Foundation Week Day One: the ‘visitors’, climate change and Puccini

Caroline Hartnell

Caroline Hartnell

When we arrived to set up our Alliance table yesterday morning, there was already a buzz of activity as people put the finishing touches to their stands in the interactive fair. Work was still going on to finish the Gulbenkian Foundation’s Darwin exhibition. The film corner was almost up and running.

Sadly, the idea of bringing in ‘the public’ to see what foundations really get up to is probably a non-starter. It would be a brave member of the public who climbed the steps up to The Square, entered the big glass foyer, got themselves a visitor’s badge, and started to look around. But there are a lot of visitor’s badges, and my impression is that a lot of people connected to the foundation world who wouldn’t usually attend the EFC’s annual meeting have come for the open days beforehand. There is a great choice of sessions to attend as well as the exhibits and films.

The one session I went to on the first day was one on climate change called ‘Climate Change Post-Copenhagen: Stepping Up Action’. It was during this session that Kumi Naidoo, director of Greenpeace International, said he ‘strongly agrees with the CIA and the Pentagon when they say that the biggest threat to security and world peace is climate change’ – not organizations he often finds himself agreeing with, I’m sure!

One of the big issues about climate change is how to convince people that there’s a problem and they need to make changes. And one of the most interesting things to emerge from this session was that we constantly get it wrong. At Copenhagen, several speakers suggested, the European team failed to make the case to developing countries because they just talked about the need to cut emissions. We have to start differentiating approaches: emerging economy countries want to carry on industrializing so we have to talk about clean industrialization not just cutting emissions. Africans are more interested in deforestation than in cutting emissions.

A related question is why the science, which seems overwhelming, matters so little to people? What does lead to social change? Kumi commented that he finds that talking about creating a future for children and grandchildren is often a better approach than dwelling on the science. The fact that people’s acceptance of climate science seems to be so volatile, and so open to being eroded by the unearthing of a few dodgy emails from a handful of climate scientists, certainly suggests to me that somehow many people are not engaging with the facts of climate science at a deep level even if they do apparently accept them.

Kumi also made the point that if you speak the truth about the science, you encourage despair rather than activism. You need to find actions that everyone can take – as with the 1010 campaign, where people commit themselves to reduce their carbon emissions by 10% by the end of 2010.

Another very clear lesson to emerge from the session was that faced with the urgency of climate change we need to seek unusual partners, and bring together even bigger coalitions, including corporates, parts of the political spectrum that are not usually involved, faith-based organizations, civil society activists.

And not just civil society activists … Kumi revealed he has an agreement with the CEO of one of the top 15 global countries that they will both get arrested at an action they will take together – although one speaker questioned whether a CEO chaining himself to a fence is really the best way to move corporate behaviour. Isn’t it better to engage in shareholder activism and make a business case? Jules Kortenhorst of the European Climate Foundation insisted on the need for both approaches. ECF has funded hard-core activism at coal-fired power stations and approaches geared towards making the business case.

Andrew Kingman of Mozambique-based Micaia raised the hard question about unsustainable consumption levels. Don’t we need to be arguing the case for reducing consumption, educating children not to expect a cupboard full of Nike trainers? Kumi Naidoo agreed that this question is the elephant in the room, the question that most of us never answer. To carry on with our present lifestyles, we need five planets. If we don’t have a Plan B, we don’t have a planet.

It is clearly not possible for everyone in the world to enjoy the standards of living of people in North America and Europe and other developed countries; the world’s resources are simply not enough. Yet why should developing countries aspire to a lower level when we in the West are not prepared to sacrifice any aspect of our comfortable lifestyles? This elephant seems to me to be enormous.

The day ended with an operatic concert courtesy of Fondazione Banca del Monte di Lucca, with two male and two female singers performing a selection of Puccini’s most famous arias. Puccini was born in Lucca and died in Brussels, in 1924. A wonderful concert ended with the interruption of a shrieking alarm (if there had been a fire, we weren’t taking any notice). All four singers were on stage for a second encore. The pianist hesitated for a moment, then the tenor Fulvio Oberto took on the challenge and his astonishingly powerful voice soared above the siren. A great demonstration of how to respond in times of crisis! Foundations note!

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