The Face of Power
by: Blaine Skrainka
photography by: Camilo Fuentealba
January 28, 2014
Two years ago, an unknown student took the stage at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP17) in Durban, South Africa. The young woman, Anjali Appadurai, was nominated by her peers to speak on behalf of youth delegates to a thinned-out auditorium of droopy-eyed diplomats. With a populist fervor, Appadurai shook the room with demands for long-awaited action.
“We are the silent majority. You’ve given us a seat in this hall, but our interests are not on the table. What does it take to get a stake in this game? Lobbyists? Corporate influence? Money? You’ve been negotiating all my life. In that time, you’ve failed to meet pledges, you’ve missed targets, and you’ve broken promises,” she pressed.
Her eyes descended intermittently to the prepared script, but her voice was unwavering, her arms illustrative.
“The International Energy Agency tells us we have five years until the window to avoid irreversible climate change closes. The science tells us that we have five years maximum. You’re saying, ‘Give us 10.’ The most stark betrayal of your generation’s responsibility to ours is that you call this ‘ambition.’ There is real ambition in this room, but it’s been dismissed as radical, deemed not politically possible.”
The next day, the address went viral, making Appadurai an instant symbol of youth energy and determination among the activist community. The widespread reaction to her brief appearance surprised her, and she sometimes wonders if the praise is misplaced. The rising star has since given a pair of TED Talks, both of which lacked the luster of the Durban speech.
If anything, Appadurai is more technocrat than soaring orator. After graduating last spring from the College of the Atlantic, she’s turned her focus to international trade policy, which she considers the “intersection of everything that’s wrong with politics, law, and economics.”
In “transition mode,” Appadurai says that law school is probably her next step. Despite her growing clout as an activist and experience in international diplomacy (she will have attended five U.N. conferences before her 24th birthday), Appadurai doesn’t see a future bid for office in the cards.
Instead, she is determined to make moves behind-the-scenes by working to organize a global network of grassroots social movements in opposition to dirty energy. It’s an industry that serves to entrench the status quo like no other, but Appadurai has made it her mission to understand the dynamics of power and flip them inside out.
What compelled you to become a climate activist? Why this issue?
My introduction to a bigger picture was through the Canadian Red Cross. It was human rights issues—that’s the core of where I’m coming from with social justice work. It’s always been about human rights and social justice for me.
I was struck by how cross-cutting climate change is, how international, and how many facets of human life it covers. For me, it’s always been a human thing. It struck me how profoundly impactful climate change is on all aspects of our lives and relationship with the earth. I don’t see it as one specific issue, but rather, as the umbrella issue.
How do you and your peers approach seeking action on climate change?
There’s a lot of amazing youth work going on at the grassroots level, especially in the U.S. At the international level, you actually see very little of that. But in the U.N. space, there are several hundred youth attending each given conference. They come from all across the board in terms of their perspective on climate change and justice.
I think with Earth in Brackets [a climate advocacy group at College of the Atlantic] we’ve been fortunate enough to play a role in bringing in what we call a “climate justice” perspective—which is to say, looking at climate change through a lens of historical and current equity [between developed and developing countries]. We take a view of global politics, but from a developing country perspective, because those are the countries that have contributed the least to climate change and are facing the greatest consequences from it.
The climate justice angle is one that totally pertains to youth as the next generation. It’s all about intergenerational equity, because the major polluters now are passing that burden on to us.
Where do you see yourself on the spectrum of activism, with non-violent direct action on one end and electoral politics on the other? What is more effective?
I’ve been focused more on traditional electoral politics, but at the international level. I see it all as this spectrum of power, and we’re all working at it from different places, with different amounts of leverage. Direct action is bare, and raw, and right up against power. At the international level, we have a lot less leverage—it’s the writing, lobbying, convincing, networking, organizing, and mobilizing—all to change a tiny little bit of text that will be written into a new law.
I have so much respect for the direct action side of things, and I’m hoping to be involved with it on the [Canadian] tar sands issue [read: Keystone XL pipeline and related projects]. But in terms of choosing which end of the spectrum, I’ve always been a bit of a big picture person. This U.N. arena is such a power play between massive entities and nation states—you can really see who has power, how they use it, and how that’s disadvantaging millions of people. It’s a study in power.
I’ve heard you use the word “climate regime” and express your frustration with “shady political processes.” Can you elaborate?
The climate regime is made up, in my mind, of the different institutions of power that are making decisions that are affecting our battle with climate change. Right now the major vehicle of the climate regime is the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), that is, the U.N. body that holds climate change conferences every year. The enemy in that is, in some ways, the process itself— getting 195 countries in the room to agree on anything. It’s slow, painful, and ridden with conflicts of interests. Truly though, the major opponents are the governments of industrialized countries, there’s no question about it. It’s a failure of them to accept their burden of responsibility.
Do you feel that international conferences on climate change are productive? Is there an alternative model?
Given the time constraints—we have to peak our emissions by 2015—the U.N. system isn’t working, it’s totally at a deadlock between the Global North and Global South. What needs to happen now is that social movements across the world need to coordinate and strengthen themselves, which sends a really strong message to governments that local struggles are tied together globally. It’s like a human mic, amplifying each other through connecting— taking local, decentralized struggles into the U.N space where it can no longer be ignored. That’s the alternative system that we are trying to make work.
What specifically is the responsibility of developed nations to the developing world?
It’s multi-fold. The first responsibility is to cut emissions deeply and radically by cutting out all new fossil fuel projects. In terms of transfer from North to South, it has to take several paths. One very important one is adaptation finance. Another is loss and damage compensation, which is a legal responsibility for remuneration based on harms already created by climate change.
Another thing is technology transfer— sustainable technologies, giving over patent rights and intellectual property, i.e., providing knowhow and infrastructure to create a new economy in the South. The narrative from developed to developing countries is essentially: Yes, you need to develop, but you can’t do it the same way we did. That mandate has been given in without the resources to follow up on it.
Are climate change activists doing enough to make this a human and social justice issue as opposed to a strictly environmental one?
Not everyone in the movement has that understanding. Every group or movement has rolled it into their already-existing agenda, and I see a lot of dichotomizing of the issue, but I think we are moving to a place where those two sides of it are inextricable. When we talk about saving the environment, it’s a total paradox— the best thing we could do to save the environment is to die off. So, we’re not talking about protecting the environment in the abstract, we’re doing it for the betterment of humanity.
As a young person, what makes you think you can take on the entrenched status quo, and what keeps you from becoming cynical and resigning from a seemingly impossible fight?
That changes a lot for me. It’s part association—seeing activists whose fire never dies. Part is the delight of the struggle, knowing that there is no other choice but to struggle and find solidarity with people who have the same conception of justice that I do. Inevitability is the word that comes to mind.
I’m still new to this. As I learn, I’m mapping the world for myself, I’m mapping power dynamics. The more I map, the more I see it laid out before me, and the more excited I get. There are ways to resist power, ways to redirect power, and ways to become power. It’s a total strategy game, and I’m really excited to see where our generation takes it. Gen Y is waking up on a massive scale. The word activism is taking on totally different meanings—less of an esoteric network and more of a way of life. I have so much confidence in my peers.
Who are some of your heroes?
Two that inspire me are Arundhati Roy and Naomi Klein. These two women are the epitome of barreling through issues of sexism and racism and trying to get to the heart of social justice.
What is your WILD Wish?
I want the personal to become the political. To wrangle the oppressive power relations that mess up our world, while remaining true to myself.
Anjali on Twitter Follow @anjaliapp
Blaine on Twitter Follow @themindofskank