Field Notes from an Anglophone Jungle
Coming to Mexico, I expected to feel perpetually ashamed of my lack of Spanish. While this has been true, especially outside the conference, I’ve been more shocked by the apparently broadly accepted dominance of the English language inside the negotiations. Perhaps as an anglophone Canadian living in Quebec I’m particularly sensitive to language, or particularly conscious of my own lack of linguistic talents. As a passionate advocate and all-around talkative person, I hate feeling I can’t communicate effectively—I imagine most people feel this way, especially when they are trying to cope with all the environmental and socioeconomic complexities posed by climate change.
When I think of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, I think of 193 countries representing a tremendous variety of linguistic backgrounds. To some extent this is true, and simultaneous interpretation is provided for many of the large negotiating sessions. But for so many sessions, English is the language of choice. Or rather, the language that has been chosen by the UN, with all its roots in Western culture.
It’s too simplistic to think that these negotiations actually bring together 193 countries on equal terms. Large developed nations and negotiating blocks (USA, EU) and the major emerging economies (China, Brazil, India, South Africa) have significantly more power than any small island states. This isn’t just in terms of political clout, however—it also comes down to negotiating resources.
If you’re a developed nation, chances are you’re sending a well-informed and well-prepared team of a dozen or more negotiators. You’re likely staying at the Moon Palace or at one of the hotels to which there is frequent shuttle service. It’s likely that your negotiators are either anglophones or have had excellent education in English since an early age. You have enough negotiators to attend all the concurrent sessions—and maybe even enough that they can take days off or nip out for a nap.
If you’re from a developing nation, however, you likely have significantly less support. You may have only one or two negotiators, who may be staying farther from the negotiations (judging from our fellow passengers on the shuttle bus that heads downtown to our hostel—also the bus with the longest lines and wait times—only developing nation negotiators are staying downtown rather than in one of the fancy hotels). Your negotiators have to prioritize which sessions they will attend, since there aren’t enough of them to attend all concurrent sessions; naps aren’t an option. Once your negotiator gets to the session, he or she needs to participate in careful wordsmithing and diplomatic language in what is often a second or third language. As a developing nation, it’s also likely that you don’t have as strong ties to civil society groups in attendance and that the roughly 200 organizations with booths in Cancunmesse have at best limited information and resources in your mother tongue or that are appropriate for your nation’s domestic context.
Of course, it’s not just the official UN process that’s English-dominated. The Climate Action Network International meetings are also conducted in English, with the majority in attendance originating from Western, anglophone nations. Many ENGOs (environmental non-governmental organizations) are doing their best to work in solidarity with developing nations, but nevertheless it doesn’t feel like enough.
Of course, this all ties in to the issues of privilege that some of my fellow youth delegates have already discussed. I feel incredibly privileged to be able to navigate the process in my mother tongue (it’s confusing enough without tackling everything in a second language), and, as usual, I am humbled by the ability of several of the other CYDers to communicate effectively in three, four, or more languages. All of this underlines to me how clearly developed nations should take the first and deepest steps—we have so much of the resources and so much of the political power.
The UNFCCC could take a good step towards a more even balance of power by decreasing anglophone dominance and providing cheat sheets of the extensive terminology in other languages. Perhaps the CYD’s could provide a useful start.