When I rolled into Marrakech, Morocco for this year’s UN climate conference, I’d been on the road 14 months. On my first morning in the city, I went to the store to buy shoes that didn’t have holes in them and tops that weren’t bike jerseys. The second, I walked an hour out to the edge of town to collect my credentials from the conference center. There were still backhoes and orange-vested workers criss-crossing the dusty grounds, packing earth and erecting the 193 flags of the UN.
Even though the Marrakech conference was much smaller than last year’s consequential Paris talks–about 15,000 showed up this year compared to Paris’s 50,000–the scope of human activity represented there was overwhelming. Besides the public negotiation sessions and events put on by the Moroccan government, every hour of the two weeks, from early until late, held presentations by groups pushing land use change to lower greenhouse gas emissions, presenting new designs for climate-proof urban landscapes, comparing renewable energy’s role on farms in Canada vs. those in India, demanding more equitable and complete financing of climate adaptation efforts in developing countries, and releasing new official strategies for long-term domestic emissions reductions. Countries could pay to present their clean, pollution-free images in pavilions, and activist groups met daily to plan their messaging and organize actions.
That’s what stuck me most about my time in Marrakech: climate change is a problem that spans every aspect of human society. There are so many alarms to raise, so many solutions, such rapid and diverse development of those solutions, that even people who have been working in their corner of the climate world for decades can have startling holes in their understanding. There is no comprehensive expert on climate change. There are energy experts, agricultural engineers, physicists and biologists and communicators and diplomats, and they somehow all share a common goal, but only a semblance of what that goal means in real life.
What else in the world is like this? There’s no work I’d rather do.
During the first week of the conference, I followed around the big names. What other opportunity would I have to hear them speak, or even to speak to them in person? But it seemed that at nearly every event I attended, there was an direct relationship between a person’s power and dullness of their speech.
It’s only sort of their fault. They’re working on a global structure for climate action, trying to appeal to a general audience and not to get too technical. There’s only so much you can say while remaining general, though, and while maintaining the careful, non-neutral neutrality that attends power.
So there were reasons, sometimes good ones, for their desperate blandness. And to be fair, there were moments when leaders’ humanity shone through. When John Kerry delivered his remarks in the wake of Trump’s election, they held real power. The man had put climate change at the center of his efforts under President Obama, and it was satisfying to watch his careful and timely subversion of Trump’s power over the Paris climate agreement.
So what’s the difference? What Kerry said was new. It hadn’t been said a million times before. And more than that, he was close to the issue. When world leaders talk about solving the climate crisis by ramping up renewable energy production and investing in climate-resilient infrastructure, they’re desperately far from the mark, not because they’re wrong, but because the words they produce aren’t their own, and hold reproducible sentiment instead of meaning.
330 days a year, I’ll feel I can learn more from the experts working on the ground, building out new tech, developing adaptation and resilience strategies, or winning unprecedented underdog fights against big oil. Let’s give their voices the weight they deserve.
As for me, I’m back out in the world. First, tomorrow, a boat from Tangier to Tarifa on the southern tip of Spain, and then I pedal north towards Córdoba, Madrid, and Barcelona.
In the meantime, some highlights of my work from the conference:
Climate March Shows Divergence Towards Climate Justice (Mostly my photos, much of it my writing)
COP22: Does the Spirit of Paris Live On? (My work is the minority, but did stay up ’til 5 a.m. editing)