"At the heart of any good policy or law are people: leaders and everyday citizens who will turn a plan into a reality." --Christopher Carter, right, at the recent climate change talks in Bonn, Germany. He's shown here with Tuntiak Koran, a leader from the Shuar People of Equador.

© Christopher Carter/Polar Bears International

12/12/2017 4:44:27 PM

COP23: People and Stories

Text and photos by Christopher Carter, Polar Bears International representative to the United Nations 

If the main take-home message from COP21 in Paris, France was the Paris Climate Change Agreement, the work at COP23 in Bonn, Germany this fall was the beginning of the “rule book”—or how the Paris Agreement will be implemented. Paris mapped out a clear and scientifically sound way that 195 countries can avoid major damage to livelihoods, animal species, and ecosystems worldwide. Today, under this agreement we have a 50% chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C by 2100 and a more than 66% chance of limiting it to 2°C.

The recent meeting in Bonn was the beginning of the most important phase of the Paris Agreement, ensuring that the wheels hit the road. However ultimately at the heart of any good policy or law are people: leaders and everyday citizens who will turn a plan into a reality. As elections in the U.S. and elsewhere have illuminated, people—their values and interests—remain at the heart of decision-making around climate change.

The people who make their way to the U.N. climate change talks from the Arctic are intelligent and resilient. Many are indigenous. They come as advocates for a livable future for their Arctic home, which is changing more rapidly than anywhere else. And they have gained strength by forming alliances with people from other vulnerable regions.

Putting a face to climate change

In my fourth year representing PBI at the climate talks, I chose to pass on the usual policy working groups and negotiation sessions to dig a bit deeper into individuals and alliances. I wanted to hear their stories and find out what motivates them:

  • What is their connection to land and ice?
  • Why do they continue to show up and advocate for the future of the Arctic at the U.N. Level?
  • What is their vision of a future Arctic—the bears, the sea ice, and the people?

Through portraits and in-depth interviews, I connected with 17 leaders across the age spectrum from Arctic Council nations, indigenous peoples, and the United Nations. These are the folks who show up year after year to shape global climate policy and a livable future for the Arctic. They are steadfast, smart, and master negotiators. Some of the people I had the privilege to photograph and interview wield tremendous power; others do not. Their shared commonality is a relentless dedication for the Arctic region. So, to let their work speak for itself, this year I am sharing their stories in portraits and their own words.

Saami parliament memberJannie Staffanson
Saami Parliament Member, Sapmi Territories (Norway)

“One of the thing that scares me at this international level is that people rarely speak about the Arctic. And when they do, they do not recognize that there are people living there, and animals, and that we have sustainable livelihoods in the Arctic that are threatened When people speak of a 3C° of mean temperature rise, it's more like 6 to 8C° rise in the Arctic. I know that my people will disappear if the reindeer do. And that would be a huge loss for the entire globe. I know that my people will continue to fight to keep them safe and so will I. I hope that in the future my people will continue to follow and care for the reindeer, that’s the only thing we want to do, it’s so important, it’s everything we live for. Sometimes I wonder why I keep on coming back (to the United Nations). But when it's most frustrating in negotiating sessions and all hope is lost, I just pick up my phone and I have videos of my reindeer and I look at them and I remember why I am here. It's important to remember that because you can easily lose your ways within these walls. However, our ways of recognizing nature and its importance and bringing that to the table is so vital for our future.”

Christiana FigueresChristiana Figueres
Former executive secretary of the UNFCCC (Costa Rica)

“The world adopted the Paris Agreement which is recognized by everyone as a historic achievement, which is true. But, actually, the job is not done. In order to give ourselves and future generations a fighting chance at a dignified life and well-being and to protect nature, we really have to do now what we promised we would do under Paris. So now I am devoting my life, together with the rest of the team, to ensure that we deliver on what we envisioned in Paris and that the dream we put in writing becomes a reality. The minimum we can do for the Arctic now is to prevent the massive negative impacts we are forecast to have if we continue to act irresponsibly. And when I say the Arctic, I don't mean just the nature in the Arctic, I certainly mean the peoples who live in the Arctic and their incredible connection to their surrounding nature.So, this is really about preventing the worse and at the same time supporting those who live there to deal with the changes they are already experiencing.”

Petter BjerserPetter Bjerser
Political Science Student (Sweden)

“I have never seen a polar bear in real life, just images. One of my strongest experience with polar bears was when a live feed of bears from Hudson Bay, Canada was projected onto the screens and ceiling of the U.N. negotiation building and Nordic Pavilion at COP 22 in Morocco last year. It sent a strong message to negotiators to really consider their actions and understand that they have a responsibility for the future of the Arctic.

"Winters are not as cold anymore in Stockholm, the ice does not carry our weight anymore. We used to be able to walk between islands in winter. I am a person who grew up in the city, ice is not vital for my existence, but there are so many people and animals who depend on the (sea ice) ecosystem that allows them to travel on it. We need to do everything we can to hold our governments accountable so that ice can continue to form to carry those who depend on it. "

The work of these three, and the many others I photographed and talked with, left me simply inspired.

People like Jannie Staffanson, Christiana Figueres and Petter Bjerser will continue to show up at the highest level to fight for the Arctic region, its animals, and the many peoples. But climate action works at all levels, especially at the city level. We do not need to be acting at the U.N. level to be global citizens who want a safe Arctic future.

This year at COP23 the presence of hundreds of U.S. citizens, scientists, organizations, state governors and mayors—who showed up to voice that they are “still in” regardless of lack of White House leadershipwas an undeniable force.

Enroute home from COP23 I had the chance to meet with Icelandic author and 2016 presidential candidate Andri Snaer Magnason. I asked, “What should people in the lower latitudes like me do to ensure a future for the Arctic?”

He replied, “Do not just fixate on the Arctic, we need to start at home in the cities. Basically we need a Manhattan Project. We need to shift the paradigm, about how we transport, what we eat and wear, how we use things, what we think is cool. When I talk to young people it's easy to make a doomsday slideshow and disempower them. But you can also say you are the generation that will rethink and redesign the whole 20th century and that is not boring. It's not more boring than overthrowing music you dislike and bringing something new onto the scene—or making a new fashion trend or leading a new feminist wave. To be part of the paradigm shift is where you want to be in history—on the forefront."

When I asked other Indigenous leaders from the Sapmi region of Arctic Norway and Finland, they added that folks in the lower latitudes need to get educated. They need to learn about the Arctic, especially the peoples, their traumatic histories, and how they connect with the Arctic ecosystem—from the polar bears, to the seals, and the sea ice.

I am with them. Our journey to a livable Arctic starts at home and in our cities.

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