SEATTLE -- Michael Foster hasn’t eaten in nine days.
He’s not on a diet, or a cleanse. The the middle-aged father of two decided spontaneously last Monday to voluntarily fast to draw attention to climate change talks happening on the other side of the world.
I spoke with Foster at lunchtime on Day 8. He was “huuuuuuuungry,” he said.
Foster seemed listless, quite different from the energetic activist I met a few months ago while covering an anti-coal export demonstration.
“I’ve been having a lot of ‘senior moments,’” Foster said. “I feel like I’ve aged 20 years.”
To understand why Foster took this seemingly drastic step, we have to go to Poland where international climate talks are underway. It’s the 19th conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which continues this week. Some nations are losing patience with decades of what they see as endless talks and little meaningful action. The delegates voicing particular concern are from countries that are experiencing rising oceans, erratic weather patterns and megastorms that have been linked to climate change. Climate impacts that threaten the very existence of some countries.
In fact, today 133 developing nations walked out of the talks because of conflict over whether countries that emit the most greenhouse gases should have to help pay for the damage caused by extreme weather in countries that contribute significantly less carbon to the atmosphere.
The opening session of the talks took place Nov. 11, just three days after Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, killing thousands. In Poland, Filipino climate delegate Yeb Sano made an impassioned plea (Watch video of Sano’s speech). Sano demanded the council commit to greenhouse gas emission reduction targets and provide compensation for countries hit hardest by climate change. Sano announced that he would go without food until meaningful outcomes are in sight.
Foster says he was watching from his home in Seattle and decided in that instant that he would join Sano and fast in solidarity with him. Since then, Foster says, he has consumed only water, tea and broth.
By the end of the first day of fasting, Foster said, “I was feeling lonely and crazy.” But he went online and discovered that others were following suit (See hashtag #FastingForTheClimate and #FastingForThePhilippines). A few days later more than 600,000 people signed a petition telling the UN to take action, many of them committing to fast as well, in solidarity with the poor. According to a recent report (.pdf), poor people are disproportionately affected by extreme weather events.
I asked Foster what he hoped to accomplish.
“We’re letting our leaders know that we’re serious,” he said. “That these are moral choices that they’re making. Not economic choices. Not political choices. They’re choosing to say pretty words instead of agreeing to do the right thing by the rest of the world. Our pollution in the U.S. is making people around the world suffer and die. The average American pollutes 20 times more than the average Filipino. It’s people in poverty who will suffer the most from the impacts of climate change.”
Foster is an environmental activist who was trained by Al Gore to give climate change presentations to local audiences. By day he’s a mental health counselor.
Foster said he often thinks about the psychological traps that people fall into regarding climate change.
“People say, ‘If enough bad things happen, then people will realize that climate change is happening and they’ll do something.’ But we’ve had many bad things happen, and people still feel like they can’t do anything about it,” he said.
Foster said fasting has opened his eyes in ways he didn’t expect.
“I’m giving up something I thought I couldn’t live without,” he said. “But it turns out I actually can.”
He’s not advocating that everyone join the hunger strike. For some people this would be very dangerous. But maybe, he says, there are other things people can go without -- such as activities that contribute CO2 to the atmosphere.
“It’s easy to get in the car because everyone has a car and it’s easy to fly because air plane tickets are cheap,” Foster said. “But these are just habits. They are things we can change. We can’t leave it up to corporations or governments or businesses. Only individuals can make a difference.”
Foster plans to continue to fast until the climate talks end Friday.