Up in the Air with the Man in the Middle

by Franke James

cop15 logo

I fly to Copenhagen…

for the UN climate change talks called COP15. (That obscure acronym stands for “conference of the parties, 15th session”.) I’m going as a delegate, just one of 15,000 delegates. (Which has reportedly ballooned to 45,000 delegates.) Plus thousands more who will be demonstrating in Copenhagen and around the world.

suitcases photo by Franke James

Will the 192 countries be able to come to an agreement?

Scientists for the U.N. are recommending that developed countries (like Canada) cut between 25% and 40% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 to avoid a catastrophic rise in sea levels, more violent storms, severe droughts, water shortages — and the list goes on. Canada is offering a paltry 3% cut from 1990 emission levels.

It feels like it’s an historic, once-in-a-lifetime event.

clouds photo by Franke James

I sit down in an aisle seat.

The woman sitting in the window seat is going to COP15 too.

But the man who comes later and has to sit in the middle is not happy. He asks the airline attendant if he can move to another seat. I say to him, “Well, it’s not all that bad having to sit between two women, is it?” (I am tempted to add an adjective to “women” such as intelligent or charming but hold back.)

He laughs, “Well, perhaps things are looking up.”

climate coverup book by james hoggan with richard littlemore photo by franke james

I dive into a new book,

Climate Cover-up” by James Hoggan. Somehow it seems very appropriate to be reading about the crusade to deny global warming as I head into the media maelstrom at COP15. Will the message of the conference be honestly reported or will every message be twisted to suit each country’s agenda and their audience at home? Why is the average person so complacent about climate change?

Our flying time is 7.5 hours.

The man in the middle notices the book I’m reading and asks what I think about global warming. Hmmm…. should I give him an earful? I don’t mince words. I tell him it’s a serious and real problem that the world needs to take action on — FAST. Candlelight Vigil in Charlotte, NC on December 11th, 2009, Annie Vereen Greenpeace Lead Activist

I tell him about Fat Cat Canada….

Fat Cat illustration by Franke James

and its Giant Litter Box.

Canada is willfully and brazenly polluting our atmosphere through the tar sands project.

tar sands photo by © Jiri Rezac / Greenpeace, Illustration and photo of sewer grate by Franke James

For emphasis I say,

“Canada has the dubious distinction of winning fossil of the day, on multiple days since the COP15 talks opened! And we won the Colossal Fossil in 2007 and 2008, for the country that is the most obstructive in the climate change talks.”

fossil illustration by Franke James

But he’s not impressed.

“Oh, that fossil award is silly stuff. This is a serious issue. I want to know how we can make the necessary changes in society. It’s going to take years, decades to change. Everything has to change… It’s very hard to get people to change their behavior.”

I nod my head in agreement.

I tell him about my mantra…
do the hardest thing first  illustration by Franke James

And that we need to ask people to do something more ambitious than just changing light bulbs.

He thinks it’s a pretty good idea to give up driving, insulate your house and find ways to slash your carbon footprint. But he’s still skeptical. He asks, “What would you do to make change at the highest level?”

I say, “We need a carbon tax.”

“Polluters must pay and that’s the most straightforward and transparent way to do it.”

I ask him what industry he’s in.

He says, “Money.”

I look at him quizzically, “Money? Do you mean the financial industry?”

“Yes… the problem with a carbon tax is that businesses will just pass it along to the consumer.”

I reply, “They may try, but their competitors will find green ways to cut their emissions. Some businesses will rise to the challenge.”

windmills in denmark photo by Franke James

The man in the middle grimaces.

“It’s so hard to change. Think about the people in China… No, a better example is Afghanistan. They earn their living from selling opium. Are we going to stop buying opium from them and everyone will go hungry? There are farmers there that get up in the morning. Go and tend their opium crops and then go back home. Sleep. And the next day, they’re out tending their opium crops again.”

I am incredulous. “Afghanistan? Opium? ” All I can think about is the war and bloodshed.

poppy flower by Franke James

I say, “Why are you using opium as an example?

I don’t buy opium.
Our government doesn’t buy opium.
Do you buy opium?
Yeah, there’s a huge black market for opium but what does that have to do with the climate change talks in Copenhagen?”

He keeps nodding his head and saying, “Are you a politician?… (As though inferring I was avoiding the question!) … Afghanistan is a great example.”

“OK. Am I stupid?”

“Is there something I’m missing? Why are you using an illegal substance like opium as an example of how hard it is to change society? I don’t get it.”

clouds photo by Franke James

And then it dawns on me.

I get the parallel. The man in the middle is right, of course! We’re addicted to fossil fuels just like a heroin addict. And like this plane I’m flying in right now…. when will I give up flying?

He smiles and says, “You’re good. Very good.”

julia child screengrab

I escape into a Hollywood movie,

“Julie and Julia” and laugh at the lead character’s obsession to bake every recipe (524) from Julia’s first cookbook in 365 days, and, blog about it — whereby she finds meaning in her life and her true purpose.


“My COP15 Diary: Up in the Air” © 2009 Franke James

Photographs, illustrations and writing by Franke James, MFA, except as noted below: Candlelight Vigil in Charlotte, NC on December 11th, 2009, Annie Vereen Greenpeace Lead Activist.

“Sewer Sky” illustration features: Tar sands photo by © Jiri Rezac / Greenpeace

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