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Lessons from Cancún

Tuesday, 21. December 2010

Fabiola Benavente was part of the delegation representing Initiatives of Change at the recent COP16, UN conference on climate change in Cancún, Mexico. Reflecting on what she learned there, she asks whether this is an opportunity to deepen our moral foundation and expand our awareness of each other and nature.

Climate change, as part of our global environmental situation, tends to be seen as a crisis. After attending COP16 in Cancún, I see it also as an opportunity for humanity to undergo a far-reaching change in attitudes, values and actions. It’s a chance to deepen our moral foundation and expand our awareness of each other, the situations in each other’s countries and nature. We have the possibility to sensibly address the challenges ahead of us.

At COP16, I found myself thinking that we live in extraordinary times. Past generations were not fully aware of the global environmental situation. Future generations might not have time to do anything about it. But at present, if we are willing to go beyond our human tendency to fall into endless scientific and rhetorical debates on issues around climate change and the environment, we can well be on time to meet the challenge.

Below I list some of the lessons I learned at COP16. While they apply directly to the issue of climate change and the global environmental degradation, I feel they also serve as wider points for reflection as we seek clarity on the way forward:

Focus on what is right instead of who is right.
In our human history, examples abound where people fall into rational debates based on different interests and egos and try to prove that one has the best argument to disarm the other. Climate change is not an exception. Many discussions focus on who is right. But do we make efforts to go deep enough and far enough to understand and find out what is truly right?

Through some casual conversations I had in Cancún, I realized that knowing too much on anything can mean there is a need of having to prove it. This can easily lead into endless discussions. It takes humility to realize and accept how much we have yet to learn and how much we ignore the situations of others.

Albert Einstein said, ‘We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them’. The experience at COP16 made me more aware of the huge debate there is around the causes of climate change. Despite the fact that temperatures are changing, many remain keen to find the next best argument possible to defend their standing. Yet nature speaks and has its own ways of communicating. How we interpret this will vary depending on our education and cultures, but I wonder if we as humanity are not missing an opportunity to unify around this global concern.

Take a breath.
One of the indigenous peoples present told me that in his community they see climate change, in part, as a loss of balance due to the exploitation of nature and over-consumption of resources. Another of them once expressed his concern to me by saying, ‘we need to give the planet a breath, a break, a time to rest’’. They have such amazing vision of the cosmos, such wisdom and understanding of nature. We need to listen to them.

Taking care of our own house.
During one of the side events in Cancun, I found a quotation from the Dalai Lama that suggests an inward look at the global environmental situation, by seeing environmentalism as a practical ethic. He simply encourages us to ‘take care of our own house’. And that applies to our inner world as well as the Earth.

The idea that before pointing our finger to the outside we remember to look at the other three pointing at ourselves is as relevant as ever today. When we do this we examine our attitudes towards others and towards nature. Our conduct springs from these attitudes. This unlocks our inner resources and our ability to recognize, for instance, the human face of climate change. It enhances our compassion for climate refugees and those dying due to environmental hazards in different parts of the world. It gives us a way to stand up and respond to the crisis as openly and as best we can.

One ethics for all...Or everyone their own ethic?
That was the question put to me in an ethics class back in 2002. The question came back to me during an event that focused on ethics as the indispensable, yet often missing, element. The event examined the failure of nations to base national positions on ethical principles and how this failure led to adverse consequences in international negotiations.

There is not an either/or answer to this question. One of the most relevant principles I’ve learned with Initiatives of Change, which still has great value today, is that as we come to realize our interdependency, we should strive to come together and deal with the creative tension of finding a united way to move forward in our diversity.

Safe Spaces for Honest Conversations
Being at the summit, I constantly recalled some of my experiences of IofC, particularly in conferences in Caux. Many times I have been impressed by the power of a safe place where we can be ourselves beyond egos and where we can unveil our real human face, which many times lies behind our deepest fears. Perhaps this is what is needed much more than what has been done regarding the current climate change situation. Have we created space where we really seek to understand why a country or a person stands where it stands on an issue or how we would think and act if we walked in their shoes? What makes a person think the way they do? Are there any hidden fears of losing economic power? How do they understand power?

In the current climate change situation, we won’t get very far by using a paradigm of localized, utilitarian cost-benefit solutions. We need new, genuine conversations guided by honesty in a safe space.

Crisis of values?
I have come to regard the caring for our planet as a moral issue and, in this sense, it reflects a crisis of moral values and even perhaps of spirituality.

During the COP16 I saw the need for more coordinated action by government, civil society, business and other stakeholders. But most of the time they remain apart from each other, pointing fingers at the other. I also realized that the knowledge, technology and solutions needed for a sustainable path into the future cannot only come from the discoveries of science. We need moral and spiritual insights, which give rise to global ethics for the environment and development.

Initiatives of Change has a heritage of emphasizing values and principles of a high standard, which makes them universal and relevant to the practical problems we face in our daily lives. If high enough, these are values and principles that can unite people in the midst of all our diversity.

There is no way not to listen.
I’ve heard IofC-International President Rajmohan Gandhi encourage us to ‘Listen to the Inner, the Other and the Earth.” Many times, we have been so busy working to achieve economic development and career success that we forget to find time to be still and quiet; to just be, to connect and to listen. We may still have that choice, but the signs of nature are increasingly forcing us to listen.

NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.