On Unfinished Symphonies
I got to do some serious reflecting during a much-needed break the other night. It was day 9 of my first COP, and I was finally feeling like I had a clear job to do. Jessica and I took advantage of a free performance by the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra. As the music began, it unlocked my mind, finally giving me a moment to figure out how I felt about my role in all this. It had been a struggle to feel like I was making a difference here (mostly I just felt jetlagged).
Not to say I wasn’t productive for 8 whole days – the setup and orientation of the conference is intense and it takes a bit to find your niche here in the bustle of high-level meetings, blogging frenzies, informal consultations, strategy sessions, and late-night sillies. I wasn’t the only one. Almost everyone I talked to, who was navigating their first COP, felt confused or useless or bored or overwhelmed (or all four at once), regardless of which nation they came from.
One of the most frustrating parts of COP is that sometimes it feels like you’re going in every direction at all times, yet nothing gets done. Every day there are loads of meetings, plenaries, side events, and working groups. Yet so little seems to be accomplished.
After nearly two hours of an SBI discussion on the inclusion of text on gender representation, I can tell you that they added a comma. I also know that Iceland wanted stronger language, the U.S. just wanted compromise so it was sure to be passed, and others seemed to just want to thank the other people in the room.
You can imagine that it was hard to feel like this reality was making the progress we need to successfully address climate change. Prior to attending COP, I had seen UN policies as flashy victories of great world leadership, not the slow ironing out of minutia. But you know what? I’m ok with that.
Listening to Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony No. 8 (thinking to myself: am I really in Doha? Is this real life???), I realized that there can be huge value in incomplete ideas. Even though he never finished writing the work, never figured out how to make it seem complete in his own eyes, the world benefits from the great artistic outpouring that it represents. The UNFCCC negotiations are just like that: they may not make everyone happy, and they may take hours agonizing over mere finesse, but ultimately progress is made. Schubert wrote the symphony chord by chord, note by note. And, phrase by phrase, our global climate agreements will do the same. One day we’ll be able to enjoy its benefits, and we have to be comfortable with the sloppy mess in between.
With this new mental framework, I applauded the orchestra at its conclusion of the piece and smiled when I noticed that the next piece was a work by Franz Liszt. From my days as a pianist, I remembered Liszt as that composer who would push technical boundaries, forcing the performing through unusual fingerings and combinations of notes to produce pure symphonic poetry. And, since I was already thinking about COP, I realized that this was another piece of the puzzle: pushing the boundary of what’s technically possible to achieve greatness. Our negotiators are looking for innovative finance and development mechanisms that can empower communities, address climate change, and keep meet the needs of many interest groups. If they can master those techniques, what they produce will be a work of art. It won’t, of course, be easy – I remember spending a whole day practicing just three lines of a ten-page work Liszt wrote.
At this point, I thought I was done reading COP analogies into everything I saw. But no – the final performance at first seemed straightforward, but surprised me once again. Out of the middle of what would have been an average string melody, came a bongo solo. The whole room woke up. It was a turning point for the night – the solo beat on, evoking images of Africa, then gave way to the full orchestra chiming in on the same drumbeat, an unexpected and beautiful end to the evening.
At COP, everyone says that it’s endless minutiae, punctuated by big moments of game-changing action and innovation. While I loved the bongo solo, I would not have appreciated a full hour of just bongos. We need those moments of inspiration just as much as we need the dull and expected build up into the true genius needed for the challenges we face.
Today at COP18, I am working with other young people to address concerns on unequal representation and engagement from various groups here, tracking technology transfer and intellectual property policy, helping generate media attention on the negotiations back home, and tweeting like a maniac to keep everyone up-to-date (midnight plenaries, anyone?). Not exactly what I expected, but it’s helping our group make an impact, and I get to learn loads while having fun (and did I mention I get to be in Qatar???).
I also get to help lay the groundwork for a longer-term US youth strategy, so that we can be ready for those moments of genius when the current build up crescendos into the turning point for an ambitious and effective climate agreement. We’re creating the political environment in which this is possible, in which our home communities will understand and embrace the solutions we know are in the works. Like negotiators here at this year’s COP, the SSC is building the groundwork for future action on an ambitious, fair, and legally-binding climate agreement.
- Mallory Flowers is a student at the University of Alabama and has been a logistics coordinator for the COP18 delegation