First Person

Desmond Tutu, Climate Change Witnesses Come Together in Copenhagen

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Emily Gertz is a freelance journalist, editor, and blogger covering the environment, technology, science, and sustainability. She reported on the Copenhagen climate talks on behalf of Oxfam America.

Today Oxfam and tcktcktck held a climate hearing at the Copenhagen climate treaty talks, featuring the testimonies of four of the witnesses who described experiencing devastating impacts from fast-changing weather and environmental conditions in their home regions: Constance Okollet of Uganda, Shorbanu Khatun of Bangladesh, Cayetano Huanca of Peru, and Pelenise Alofa of Tuvalu and Kirabati.

Human rights advocate and former Irish president Mary Robinson, Emeritus Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Oxfam International Executive Director Jeremy Hobbs also spoke.  I’ve included a section of Tutu’s speech in the slide show, above.

Tutu called on the world to listen to the voices of the climate witnesses.  He lauded the audience for doing so much to bring about action on global warming (leading to some uncomfortable squirming here and there at the perhaps-unearned praise, it seemed to me).

Tutu also spoke of maintaining hope despite the bleak outlook for the talks thus far, saying that it was remarkable how many people had spoken up worldwide to get action on global warming, as well as financial assistance for those already feeling its impacts.  Tutu noted that many of the hundreds of thousands who marched around the world last Saturday had yet to experience such changes themselves.  There was remarkable goodness in them, he said.

” I have been told to communicate approval for you from celestial corners,” he said, earning chuckles from the packed room.  “You are putting a smile on God’s face, a face that is often contorted by tears.”

Each witness spoke with a passion that seemed to affect everyone in the room, about the losses they have faced from unprecedented storms, droughts, illnesses, crop and livestock failures, loss of fresh water, as well as the stresses these conditions have brought to their communities.

“I’m looking for leaders, leaders who will stand up and not be bought or sold,” said  Pelenise Alofa of the small Pacific island nation of Kirabati, charging that the Copenhagen climate meeting “is buying and selling, by buying and selling the rights of other people.”

When she called on the room to stand up and clap for Kirabati’s survival, the entire room stood right up to applaud — even the journalists who sat around me, a crowd that prides itself on being unmoved and unmovable.

After the hearing, Mary Robinson delivered their testimonies to Yvo de Boer, the head of the UN climate program in a photo-op event, and de Boer met and briefly spoke with each of the  witnesses.  Though it was hard to tell from my vantage point, Robinson and de Boer seemed to carry on a reasonably substantial conversation about the testimonies, despite the crush of reporters from all sorts of global media pressing in around them.

It was one of the more dramatic press events I’ve witnessed here at the Copenhagen talks.  Reporters were as eager to talk with and photograph Okollet, Huanca Khatun and Alofa, as well as to get star shots of internationally known figures like de Boer and Robinson — increasing the chances that their stories will indeed reach a worldwide audience beyond the worlds of human rights and climate change activism.

I have been told to communicate approval for you from celestial corners.
You are putting a smile on God’s face, a fact that is often contorted by tears.  Cop15 is bying and selling, by bying and selling the rights of other people. Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+