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Steven Heywood - April 2012 journal letter

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QUNO, Geneva

Dear Friends,

I should perhaps begin with an introduction – I began my role as a programme assistant at QUNO in November, two months after Lynn and Helen, and so this is the first journal letter you will have received from me. Originally from Birmingham, I have come to QUNO to work on the relatively new Human Impacts of Climate Change programme, after previously working as an editor and writer at Peace Child International in Hertfordshire, and as an intern on economic justice issues for Friends of the Earth Europe in Brussels.

Climate change is one of the defining issues of our era – stemming directly from the exponential rises in industrial production and mass consumption that have accompanied the intense economic globalisation since the second half of the last century. The consequences of increased greenhouse gas emissions – as well as other forms of industrial pollution – will directly affect the land, air and water that all creatures need to live. These biological changes are taking place in a social context of huge inequality and multiple other crises – political, financial, and agricultural. Scientifically observable environmental changes are intimately tied up with the much knottier issues of equality, justice and human rights, as it is those who have done the least to contribute to the problem that will feel its effects most acutely – this is where our work on the human impacts of climate change comes in.

As a relatively new programme, my work so far has centred around helping QUNO to discern its future direction on these issues. I have been researching existing literature on the relationships between climate change and migration, culture and conflict, and finding that many of the accepted narratives stand on less-than-stable ground – such as the idea that climate change will lead to masses of migrants travelling to the developed world (when most movement is likely to be within countries, or between developing countries), or that it will inevitably lead to conflict (when collaboration over natural resources is more common).

I have also been following the UN climate change negotiations, looking at both the processes involved and the main points of fissure or agreement at the recent Durban talks, and thinking about what a Quaker approach to quiet diplomacy and consensus-building might be able to bring to a set of talks that at times seem to be intractable. This is sensitive work, and still in its preliminary stages, so I cannot say much more at the moment, but it is clear that following the agreement at Durban to develop a new protocol there will be much debate to come on issues of global responsibilities, emissions levels, finance, and much else – and QUNO hopes to be a useful voice in steering those debates towards an equitable outcome that all parties can support.

Because of the desk-bound nature of this work, I have not yet spent much time at the United Nations, but I have attended a few seminars at the Palais des Nations to collect information, opinions and connections that may help us in our later work. So far, I must admit to being disappointed – the process seems wrapped up in an unnecessary level of formality and jargon, and governments more interested in presenting their 'positions' than actually discussing issues and finding solutions. I expected the process to be slow, but at times it has been difficult to imagine how any progress is ever made – I hope to see this impression proved wrong over the next eight months.

This leads me to think of the work of QUNO itself. Quaker work at the UN also proceeds slowly, though I would say in a deliberate rather than bureaucratic manner – our work on climate change will still only be in the early stages of a long-term commitment by the time I leave here in October. We move much more slowly on issues than any of the previous NGOs I have worked for – partly because of the nature of the UN system, but I think it also relates to the fact that we are not so implicated in the usual models of short-term funding and project cycles. We can afford to take a more thoughtful, contemplative, and ultimately effective approach because of the stable funding we receive from the donations of Friends, and to work on issues for many years if necessary until progress is made – which in UN terms is a very useful position to be in.

On a more personal note to end, after the whirlwind process of moving to Geneva – packing, tying up loose ends at my previous job, trying to find adaptors for the bizarre plug sockets I was warned about – I am now settling into Geneva well. A short but extremely sharp winter, consisting of two weeks of unspeakably hideous cold, has recently given way to a spring-like feeling which makes strolling around Geneva a highly pleasant experience, accentuated by the mountain vistas on both sides – the rocky slab of the Salève to the south, and the snowy caps of the Jura to the north. Alas, the idea of throwing myself down those mountains while strapped to planks of wood (known to many as 'skiing') is not very appealing to me, but I have instead been going for walks into the Geneva countryside, visiting every (free) museum in the canton, making the trip to the famous Château de Chillon that Byron wrote about, and spending far too much time in front of the supermarket cheese counter, paralysed by variety.

Steven Heywood
April 2012