a first generation student in the U.S, as a Canadian, as an Israeli and as a representative of young and future generations.

I grew up instilled with the fervent belief that it didn’t matter what a person did with their life, so long as they were doing good — so long as they were kind. This conviction is why I care about climate change.

The reality of climate change is that it’s not about whether or not the planet will be able to cope with these changes, but rather whether or not humans will. Climate justice is inherently about the people who are — and will be — directly affected by others’ actions. Climate change is intersectional — it’s about wanting to have a stable economy that isn’t reliant on fossil fuels. It’s about the right to live in a neighborhood that is healthy and free of smog and pollutants.

Our changing climate is not just an issue of environmental policy, but is connected to a wide range of other political issues — the economy, health reform, education and national security. In the same way, climate justice is inherently connected to other forms of justice.

I care about these issues because climate change constricts my heart and causes me so much pain, because every time someone says “climate change,” I think of the people who are disproportionately affected by climate injustice. My heart remembers the stories of First Nations people like Crystal who are exposed to carcinogens at the Canadian tar sands, northern communities like Olivia’s whose water supplies are polluted. I think about my uncles who farm in Israel, whose crops are noticeably changing. I think of Ula, who lives in the Maldives, making career plans without knowing where she will live in the future. I can’t possibly share enough stories to do them justice.

So many people — government officials, classmates, U.N. climate negotiators, university trustees, oil company executives — tell me that what’s being done for climate change is enough. How is it acceptable for even one person to die or live a life reduced to poverty because we’re deciding to stick our heads in the sand?

How can some argue that this issue doesn’t matter? That young people, that women, that people of colour, that indigenous communities whose rights to the land have been stolen, that people of lower socioeconomic status, that all who have already perished due to climate change and those who have not yet been born — that these lives are insignificant?

I often want to scream within the U.N. conference halls. I want to shake U.S. and Canadian decision makers and tell them not to make the mistake of ignoring climate science, of ignoring the citizens they have been tasked with representing. I want to tell them to pick another battle because they will lose this one, if not to me or to the voices here at the U.N., then to their grandchildren, who will ask them how they could possibly have allowed such inaction, and to whom they will be able to offer nothing more than apologies. Even that will not be good enough.

* * *

Dec. 13, 2014, 3:50 a.m. — I’m at the United Nations Climate Change conference in Lima, Peru. The negotiations have officially run into overtime. There seems to be no binding, equitable agreement in sight.

I sit with my friends Chris from Australia and David from New Zealand. We’re citizens of the infamous trio of countries at the Conferences of the Parties. We’re exhausted, mentally and physically, glued to our computers as we wait for the COP President to make announcements regarding the status of the current agreement draft. After 14 straight sleepless nights, I’m wondering why I’m here when I could be at home with my family and friends. By the time I leave Lima a few days later, I will have seen nothing of the city, having spent 20 hours a day in a makeshift conference center.

It’s difficult to communicate what it’s like to attend one of these conferences. On the one hand, you’re incredibly privileged to be able to attend, but on the other hand, you’re automatically dismissed as young and insignificant once you get there. Nearly every young person experiences a meltdown during their first COP, in which they realize just how broken and impossible the negotiating process is. The U.N. doesn’t operate by consensus, and any process that aims to get over 190 countries to agree to curb greenhouse gas emissions typically deteriorates until more powerful countries bully developing countries into accepting a sub-par agreement.

At the same time, attending COP as a young person is incredibly inspiring, and you make friends in all corners of the world. From the Maldives to Norway to Ghana to China to Australia, the other youth delegates I’ve met are a testament to the fact that no person is alone in striving for a better future.

We are all inherently interconnected to each other in this world.

* * *

I wake up in my tent to the sound of waves crashing. I’m on the Biology FSP in Costa Rica, moving from field site to field site every few days. Today, Jan. 17, 2015, we’re in Santa Rosa. It’s 5 a.m. — still dark out. Part of me can’t believe I’m waking up so early. The next two days are the only chances we have to sleep in, with breakfast only at 7 a.m. We’ve been working 16-hour days ever since we began our FSP. There are no days off. Sleep is precious.

But — the turtles are hatching. I feel a gravitational pull to the ocean. As I walk out of my tent and onto the shore, I realize I’m the only person who’s been able to resist the lure of additional rest. I’m rubbing my eyes, noticing how breathtaking the stars look, how the bioluminescence of the water is still visible, sending sparks of light that mirror the endless sky above me. Slowly, the sun starts to rise behind the mountains, and I feel a sense of deep calm as some previously unnoticed weight leaves my shoulders.

I run into Erik, a turtle monitor who is trying to aid the struggling populations here. We walk along the shore and notice jaguar footprints that lead to turtle carcasses. It’s a typical morning by his standards. We don’t see any hatchlings yet, but he promises to let me know if he sees any.

Later at breakfast, Erik stops by. With my rudimentary Spanish, I can’t pinpoint what he’s saying, but he reaches into his backpack. Next thing I know, I’m holding a baby olive ridley sea turtle in my hands. And I’m crying.

Everyone around me laughs at my tears. It’s only a baby turtle, after all — such a touristy thing to be excited about. We’re scientists. We do cool research, and there are other organisms here worthy of our attention — blue-crowned motmots, bromeliads, jabiru. Ecology is about looking at whole systems, both the adorable and the seemingly mundane.

Tears are streaming down my face at this point, but not because I’m holding a cute turtle — because I’m realizing that I’m holding an improbable miracle in my hands. Cheesy, but shockingly true.

Sea turtles struggle more to survive beyond any other organism I’ve seen. Their reproduction process involves danger at almost every step, from jaguars hunting nesting mothers shoreside, to raccoons eating eggs, to crabs snatching hatchlings as they scramble to the water. In fact, these same adorable turtles we later released to the ocean were all promptly consumed by frigate birds. Go figure.

As I looked down at the creature in my hands, I was in absolute awe of its existence. By all accounts, it shouldn’t be living. All the odds are stacked against it — yet it lives anyway. Sea turtles have, indeed, been on this planet for over 110 million years.

It dawned on me in that very moment that, in the same way that successes against incredible odds are possible in nature, they are also possible when it comes to the movement that strives to protect it. Adequate climate action may seem rather improbable, but it is deeply possible. Thanks for that reminder, olive ridley.

The next day, I was up at 4 a.m. again.

* * *

Sunday, we moved to high-altitude Monteverde. Walking along the cloud forest, I can’t help but stop every seven steps (and not just because I’m still scared of slipping in mud). This world we live in is just so beautiful.

There are no words.

And I’m looking around me now and am recognizing how much of this incredible world I haven’t seen yet, feeling viscerally that I am no more than a speck of dust, of nothingness in this moment in time; remembering all the times I have been told to “stress less,” to “sleep more,” to not to spend 99 percent of my waking life fighting for climate justice because the fact is that we’re fighting the Goliath within ourselves, that we’re stuck within a system that “cannot exist” without fossil fuels, that climate change is going to happen anyway, and so I might as well give up.

I see how beautiful this world is, and I refuse to accept the fate that scientists predict for us.

I’m reminded of the prayer I heard ringing through the streets of Lima merely a month ago: “Somos semillas.” They tried to bury us, but they have forgotten — we are seeds.

As NASA scientists affirm that 2014 was the hottest year on record, I know that we cannot afford to wait for any political action to come when it comes to climate change. We must demand better from the people whose job it is to provide for our futures: our elected officials, our community leaders, our university trustees. We deserve at least that much.

Why would this matter to you? I was once told that youth wield immense power by being able to bring the future into the present. We are young, we are students and we are barely even just beginning our lives — but we are society’s moral voice. It is our birthright to demand a future that is at least as good as the ones into which our parents were born.

I’m told that the action I seek on climate change is impossible, unrealistic, idealistic. But I look around me and see how awe-filled this world we live on is, and I can’t bring myself to accept that apathy and greed are greater than humanity. I refuse to believe so.

Working on climate issues is by far the most physically and psychologically exhausting and spiritually exasperating thing I could ever see myself doing. It offers very little rewards, almost consistently beating you down. And yet it’s filled with the most emotional, inspiring, empowering experiences I’ve ever had.

I couldn’t possibly be doing anything else.

Author’s Note: I highly encourage the trolling of this article in the comments section. Nothing makes me happier than seeing climate deniers waste their energy attacking me instead of doing something more productive with their lives.

Leehi Yona ’16 is co-coordinator for the SustainUS Agents of Change youth delegation program to the United Nations climate negotiations and lead organizer of the Divest Dartmouth fossil fuel disinvestment campaign.