Four metric tons of carbon. This is my personal contribution to climate change; the result of a roundtrip flight halfway around the world.
I sigh heavily, tap my fingers on the tray table. The man next to me clears his throat, folds his newspaper into the seat pocket, and asks where I’m going. When I tell him I’m on my way to Doha for the United Nations climate change negotiations, he raises his eyebrows. His surprise pressing gently against my battered Tom’s shoes, worn skinny jeans, hair pulled into an unkempt pony tail, and the fact that I don’t look important enough to be going to a UN-anything.
We speak for a few minutes about climate change. He shakes his head at Hurricane Sandy, asks how close we are to reaching an international agreement. I breathe in sharply, the air hissing between my clenched teeth before I launch into an explanation of the tempered expectations surrounding COP18 as negotiators set the stage for 2015 and the anticipated performance of a binding treaty. I explain what happened in Durban and Rio, how COP15 knocked the wind out of the process, and now we’re staggering to our feet, dragging the mangled text of the Kyoto Protocol along with us.
He nods politely, but I can see his eyes glaze over as I try to negotiate the spaces between the jargon, all these tired political processes turning to sawdust in my mouth. But he is curious about the youth movement, wants to know what we do, and why we go, and how we organize ourselves. I explain 350, the success of the first International Day of Climate Action in 2009, the recently launched Do the Math divestment campaign, the Global Power Shift project. The words tumbling from my mouth as I try to convey our passion in the context of our protests.
Looking back on it now, threads of Doha running through my memory, I wish I had told him about the culture activism inspires, how traveling for a cause means you see nothing of the place, but everything of the people. How my heart balloons to twice its size when I meet my fellow team members, all of their hope and enthusiasm circling my steps along the dusty streets, hovering over my head as I sit in the back of the plenary, shoulder to shoulder with youth activists from around the world. How we chew our frustration and then spit it out, retweeting, favoriting, hashtagging, and finally struggling with dismay as the US lead negotiator Todd Stern leans into the microphone, objecting to the proposed text because it echoes language from the Bali Action Plan, language on equity, commitment, and action. Farrukh raises his eyebrows, Pujarini gives an exasperated eye roll, and I put my fingers in the form of a gun and hold it to my head. She smirks and then I laugh. Tariq looks over at us, his eyebrows arched, forming a question, but I just shake my head.
After two weeks together, punching through introductions and icebreakers, we are a team, pulling together stroke for stroke. We are young, overwhelmed, and exhausted, but still finding space to double over with laughter at 1 in the morning as we sit outside the negotiation rooms, waiting for scraps of information and coming up with lines for a “Shit People Say at COP18” video.
When the Chinese head of delegation smacks down Todd Stern’s words, chiding him for such absurdity and asking him if we should remove every word used in previous texts, my eyes search for Marvin, wanting to make eye contact, to see if he is as amused by his negotiator’s response as I am. At 2:30 in the morning, when Pujarini is furiously tapping out a blog post and Nathalia is Skyping back home and Munira and I are sitting cross-legged on our beds reviewing the day’s events and trying not to count the hours of sleep we can still get in (four), I feel safe, nestled up against the silver lining of this thundering storm cloud.
In the belly of a cavernous convention center, against a backdrop of oil opulence and heavily air-conditioned malls, our solidarity moves like waves, energy surfacing, peaking and folding over itself, rejoining the swollen body of water, churning forward, crashing against the surface, breaking down the hardest rocks with persistent force. It is this solidarity that tugs me forward, meeting the fierce gaze of my fellow youth activists as they line the moving walkway and hold up signs while staring silently at the negotiators filing into the convention center. All echoing the message given by youth activist Christina Ora in 2009.
After Naderev Saño, the head of the Filipino delegation, pleads with his colleagues to act, pointing to the devastation of intense tropical storms sweeping across the Philippines, his voice breaking with emotion, the youth line the walkway as the negotiators leave the session and when he walks past us, we clap. The entire plenary turns to look at us and we stand taller, clap louder.
When Maria breaks down into tears on stage, her sadness becomes my own and I cannot quell the desperation welling up inside me. Part of a panel on human rights and climate change, she is describing the impacts that are making her native island state, Kiribati, uninhabitable, but she chokes on her sadness, stumbling over the words as the images on the screen show the extent of the damage. I can’t take my eyes from her, my chest caving under the weight of her sorrow.
It is the US that refuses to respond to this, refuses to sign onto anything, pointing fingers and shrugging shoulders, another game of, “we’d love to, but equity is not something we can sell to Congress.” I want to take the shoulders of my country and shake it until its eyes roll back, until it can feel the measure of inequity, the urgency, the burning fear crackling at the back of our throats, and the tremendous arrogance of our inaction.
I want to sit at Senator Inhofe’s desk and read him every single one of the 13,926 peer-reviewed scientific articles published in the last 10 years that affirm the threat of climate change. I want to take all of Obama’s climate promises, ball them up with this inaction, and throw it all through the window of the Oval Office, shattering the glass, jagged edges falling to the ground like the splintered pieces of a climate refugee’s life.
I want to take all of Maria’s sorrow, all of my own frustration, and dump it on their desks, make them feel what it’s like to walk along the streets of Doha behind a banner held by members of the Arab Youth Climate Movement. We are part of Qatar’s first climate march and our hearts swell with emotion to be there, to be together, stealing glances at the secret police in their blue tracksuits and giggling because we’re not sure if that’s what they normally wear or if that’s how they imagine climate protesters look, all sunglasses and matching sweatsuits marching down the streets of Doha shouting till our voices are raw, throats scraped hoarse by chants for climate justice.
Strung together from all corners of the Earth, we have an understanding that slips easily between cultural barriers, offering us a pocket of protection, a place where we have similar jokes, all speaking the same UN jargon, rolling our eyes in the back of the plenary, tripping over cynicism, reaching for hope, always one breath stronger than the soul-crushing agony of this process.
Every night we sit around the sticky tables of a corner restaurant and piece ourselves back together over avocado juice and chapati. A mosaic of memories scattered under the fluorescent lights, pieces of Pakistan, China, Australia, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, India, Poland, Bahrain, France, and Egypt all clattering onto the laminate surface as we rearrange ourselves, exchanging slips of identity, bringing e.e. cummings to life, “i carry your heart with me, (i carry it in my heart).”
The thread of this story, the thread of this movement, is the hope that weaves us together, hanging over this process, pushing it forward in the face of the sinking dread that tells us to give up. I try to explain it, but I am always grasping, hands reaching for the right word and there isn’t one. Just my heart throbbing, twisting, aching, searching for the reason I remain optimistic. It is in Doha that my fingers close tightly around the right word, the right reason. Sitting around a table, coffee cups scattered across its surface, pale semicircles of exhaustion painted under our eyes, I feel unity, a cohesion of thought, purpose, and passion that jolts through my veins, shaking me awake.
The climate movement has fallen squarely on the shoulders of the world’s youth and, unlike our politicians, we have learned to pull together. We have learned to forge alliances around our shared humanity rather than the arbitrary borders of our nation states. We have learned to find our own voices in the solidarity of our shared message.
They tell us it’s too much, it’s too big, it’s too difficult, but we link arms in cities and villages across the world and we dig our toes into the red dirt of the jungle, the sand of the desert, the snow of the arctic, the grime of city streets, and tell them what we see reflected in each other’s eyes. We are bigger than this.
When the man on the plane interrupts my explanation of the youth climate movement to ask what this process means for me personally, I curl the magazine in my hands, sifting through the flood of images in my head. All of my experiences balled up in the corner of my mind. The weeks without water in Bethlehem, the rising seas contaminating the only aquifer in Gaza, the protests along the dwindling Dead Sea, the storms battering the coast of Georgia, the shrinking winter of the Sierra Nevada, the explosion at the oil refinery in Richmond, and then somewhere beyond that, I see my dad, smiling as he lifts me onto a rock in the middle of Joshua Tree National Park.
I am three years old, palm against the sandstone, feeling the scrape of it against my hand, and the solidness of it against my heart. “Wilderness,” my dad says as he points to the vast space. I try out the word, my eyes widening to take in all that blue sky spilling onto the desert floor. Even as a child, I know that I belong to it, that it belongs to me, instinctively feeling the link between my soul and this space.
All of my fire and indignation melt away as I reflect on my first awareness of balance, the first time I felt the truth of José Ortega y Gasset’s words thudding in my gut, “I am I plus my surroundings, and if I do not preserve the latter I do not preserve myself.”
I fight back tears, set the magazine down, fiddle with the tray table.
“This is my future, our future,” I tell the man, my voice so soft he has to lean in to catch my words.
“It means everything.”