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Fear in the Face of Climate Change

Published: January 15, 2019, Author: Michael Smetana
Fear in the Face of Climate Change

Written By Michael Smetana
Photos: Juliet Totten

According to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), indigenous peoples play a key role in global climate change efforts by protecting, sustainably managing and restoring forests, as well as many other natural ecosystems, which could provide at least 30% of the mitigation needed to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (if immediate action is taken).  The recent special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) outlines how much better 1.5 degrees of warming would be than 2. Marshall Islands foreign minister, Tony de Brum, gives more succinct interpretation of the difference by calling 2 degrees of warming “genocide”. This seems like a monumental task for indigenous peoples (which the UNFCCC estimates to make up less than 5% of the world’s population while safeguarding 80% of its remaining biodiversity) even with the full support of the international community.

The 24th session of the Conference of Parties (COP24) to the UNFCCC was recently held at the Katowice Climate Change Conference. This meeting, which was expected to finalize a “rulebook” for the implementation of the Paris Agreement, was also meant to be the venue for further operationalization of the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform (LCIPP) (launched at COP23). Establishing a facilitative working group would, at long last, give indigenous peoples a legitimate voice in international climate change negotiations and action implementation. Though the future still looked bleak in terms of environmental outcomes, it seemed as though there remained a fighting chance to avoid worst case scenarios through immediate action.

While many have applauded the results of COP24, others see it as providing no real response to the climate crisis or the latest betrayals in the fight for human rights. The United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait refused to welcome the expert report from the IPCCC, which I can only describe as a call to arms. The finalization of Article 6, a package meant to help countries meet their mitigation goals through market mechanisms (trading carbon emissions credits) was delayed by Brazil, who, in turn, lobbied for rules allowing them to double count emissions credits. Negotiations for this will be picked up again in November 2019 at COP25, which, ironically, will be hosted by Brazil. The launching of the LCIPP facilitative working group was praised by the UN as a monumental achievement. However, many who celebrate the outcomes of these negotiations neglect to recognize a major concession made in response to China, halting talks until a specific reference was included to protect against indigenous persons and local communities from infringing on state powers.

When nearly every expert in the field of climate science is screaming that we may have 12 years, at best, to enact unprecedented change across all sectors of global society in order to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, why does the international community continue to delay? Why are we all so afraid to act?

Climate Change: A fern being touched by sunlight.

Photo by Juliet Totten

Fear is a powerful motivator, leaving a genetic imprint on the progeny of those who experienced it. Epigenetic fear has helped to keep our species alive as it has negotiated the turbulent waters of evolutionary time. Yet, it may also be argued that fear has led to the radical imbalance that exists both between us and our natural environment, and within the socioeconomic power divide that remains between indigenous peoples and the colonizers of their lands.

Where does this fear come from? In a time not so long ago, but long enough for our collective memories to forget, we were an adventurous group of Homo sapiens that relied on each other, and the natural environment, for survival. The further we ventured from her, insulating ourselves from her forces, the easier it was to perpetuate the ‘Western’ worldview that humanity is separate from nature. From these human made boundaries emerges a distinct conceptual difference between ‘civilization’ and ‘wilderness’. The needs of humanity emerge then, in direct competition with those of nature. It is if from this fracture that the fear nature of nature arises, with the forest and those living in it as the enemy – to be conquered, raped, plundered of anything useful, and forced into the order of ‘civilization’.

The term ‘panic’ was introduced into our collective consciousness through the mythology of the Ancient Greeks, in which the demigod Pan, a mischievous forest sprite, inhabited the  ‘wilderness’ which separated the ‘civilized’ Greek city-states. Pan would torment travelers passing through the forest by rustling vegetation along the path: inducing sudden unease in them; they began to quicken their pace, racing ahead to the next dark twist of the path, where the demigod’s excitement would grow. Pan would continue this torment until panic ensued- heart pounding, breath heavy, leaving those who dared ventured into the woods sprinting towards escape, their footsteps echoing the chase between predator and prey.

The Great Roman Empire shared a similar sentiment toward forests, as the place where authority or civilization ended. Here, marauders and bandits roamed freely, ‘savages’ and ‘barbarians’, dressed in the hides of animals, killed unmercifully, and the world of magic and gods prevailed. It was a foreign ‘wilderness’ where the great empire was nearly felled by a group of ‘primitive’ Germanian tribes. In his article on the subject, Fergus M. Bordewich, describes the path that the Roman army took to its defeat as, “rudimentary trails that meandered among the Germans’ farmsteads, scattered fields, pastures, bogs and oak forests.” The battle of Kalkriese was so brutal that it took six years for any Roman army to return to the site, where they found the remains of their men and animals piled around the battlefield, with “barbarous altars” made of anyone who surrendered along the woodline serving as a warning for anyone who dare enter. The Romans fear echoed through time, leading to the creation of a militarized zone along the ‘wilderness’ of middle Europe that lasted 400 years, and a 2,000 year rift between Latin and Germanic cultures.

The Europeans took these genetic memories of fear with them to the New World, where they invaded the ‘wild’ lands of the Native Amerindians; seeing themselves as conquerors of a new ‘wilderness’ and the ‘primitive savage’ living within it. The delicate balance that these indigenous peoples had achieved with nature, through thousands of years of thoughtfully planned and intelligently executed cultivation and stewardship of the ‘wilderness’, was eradicated.

For a short time, Western society has successfully insulated itself from the natural environment, and “the other”, by drawing borders, erecting walls, and secluding its bodies in temperature controlled rooms, so that it may subdue the panic incited by the ‘wilderness’. Now, in the face of catastrophic climate change, this segregation between man and nature can no longer remain.

Despite having their rightful, ancestral lands stolen and being pushed to outskirts of society, where they are most vulnerable to the disastrous effects of climate change, many indigenous peoples continue to fight for Mother Earth. We must acknowledge indigenous peoples and their voices if we are to truly understand human impact on the environment. Resilient and adaptive, representing complex cultures and intelligence, indigenous peoples, and the collective knowledge and experience gained from thousands of years of living in balance with their environments, may be humanity’s last hope in negotiating space within Mother Nature. Will the world listen in time to ensure the survival of the human species, or are we still too afraid?

Mother Nature has sent her warnings, pushing through the barriers we have created.  She is preparing for war, make no mistake. If we cannot set aside our fears and come together as a species, we may not survive long enough to forget the destruction that this war will leave in its path.

Chief George Manuel Memorial Indigenous Library

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