Occupy Climate Change: Anjali Appadurai Says, “Get It Done“

Climate talks ended in Durban the way everyone knew they would going in. The richest countries, chiefly the United States, prohibited the materialization of an emergency program to deal with a climate crisis that is already killing considerable numbers of people, especially in the poorest countries.

The rich world got rich by conquering, plundering and enslaving the poor world and then left it for dead, unless one counts the IMF's structural adjustment programs, which keeps impoverished countries in hoc to the global financial system. Now, the rich world is contaminating the atmosphere with such enthusiasm in its drive for more wealth that countries in Africa, South East Asia, Latin America and elsewhere face the not-very-distant prospect of mass deaths and, in the case of the Maldives at least, climate-borne genocide by way of wholesale oceanic consumption.

Political gridlock never seems to set in when bailing out banks or handing over civil liberties to unaccountable, arbitrary executive discretion, but it always does whenever a body convenes to address the needs of the vulnerable. Humanists who watched the health care debates in the United States or have been paying attention to the sovereign debt crisis in Europe have coveted the opportunity to address a meeting of the powerful and shout at them to get some courage, fortify themselves for whatever political backlash awaits and force change through. And one young woman got the chance to do that in Durban, in the conference's final moments. In reference to Nelson Mandela's observation that “it always seems impossible until it's done,” Anjali Appadurai told the world's governments to “get it done.”

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“That phrase was the pinnacle of all the indignation in the speech. It's a command to action, not just a call or an invitation.”

Appadurai is originally from the south of India but moved to Vancouver at age 6 in what she calls “your classic immigration story.” She got involved in human rights issues in high school, running a global issues club which worked with the local Red Cross, but she dropped activism to focus on academics when she hopped south of the border to attend United World College, an international school in the United States.

She is fully back in the advocacy world now and is involved in the student group Earth in Brackets at her school in Bar Harbor, Maine, where she is a junior. “My focus is on human and social development, which ties into the climate regime,” she says. “The way I approach it is as less of an environmental issue and more of a humanitarian one.”

Through Earth in Brackets, Appadurai became one of many “policy nerds following different tracks of the negotiations in detail. I was doing policy updates and interning for the advocacy group Third World Network.” Throughout the course of the conference, youth were invited to deliver “interventions,” during which they customarily offered specific policy asks. But at the conference's closing plenary session, with many ministers still bogged down in meeting about the previous night's business, the youth delegation determined by consensus that Appadurai should deliver a final plea for equity which, she says, “took such a beating in Durban.”

Thus, she found herself in possession of a microphone and the captive attention of admittedly “minor delegates from different countries, probably no one of high governmental importance from the developed countries.” She took the opportunity to tell them, “Now is not the time for incremental action. In the long run, these will be seen as the defining moments of an era in which narrow self-interest prevailed over science, reason and common compassion.”

That might have been radical enough, but upon finishing, Appadurai stepped away from the microphone up to the apron of the stage and shouted, “Mic check!”

“We wanted to make a real statement. The mic check constituted an illegal action,” she says. “Any action people wanted to perform, even one as simple as walking backwards through a corridor, had to be registered with a secretary 24 hours in advance. They were de-badging people left, right and center. It was a miracle the youth delegation consented to participate in the mic check, because it meant everyone was prepared to get de-badged. I was prepared to get dragged off the stage.”

In the half hour between the decision and the beginning of the plenary session, the young people at Durban, who had been holding daily Occupy Wall Street-style General Assemblies, used mass-texting and other social networking features of 2011's global activism to spread the word and generate an audience of more than 50. “There was a big discussion going around about how Occupy as a movement fits into the climate regime,” Appadurai says, and the rogue use of the people's mic provided one moving example of how.

“Get it done,” she chanted, and the young people in the back of the auditorium stood and chanted back: “Get it done.” Again, she said, “Get it done.” Again, they responded, “Get it done.” “Get it done.” “Get it done.”

The official response surprised Appadurai, as it included no de-badging nor any dragging. To the contrary, acting president of the talks Artur Runge-Metzger, chair of the European negotiating team, lamented the subordinated timing of the speech. Appadurai “was speaking on behalf of half of the world's population,” he reminded those in attendance. “And on a purely personal note, I wonder why we let not speak half of the world's population first in this conference, but only last.”

The Occupy movement already has deep connections with the environmentalists, and perhaps the coming year will see an increase in the pressure young people apply on the ruling generation to save the world on their behalf. This may mean giving youth voices primacy at a climate summit, but even if it does not, everyone can expect the next such meeting to reverberate with Appadurai's charge.

Get it done.