Dear President Obama,
Two years ago, I wrote you a letter. I talked about climate change, and hope, and about a generation pulling together. I did not tell you that I myself was falling apart. The gory details are not important– life can break your heart, and sometimes it conspires to break it in multiple ways all at the same time. But if we are lucky, life puts us right again. And it was in all of that–not in graduate school, not on the Hill, not in the halls of Copenhagen–but in the growing pains of young adulthood–that I learned the most important lesson I can bring to the international climate negotiations.
The world over, for centuries, people have made the unspoken but persistent mistake of thinking that if only we lump enough of us together in institutions, we will somehow become immune to the experience of being human– that we can govern with documents and dollars, rules and regulations, brackets and bureaucracy. See the protocols, not the people. That we can–and should–separate who we are at home from who we are at work. That if we expect to be taken seriously, we should avoid getting emotional.
But we are quicker to criticize inhuman institutions and take their services for granted than we are to help them along. We tear them apart just as quickly as our blogs, twitter, and statuses allow. We find a lot to be against. We forget to remember what we are for. All over the world this year, people have taken to the streets. They have had a lot to say, but most of all, they have said that inhuman institutions are not working.
Two years ago I fell apart. Friends saw me through it. They sent messages that read simply, “How are you?” Over and over again they sat with me at picnic tables on DC patios, proffering pizza and soda and supportive silence. They managed somehow to see my best self even after the good version of me had gone decidedly missing. Eventually I started to see it too. It is in no small part because of this vigil, because of their stubborn expectation of what I could be, that I am myself again. Of all the things I have learned in my ongoing effort to accumulate an arsenal of skills to bring to bear on the UNFCCC–finance, diplomacy, negotiating tactics, number crunching–none is as important as this:
In our finest moments we are humans first. And–albeit with all the formal courtesies due my President– so are you.
I will be the first to admit that on climate, I have been your unapologetic critic. But now I choose to do for you what my friends did for me. I will sit here across this metaphorical table, for however many “pizzas” it takes– looking you in the eye until you see what I see. I will not see the last two years or the last two decades, I will not see Kyoto or Copenhagen or Cancun. I will not see the conversations that may have already doomed the talks in Durban, or a closing window of global opportunity. I will see only wild possibility. And I will not go anywhere until you see it too.