Published: 25 June 2013
By Nick Breeze
The protests in Turkey have recently caught the world’s attention, and rightly so. The country’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s unjustified use of violence is a stark reminder of how humanity can turn on its own kind inflicting pain and suffering. The deeper the desperation, the deeper the pain. For ten days or so I followed the news closely as I was booked to attend a climate change conference in Istanbul where former Vice President Al Gore was to present a whole day of the latest scientific evidence regarding the seriousness of a deepening “climate crisis”.
The plot seemed to thicken when I realised that the conference centre was only a five minute walk from Taksim Square, the epicentre of the troubles that had been unknown to me prior to this protest. Like most other people I spoke to I was inclined to wonder why all the fuss? It turns out that Erdoğan is intending to turn a municipal park on one side of Taksim Square into a shopping centre, despite resistance from the public in the form of a city wide petition and years of planning disputes. In the grand scheme of things, this is a pretty small fry issue. At least, it was. Erdoğan’s over use of force to try and put an end to the protest reinforced a feeling that he has lost the ability to hear the voice of the people. His willingness to beat and gas peaceful protestors over such a small issue added more kindling to the fire and sparked a blaze that has come back and scorched his image.
Protestors – Taksim Square
The conference itself was being hosted by the Climate Reality Project, of which Al Gore is both Founder and President. The particular emphasis was on understanding the unequivocal evidence that we are entering a climate crisis and developing the leadership qualities to communicate it and take action, whether on a personal level amongst one’s own community, or on a greater level such as in national and international politics.
The gap in understanding between the scientific evidence and the public perception of risk is frightening in itself. Global carbon dioxide emissions from burning coal, oil and gas are now somewhere around 32 billion tonnes per year. This constitutes an experiment with the Earth’s atmospheric gas composition that will ultimately reshape the land on which we have to live as sea-levels rise in multi metres. Add to that the decline in water supply, restricted agriculture and increased conflict due to resource shortages and the picture is bleak. We are already seeing a 4% increase in water vapour over the oceans that is fueling monster sized hurricanes and storms. The buildup of moisture in the air from the warm surface of the sea is carried towards land where the result is like pulling the plug on a gigantic bathtub of water, resulting in flooding, damage to property and general chaos. It is no coincidence that on the day Hurricane Sandy struck the east coast of America the ocean temperature was 5C above its average!
Massive extent of Hurricane sandy’s clouds spanning 2000kms
Extremes in weather events are now so pronounced around the world that not all of them even make the news. They slip through the net of our consciousness as news editors are obliged to include the foibles of petty politics. At the time of writing the India monsoon has claimed over 600 lives but if I walked up and down my local high street, I wonder how many people would know this and how few of them would understand how the frequency of mega weather disasters is attributable to changes in the earth’s climate system, a knock on effect of humanity’s burning of fossil fuels?
The Saturday morning of the conference opened with an address by Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan. He spoke at length of Turkey’s efforts to implement sustainable policies as well as broadening his topic to areas of governmental achievements such as job creation. It was a long speech and I must confess that I tuned out for a while but as we prepared to gently applaud his exit from the stage, a large contingent of Turkish people in the crowd chanted in unison the slogan “Heryer Taksim, heryer direniş”, translated as, “Everywhere is Taksim, everywhere is resistance”. As he vanished from the stage Al Gore bounded to the centre to thank the Deputy Prime Minister and also also thank the audience; a balanced response!
For the next eight hours or so, the former Vice President of the United States took us meticulously through his presentation, an evolved version of the one used in his famous movie, ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. It was clear that understanding the science is not enough. Gore’s message was about “winning the conversation”, not just on the world stage but also on the personal life stage where ever we maybe, from the bus queue to the bar stool. This notion of “winning the conversation” is not about hectoring people or talking down to others but rather it entails dispelling the confusion and myths that are so prevalent in our society. These myths are often started by “climate change deniers”, people who cast doubt over the consensus science with spurious counter arguments that have no evidence to back them up whatsoever. It is these false claims about the world’s climate that get mangled up with the 98% agreed scientific consensus that humanity is heating the planet and the outcome is going to be very uncertain and disruptive.
“Winning the conversation” means being able to spot myths and dispel them. It means a sharpening of the truth antenna so that more people come to accept that the need for us to take action to reduce our impacts on the Earth’s climate system is great and it is needed now. The conversation at ground-level is all important when we consider that in many countries we each, as adults, are entitled to vote. Our votes count when we go to the polls. It is our chance to demand of our leaders whatever we wish. Up until recently environmental issues have suffered a fringe status with climate scientists being labeled “alarmists” by politicians and others who feel threatened by calls to change the way in which we live our lives. Over the last year or so the frequency of floods, droughts and other extreme weather events has started people all over the world, from Australia, Asia, Europe and the America’s, asking “why?”. Now is surely the time to win the conversation!
Al Gore Presenting On Stage
As Al Gore’s session on stage drew to a close we were all asked to meet on the terrace for a group photo and wine. It was great opportunity to chat to people and I found myself talking to a young business lady, who also works as part of an NGO offering disaster aid to victims in the area, as and when they occur. This would typically be in response to earthquakes or similar disasters. However, recently her team have been on the streets of Istanbul each evening giving medical assistance to injured people, be they bystander, tourist, protester or police. The cycle of interaction here seems illogical. People protest against the actions of their government. The government in reply beats them, necessitating a volunteer disaster response team to treat their injuries. There was little doubt from this lady that the government were not listening and worse, Erdoğan was manipulating the media to demonise the protestors, international media and, eventually, anyone who did not fall into line with his authority. I spoke to other Turks present who said they had voted for Erdoğan as he had some good policies. These events had turned them off.
The conversation was interrupted by a young Swiss scientist who had spent a great deal of time on the Greenland Ice sheet. This interests me enormously as last year the surface of the ice sheet went from 40% melt to 96% melt in just four days. The ice sheet is 3 kilometres thick in places and if melted would cause an estimated sea-level rise of 7.3 metres. This would put every major coastal town and city around the world underwater. Understanding ice sheets, especially their dynamics and melt rates, is obviously very important. Thomas Philips PhD. had been up on the ice sheet studying what happens when melt pools collapse and how the ice sheet funnels the water through vast tunnels to the sea where, bit by bit, icebergs are created that eventually melt into the ocean. I was keen to discuss this in more detail so a few of us, Ross, a headhunter from London, Buddy, a Californian sustainability consultant, Thomas and myself agreed to head away from the conference for a couple of beers and a chat.
Thomas Phillips And Al Gore’s Scientific Advisor, Henry Pollack
No sooner had we turned the corner out of the conference centre we were caught up in a throng of thousands of protesters. Although we were the only people not wearing face masks and swimming goggles to defend against police tear gas, the mood was relaxed and non threatening. Thomas was staying just off Taksim Square and knew a bar nearby so we went with the bustle of the protest towards the square. Considering the previous evenings had seen artists and musicians performing in the square peacefully, the risk of clashes with police seemed minimal.
We were not too far along when we sensed more edginess in the atmosphere. Also the bitter and irritating tear gas was drifting through the air amid the loudening chants of “Heryer Taksim, heryer direniş”. At reaching a point where we knew to go further we’d need masks we decided it was best to exit via a street off the other side of the road. We were now completely engulfed by the protest and the gas was thickening all around us. In an instant the chanting broke out to an new and louder pitch and the plumes of gas seemed to be much thicker. The police had entered the street from a side passage and were firing tear gas into the crowd. In the chaos Thomas and Buddy went one way and Ross and I ran another. We ducked down the side street using my handkerchiefs to filter the gas and kept going until we found a relatively empty parallel street. We walked down trying to find a place to take refuge. Windows twitched and along the street older people leaned out of first floor windows banging cooking pans making a din in support of the protests. The gas still hung in the air and the chants were some way off but the combination of adrenaline and fear meant the air was taut. I spoke to Thomas and Buddy on the phone and we waited as they tried to find us but we had no idea where we ourselves were, so it was in vain. Within thirty minutes the sound of the chanting became loud and, once again, very close. The chanting itself was not the threat, it was the knowledge that it was likely accompanied by an indiscriminate and brutal police force.
Protesters flooded into the tiny street in huge numbers. We turned and walked very fast with the crowd now forming around us. As we reached a cross roads intersecting a steep hill, we were joined by a huge number of protestors from above and now in front moving very fast to escape the large plumes of gas. Ross turned to me and shouted “Down there, its the only way to go!” We ran full pelt down the hill and I had the distinct feeling there could be a police ambush but, in the absence of choices, I didn’t raise it as an issue. As it was, when we got to the bottom the police were not in large enough numbers to contain the thousands of protesters pouring out behind us. They did however, form enough of a reason to take the left turning back towards Taksim Square. We both simultaneously noticed the grand presence of the Crowne Plaza Hotel opposite and it took little persuasion to charge in that direction. Entering the hotel at a running pace, bundling through the metal detector almost into the arms of a apprehensive porter, we stared at each other for a few seconds before I uttered the only words I could think of: “Could we have two gin and tonics please?”.
Within ten minutes Ross and I were joined by Thomas and Buddy who had been entrenched in the crowds not too far away. As we sipped our drinks and allowed the adrenaline rush to calm down, we reflected on what we had seen. The crowds were made up of young and old people alike. Many seemed to be dressed as if they were going to the local disco, rather than to a colossal demonstration (aside from face masks and goggles). There was certainly passion in the chanting of the slogan, yet this was clearly a peaceful protest underpinned by common purpose and a will to be heard. Perhaps an unexpected observation was the magnetic pull of the chaos despite the inability to breathe or see clearly. The hypnotic state induced by perceived danger made us reluctant to leave the protests and created an excitement that draws one back to it. In this instance it was now one o’clock in the morning, so Ross and I decided to take a taxi back to the peaceful old city of Sultanahmet. Buddy sidled away into the night to his accommodation and Thomas had no choice but to rejoin the protests as his hotel was located close by Taksim Square (he texted me later to say he was back in his hotel, sober once again, washing tear gas from his eyes and dealing with the adrenal thump).
I arrived at the conference at 7:30 the next morning and had to cut through the persisting conflict of police still gassing protestors outside. The conference was now in disarray as many people were unable to get to their hotels the night before. Many were entering the venue and rushing to the bathrooms to wash the tear gas from their eyes. It was announced the planned finish time of 3 o’clock was being brought forward to noon. The situation was worsening as the Prime Minister was now coming to Istanbul with tens of thousands of his supporters to stage a huge rally as a show of strength. We were advised to wear our badges prominently and to move in small groups when in parts of the city affected by the trouble.
I said many good byes and paired up with a Spaniard living in the UK called Marcelo. We left by the side of the building and walked down the long winding hill towards the stadium. A feeling of grave sadness hung in the air as we walked passed literally hundreds of plain clothed police officers ferried into Istanbul from all over the country to fight with protesters. They hung in groups of around fifty in the woods or in small enclaves off the road, being given orders by uniformed men. They were either brandishing long truncheons or being given matching shoulder sacks. They looked at us with an air of solemnity as we passed by and I couldn’t help thinking of the people we moved between the previous night. Towards the bottom of the hill were long lines of buses where the police were boarding to be taken into the centre. There was no doubt that the protestors were going to be beaten and it reminded me of the defiant statement in Hemingway’s ‘Old Man And The Sea’, “a man can be destroyed but not defeated.”
Police Boarding Buses To Confront Protestors
Later that evening I watched glumly on the internet as scenes of the rally were mixed with scenes of people lying wounded in the streets. It later emerged that doctors and nurses who gave assistance to the wounded were also arrested and labeled “in conjunction with the protestors”. To his applauding audience the Prime Minister criticised the world media, foreign governments and just about anyone who had voiced concern over his behaviour. The irony was apparent in the context of our conference where we had witnessed a former Vice President of the United States completely surpass our expectations of what it takes to show leadership qualities. Al Gore repeatedly stressed the need for inclusion and respect in order to bring everyone on board, not just the choir! This necessity to bring our efforts together is the only way to avert a planetary disaster and preserve a livable world for both our own and future generations. The climate crisis calls for new skills, new tools and all hands on deck. The leaders we need must have the skills to lead us both into and out of the storms, as we seek to rebalance humanity within the life support system upon which we depend. Time is running out. Dictators are relics of the broken past; the people no longer need but demand leaders of a new breed.