Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a Marshallese poet and writer, certainly saved me. She saved me from the familiar trap of believing that political processes are the only significant means of change. Specifically, last November, she dispelled the illusion that the UN Climate Conferences (COPs) could save the world and those most vulnerable to climate change.
Now, as I write this in the run-up to the People’s Climate Movement marches and rallies on April 29th, her poem is more relevant than ever. It is the essence of why I care about climate change and why it matters that I do all I can to tackle it and the systems of oppression that are connected to it. Her poem is also a reminder that government policy will not be enough, even if we didn’t have Trump and his climate deniers in the White House.
Most importantly, her poem saved me from forgetting. Listening to her perform “Dear Matafele Peinam” (a poem to her daughter), brought tears and clarity to why I was back at a climate summit and why I will continue to help build this movement for climate justice. It is never about my endless to do list. It is endlessly larger than that.
This moment took place during an event on 100% Renewable Energy, at the COP22 summit in Marrakech. I had just come from a solidarity action for Standing Rock (opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline in the US) and local indigenous struggles (including Imider, 300km south of Marrakech). As the sun set over the Atlas mountains, we had stood in a circle outside of the conference centre, in front of the UN flags. There were no cameras or media, but instead singing, prayer and presence. I had not had time to digest that experience, that glimpse of re-connection with earth and humanity amidst such disconnection that is widespread at these conferences. Then I sat down to hear Kathy’s poem.
(UN Climate Summit Poem “Dear Matafele Peinem”, by Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner)
Utterly devastating and utterly uplifting, powerful and tender. This is what we’re fighting for.
Next on stage was Kathy’s mother, Hilda Heine, who happens to be the President of the Marshall Islands. Clearly moved by the poem written for her granddaughter, she addressed the audience: ‘We will prevail.’
This event was not just about hope and determination. Its speakers emphasised that the renewable energy transition the world needs is ‘doable’ and ‘tangible’ (Rachel Kyte, CEO of Sustainable Energy for All). The technology is available, and according to the panellists, it is not whether we can achieve 100% renewable energy, but how ‘easily, cheaply and quickly we can get there’ (Kyte). Whilst it seems that much of the world is moving backwards, in ways that threaten to overwhelm us, there is nonetheless determined movement forward. People have been and will continue to keep resisting and making positive change happen. Let’s not be fooled into thinking we don’t hold the power to overcome the crises we face.
On the last day of the climate summit, I helped organise the final civil society action inside the conference centre. This summit was supposedly a COP of Action, but like many current governments, it failed to deliver. People I spoke to also felt frustrated, and we didn’t want to leave without communicating this and reclaiming our agency. In response, we marched and sang, held banners and told watching media and negotiators how we felt. This was a People’s Call to Action. A few of us had created a call and response song that was repeated as we processed through the main walkway. Luckily this happened just as a plenary was finishing, which meant that many negotiators caught our action. As well as raising our voices in resilience, we left the summit empowered, determined and joyful. (See a video of our action here.)
Five months down the line, governments along with corporations who do not value human lives or the health of our planet, continue to lag behind on climate action, if not actively dismantling environmental protections. Let April 29th be another People’s Call to Action. Instead of turning up for a few hours and going home satisfied that you have made a difference, let Saturday be a building block to the kind of engagement that Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner promises her daughter. Engagement that insists on her right to ‘thrive’, not ‘just survive’.
Let’s bring that energy and power to Saturday’s marches and rallies, and continue to show up and speak up where it matters.
Lyrics to our song: Hey COP22, We are here to talk to you. Will you hear the people’s call? 1.5 or we all fall….. We will lay our bodies down, We will keep it in the ground. We won’t stop until we’re done, We will fight until we’ve won.