The end …  is such a scary place to start.

It’s almost the end of the UN climate talks, yet there was a sense today that things are only just starting here, especially because we just found out the negotiations will be extended until Monday. Perhaps it’s because today I finally got more than a few hours of uninterrupted sleep, or perhaps it’s the sense of hope that was infused into the air at the vigil that civil society held tonight as we sat with candles and listened to strong young leaders from the climate movement around the world speak words more powerful and with more emotion than I could ever hope to represent in writing.

Mostly it’s too hard to find the words to describe how I feel about climate change. This is even more so here in Copenhagen. Yesterday at a talk by George Monbiot he pointed out that climate change is too benign to describe what’s happening to the world …  it’s like describing an invasion as “unexpected visitors”. To be young and alive today is to witness our earth breaking and see our “leaders” demonstrate a spectacular failure of leadership. As Alex Steffen wrote, “to be young and aware today is to see your elders as cannibals with golf clubs”.

I’m not sure why, but the despair many of us felt of yesterday — when we were locked out of the Bella Centre, when police beat and teargassed peaceful protesters in the snow, when the talks were collapsing and world leaders such as Obama were rumoured to not be coming any more — has lifted, from me at least.

Tonight I just have a quiet sense of clarity and purpose, sitting here with a thousand others in a warehouse working on planning tomorrow’s actions, writing blogs, articles for our local newspapers, and co-ordinating with our wonderful team on the ground at home in Australia, who are as we speak holding vigils and 24-hour fasts in solidarity with those around the world suffering from climate change.

I have been fasting today, only for 24 hours, but in the company of thousands of others around the world who are doing the same thing including Vandana Shiva, Mary Robinson, Blue King Brown and Cate Blanchett. Fasting allows us a chance to reflect and is also a way of demonstrating our deep commitment to climate justice — telling the world that we will do whatever it takes to solve climate change. Today’s global fast was inspired by the Climate Justice Fast — which began with several young Australians including Paul Connor and Anna Keenan. They are now on the 42nd day of their fast.

The past 24 hours, despite the flurry of activity — making banners, doing a lot of media interviews, getting across today’s policy issues and helping delegates still inside with their lobbying efforts — I have had the chance to reflect on where we’ve come as a movement since I first got involved in the environmental movement when I was 14. Back then, climate change was not on the agenda at all, and our struggles were local. My first campaign — to protect a place near where I lived from sand mining, and have it declared a protected area managed by the traditional owners — was typical of the campaigns in 1990s.

In about 2003, when I was at university, climate change finally became a big issue for the Australian environmental movement, thanks to the dedication of the first climate activists I knew, many of whom would later go on to form Rising Tide Newcastle. They had a hard time convincing the student movement — which at the time was focused firmly on saving forests and stopping uranium mining —  that climate change was worth our time. But they were successful, and many of us haven’t stopped working on climate change since then.

At first the issue seemed too big, too intangible, and so we focused our efforts on education and reducing the greenhouse emissions of our own campuses. Hence, the campus clean-energy movement was born, and would form the basis of the initial growth of the Australian Student Environment Network (ASEN), which continues to do some of the most cutting-edge work on climate justice and fighting the coal industry in Australia today.

Finally, because of the hard work of these “early adopters”, climate change became an urgent and mainstream issue for society as a whole. Groups such as the Australian Youth Climate Coalition had the perfect environment to flourish, with our message that climate change was not an “environmental” issue, but simply one of survival — for our generation and those to come. AYCC will turn three this February 5, World Kyoto Day, and in the past 12 months alone our membership has grown 1000% — from 5000 to 50,000 young people. In addition, all the major youth organisations in Australia have put their weight behind AYCC, leading to an unprecedented youth alliance and the strongest movement in Australia since our parents’ anti-Vietnam days.

Since 2005, since the climate has been rapidly destabilising, the climate movement has been slowly globalising. This has culminated in Copenhagen this year. 160 youth attended from the global south, as well as many more civil society groups from Africa, South America, Asia, and all over the world. We are reaching understanding as our movement matures, that climate change is an issue of justice. There is a huge climate debt that industrialised nations such as Australia owe the global south. And yes, the issue of debt is scary, and people don’t like debt — but we have to face reality and be clear that climate change is deeply, deeply unfair. How can we even call this conference of the parties a “negotiation” when more than 112 countries here have endorsed a global deal based on reducing then stabilising emissions at 350 ppm and limiting global average temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, and the small remainder of nations who oppose this can decide on an outcome that will mean many of the most vulnerable nations here will literally cease to exist.

It’s hard to find language strong enough to talk about this; to write about this. The President of the Maldives said, “We will not sign a global suicide pact.” Granada described the failure to reach a deal to cut emissions to safe levels as an act of “benign genocide” — because it would be a deliberate act that commits whole cultures, ethnic and national groups to extinction. What does it mean when our Prime Minister, and our leader of the Opposition, decide to push courses of action that condemn millions of people to death? What kind of humanity do we have left when our leaders can get away with this?

At the moment we’re tossing up the three words we want to reflect our key message when this is all over. It’s just speculation at this point, because anything could happen in the next 72 hours (negotiations have been extended to Monday), especially now that people are feeling like the negotiations have turned around. But we’re thinking of things such as  “350: Not Done Yet” or “We’re Still Here”.

Because no matter what happens inside the Bella Centre in the next few days, we still have so much work to do. Some kind of deal will be reached; that’s almost certain. But it’s unlikely to be the deal that meets the needs of the climate, and of the world’s most vulnerable people.

There’s still a chance; and we can’t give up. Earlier this year, world leaders found the political will to mobilise trillions of dollars to bail out the banks and their bonuses. They have 72 hours left here and they must find the same kind of political will to reach a fair, ambitious and legally binding deal. There are 120 world leaders either here in Copenhagen now, or on their way — this is still our best chance to get the kind of global deal we need that will put us on the right path to solving climate collapse.

Most of civil society has been locked out of the Bella Centre, and for a few hours there it meant we were lost about how we could continue being effective. But then we came together — in the place where we are now, in a giant warehouse hall called Oskenhallen, for a vigil that centred all of us.

My thoughts now? People will say it’s impossible for Copenhagen to succeed at this late hour; but as always my response is the same — we must do what seems impossible to avoid the unimaginable. Our survival is not negotiable, and it is unacceptable to fail to reach a strong deal here. Hopefully the major blocking nations at the moment — the US, Canada and Japan (and sometimes the EU) will have a change of heart soon, helped by the huge pressure being brought to bear by global civil society. Avaaz’s global climate treaty petition is up to more than  12 million people now.

More updates soon …

Peter Fray

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