Aurora Conley is a 25 year-old Ojibwe native from Bad River, Wisconsin. A local leader, she is studying to become a solar panel installation trainer for other Native Americans, and has worked with former Vice Presidential candidate Winona LaDuke through the environmental organization Honor the Earth. At the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen this week, she has taken her leadership global.
On Saturday, she walked at the leading edge of a 100,000 person march through the streets of Copenhagen—the largest climate mobilization in history, by many estimates—carrying a banner that said “The World Wants a Real Deal” with other indigenous people. On Wednesday, she spoke at a press briefing on behalf of the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change.
“It was really imperative that we were at the front lines of the march, and that we’re at the front lines of the climate movement,” Aurora said. “Indigenous peoples are the ones most impacted by climate change and the practices causing it. Our cultures and traditions are the ones that are dying first.” When asked for examples of these impacts, she speaks of close native friends who have developed cancer due to suspected exposure to toxic oil sand mining residues.
Aurora, like us, is in Copenhagen as one of twelve Midwestern young people attending this Conference of the Parties (COP 15) through the Will Steger Foundation and Stonyfield Farm Expedition Copenhagen program. The Expedition is a project of the Will Steger Foundation, established by polar explorer Will Steger in 2006 to teach people about climate change’s consequences and the solutions that can be used to overcome it. Like all of us on this Expedition, Aurora is using her time here to connect people in her community back home with this year’s historic deliberations at COP 15.
We and our colleagues on the Expedition hail from seven states in the Upper Midwest: Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, and South Dakota. We came to this conference in recognition of the fact that our region’s voice matters greatly on climate change. The Midwest contributes 20% of the greenhouse gas emissions produced each year in the United States, due largely to its dependence on coal-fired electricity. The region is also home to some of the U.S. Senate’s most critical swing votes on climate and energy—moderate Democrats like Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, who understand the threat of climate change but fear what a cap on carbon might do to the farming and manufacturing sectors in their economically troubled states.
We came here for another reason, too: climate change, and America and the world’s response to it, matter tremendously for the Midwest. Warmer winters are providing our states with less and less accumulated snowfall each year, hurting winter tourism revenues and causing Great Lakes water levels to drop. Heat waves, like the one that killed 600 Chicagoans in 1995, are projected to become deadlier and more frequent as temperatures rise. The list of impacts goes on. By dealing with climate change proactively, Midwestern states can find opportunity amidst the crisis. Our region has more natural wind energy potential than any other in the U.S., and a wealth of skilled workers, engineers, and manufacturing infrastructure that we can use to lead the world in producing renewable energy systems.
We came to Copenhagen, in short, to tell the world what the Midwest has to lose, to gain, and to offer in this December’s historic effort to respond to the climate crisis. But we may have underestimated the true stakes of the challenge. In our interactions with other young people from around the world, we have heard human accounts of climate change’s impacts. The power of these stories cannot be felt from the sorts of figures and statistics we read through in preparing for this conference.
A boy from Bangladesh told us earlier this week about becoming homeless after a typhoon destroyed his village and split his family apart.
A young man from Nairobi spoke about the four-year drought that is underway in Kenya right now. It is the longest drought anyone, even elderly people, can remember; crop yields have dropped off dramatically, and pastoralists are watching helplessly as their livestock die.
A boy from the Maldives, a low-lying island chain in the Indian Ocean that will be washed away if sea levels rise much more than a meter, said that if his President signs a bad climate treaty, it will be like signing a suicide pact for his country.
Over these past two weeks, more than 2,000 young people from around the world have participated in COP 15. Our common commitment to securing a fair, ambitious, binding international climate treaty has given us and the other Will Steger Foundation delegates strength. For youth like Aurora Conley, who hails from an environmentally impacted community, this has been especially true.
But our experience has also reminded us of the massive responsibilities we face as Americans, and as Midwesterners. We have heard that the world is waiting for the United States to lead. We have heard that President Obama is waiting for the backing of Congress. We have heard that it is our Midwestern Senators who must give Obama this sign. We have heard what is at stake. We now return to the United States saying, “We must act”. Our states will determine how the rest of the world will view the United States on this issue of climate change for history. When we return to the United States over the next few days, we will be exhausted from two weeks of hard, constant work. But our resolve to work with our Senators for a just response to climate change will be fresher than ever.