Intriguing bunch, humans. A rare mix, as far as exo-planetary knowledge allows, of rationality and emotion.
We emerge from the savannah and establish civilization through reason and logic. We reach for the moon with technology and the scientific method. Yet we nourish our families and glue our societies with emotion and love. Emotion drives us, reason steers us. We move in the right direction when the two are in sync.
The difficulty with climate change is that reason and emotion have become estranged. Climate change is the child of scientific discovery. It remains, to this day, the product of scientific analysis. Prescription is an orphan – the scientists cannot enter and the analysts cannot direct. The policy-makers, they who call the shots, claim a lack of mandate; they point to public indifference and shrug.
Human emotion over climate, or the lack of it, has left us stranded. There has, to date, been no personal narrative, no single event and response that become an Epic.
Which is where Yeb Saňo comes in.
We have had Hurricane Mitch back in 1998 – the worst storm in the Western Hemisphere of 200 years. Just natural, perhaps. We have had the European heat waves of 2003 and ‘06. No-one spoke for the dead. We have had the forest fires in Russia and Australia, the floods in Pakistan and India. Too peripheral? Too biblical?
Then we encounter the immediate past and present. Hurricane Sandy took out New York with almost 9/11 intensity. Americans have begun to think differently ever since. And Bloomberg’s warning that this is what the future is like captured public imagination. But it still did not resonate, emotionally. Not in a way that counts.
It took Typhoon Haiyan to do this, in the form of Yeb Saňo’s personal cry. Speaking to the opening of this year’s UN climate talks in Warsaw last week, the chief Philippine delegate made the kind of personal lament, with family back home missing, and the kind of emotional challenge to the world – to fellow delegates to act, and to climate sceptics to put up. His appeal rang around the world, galvanising a generation.
I met Yeb Saňo today. He is as genuine as you would wish. An unassuming, courteous man, trained as a diplomat and professional to the end. But he combines this with a simmering emotional intensity that marks him out from the rest. It was the typhoon that handed out the tragedy and provided the catalyst. But it was Yeb Saňo that made climate protection a global cause celebre. Others, competent as they are, might not have.
The thing that has been absent in climate diplomacy, these past 20 years, is the emotional input into an otherwise long-term and abstract threat. The international community of states, through their political leaders and diplomatic negotiators, wades through climate negotiations like a dinosaur in a swamp. The global community of peoples, through the youth and NGOs that represent the civil society, aspire to give the negotiations some human meaning.
But not so. The annual conferences, attended as they are by the global civil society, give the global civil society the slip. The two are estranged, just as reason and emotion are estranged.
But Yeb Saňo has brought them together. In issuing his appeal, he speaks for humanity – on behalf of humanity to governments of which he is a creature. In crying out, literally, he cries for humanity.
In a single action, Yeb Saňo personifies the link, hitherto missing, between the international community of states and the global community of peoples.
What the world needs now, is love, sweet love.