As the airplane landed on the airstrip at Brisbane airport, images of weeks gone by played in repeat in my memories. Images of throngs of people passing by from all nooks and crannies of the world; of activists, representatives and other passionate individuals proposing their ideas; of cathedrals, white swans, and the colors of a German autumn; all these images flashed by as I thought of everything I was leaving behind that day on the wings of that airplane. The 23rd Conference of the Parties (COP23) had come to an end, and with it my trip to Germany, a trip that no doubt will shape the course of my life like a bend in the road.
Situated along the great Rhine River, a half-hour train ride from the larger city of Cologne, lies Bonn, a small European city known for its World Conference Center and for being Beethoven’s birthplace. It is here that COP23 took place, the 23rd edition of an annual conference in which leaders from around the world come together to discuss how well we are dealing with climate change and how we will continue to deal with it in the future. Just as importantly, it is also an important gathering of passionate individuals in general, people who have seen or are seeing the effects of climate change and who want to work together to make a change, no matter what our leaders decide.
This year, six individuals were given the chance by USC to attend the conference and to bring back what they learned to apply in their own fields. With, among others, Law, Health, Journalism, and Environmental Science students on our team, we had a broad range of interests and a lot of different fields to draw from at the conference. But what united us was our equal passion for the Arctic, for small island states, and for the plight of Indigenous peoples. Climate change, after all, is a human issue more than anything else. The Arctic is melting, the islands are sinking, and worldwide changing weather patterns are causing ecosystems to adapt in irreversible ways. People live in all of these places, people whose livelihoods are affected in ways that most of us can’t even imagine, and it’s exactly those changing lives that interest our team.
Above (left to right): Erin McPhail, Dr. Tristan Peace, Eric Lede, Miguel Frohlich, Danielle Rietberg and Miguel van der Velden at COP23, Bonn.
Of course, the people affected by climate change are not passive, hence their strong representation at COP23, and it is exactly that which was for me the largest take-away message. Every morning, the USC team would get up to attend the Indigenous Peoples Caucus at 9am, a meeting where Indigenous representatives from around the world came together to discuss the similarities in their issues and identify paths forward; paths that we could walk together. For me, as I walk a journey to reconnect with my Native American roots in Venezuela, this was extremely empowering; not only to attend these meetings, but to talk to all these powerful people face-to-face.
Of course, both the United Nations and the non-governmental and inter-governmental organizations that participated were far from perfect. While the conference itself, for such a large event, was in my opinion very well-organized, it was clear after a few days that many organizations, when stripped to their core, lack the structure and collaborative force needed to make as big a change as they envision, be it in the world or in their regional area. This seemed to hold true for organizations as large as the United Nations itself as well as for the smaller organizations, though the larger the organization was the more blatant and problematic this became.
Despite this, it was inspiring to see that the willpower is there, the willpower needed to bring about a total shift in our society, from the smallest nomadic communities to the largest cities. If we can only harness that willpower to its fullest extent, if we can truly come together and put our differences aside to focus on what we can do together to improve all our futures, I strongly believe we can shake the foundations of our existence.
On a personal level, there were of course also many firsts during this trip that I am deeply grateful for. Four of our USC representatives, including myself, got to speak as panelists at a UNESCO event, an amazing experience and at least for me the first time being in a position where my words are being judged for their own value, where people are listening to me out of their own interest and are really considering what I or my colleagues might have to say. I was also able to attend a talk by Al Gore which was, of course, the stuff of dreams, and which I still think about with a flutter in my chest, and to speak at a personal level to a number of people in this world whom I would never have expected to meet in my life.
Out of all of that, however, there is one thing, unrelated to whatever talks were happening at the conference, that still strikes me as the most beautiful aspect of my trip: the sight of a crowd as multicultural as one could ever imagine coming together in total peace and harmony. Sometimes, I would stop at the side of a hallway just to stand there and stare at the people walking by, and in moments like these I experienced an intense hope like one I’ve never felt before.
In the crowd there were people of all ethnicities; there were traditional skirts and dresses and there were tribal tattoos; there was facial paint and there was ritual scarification; there was English, Spanish, French, and then hundreds of other languages; there were headscarves, and feathered earrings, and toothed necklaces; there were all major religions and many more minor ones; in short, there were so many people who embraced their individuality unapologetically, and yet there was only acceptance. We all came together in harmony, and we all worked together in harmony, and is that alone—that lack of judgment, that willingness to learn from each other, that willingness to understand each other—is that not all that the world needs to heal?
I come back to Australia having made a number of connections that hopefully will help me evolve my career in the future. It is now up to me to figure out how I can bring the projects of my mind to fruition with the help of Indigenous collaborators in, for example, Colombia and Bolivia. Ideas have been exchanged, proposals made, and in the coming months I hope those ideas and proposals will grow and become concrete enough to start thinking about funding. Until then, I rest easy having seen that, yes, it is possible for us all to come together; yes, it is possible to set aside our differences and work towards a better and more sustainable future for all!