'We are all connected,' climate panel told

Park City, Utah — Introducing the New Climate panel convened for Sundance 2018, festival director John Cooper joked that the organization decided in 2017 to do a ”one-year thing” on climate change to “just kind of highlight it.” It went so well, he said, that they decided to add on another year, because “obviously, it’s still a problem.”

Sundance documentary programmer Hussain Currinbhoy put together a worthy panel for today’s event at the Egyptian Theatre on Main Street: Anote Tong, the former president of the Micronesian island nation of Kiribati; Bart Powaukee, the water quality and environmental director for the Ute Indian Tribe in Utah; and Tashka Yawanawa, chief of the Yawanawa tribe in Acre, Brazil.

Tong’s coral atoll islands are being submerged by rising seas; Powaukee’s tribal lands in Utah’s Uintah Basin are susceptible to projected increases in drought, heat and flooding; and Yawanawa’s people in the Amazon rainforest have been forced to leave lands they have inhabited for millennia because of unusual, ferocious flooding.

Moderating the panel was former Torontonian Janaya Khan, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter Canada, and now a Los Angeles-based powerful voice demanding social justice.

A 90-minute program allowed all the panelists to give lengthy and moving statements about their respective fights. Yawanawa remarked that indigenous people like his tribe depend 100 per cent on the land, and for them, the reality of the climate catastrophe is now. And he spoke passionately about why the rest of the world should care.

“When I was preparing for my father to be the chief, I said to my father, ‘I don’t want to be a chief, because it’s too much responsibility. I want to be a normal man,’ “’ Yawanawa told the audience. “He said, ‘No, my son, once you become a chief, your responsibility is not just for the Yawana anymore, it’s beyond that.’

“And I had the feeling,” Yawanawa continued, “when I go to conferences like this, to say this message, because the forest, the animals cannot speak. I am here to speak for them. . . . I feel responsible to say to the world, it’s very important to be aware, because we are connected. If I burn my forest, you will be affected here. At Christmas, you are not going to have snow. If you pollute too much here, the rain (won’t) come to my land. We are all connected to each other. We are not on another planet.”

Tong said the same thing a different way: “We talk about indigenous and non-indigenous,” he said. “We are all indigenous.”

After Powaukee spoke about his ongoing battle for water and air rights, Khan thanked the organizers of the New Climate program at Sundance for facilitating the dialogue the work around “reframing how we understand climate justice and, more importantly, normalizing climate justice.

“How do we bring it to the dinner table, and community centres and into art spaces,” Khan asked.

The long stories recounted by the panelists were well received by the audience. To be honest, though, the theatre was packed with the very people who didn’t need to hear this message; they were (or at least believed themselves to be) already on the side of the climate justice angels.

In the end, however, while all the talk was feel-good nice and uplifting, the audience really only heard one concrete suggestion about what we who live in wealthy, democratic countries can do to move our governments on climate change.

“The only way we can influence these governments is to tell them, ‘If you don’t deal with climate change, we will vote you out,’ ” said Tong, the former Kiribati president, to much applause.

“The time for discussion is over,” he added. “We need concrete solutions. The question is, where do we go next?”

M. L. Bream photo

Chief Tashka Yawanawa (left), Bart Powaukee, Anote Tong and moderator Janaya Khan at the Egyptian Theatre in Park City, on Jan. 23, 2018.

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© 2016 M.L. Bream