Fighting nuclear, dams, and climate change in Turkey

(This blog post is coming a bit late. Since we left Turkey, we've been to a friend's wedding in Italy, investigated an airport closure in Berlin, and lazed about in Paris. More updates soon.)

I've been wanting to go to Turkey for years, attracted by Orhan Pamuk's books, and intrigued by the idea of discovering a place at the intersection of Asia and Europe, Islam and Christianity. What we found was more complex and nuanced than the idea in my head, but isn't that always the case? More than anything else, Istanbul reminded me of home. I've been getting better at learning to let go of assumptions and expectations, taking in a place for what it is.

We took a ferry from Odessa, Ukraine to Istanbul, Turkey, where we found that Ukraine had been following us. Days after arriving, I found myself photographing a crowd of thousands of Turks gathered to commemorate the 24th anniversary of Ukraine's Chernobyl disaster, while calling for environmental justice at home. (Much like the Tokyo anti-nuclear protest we photographed last year.) The crowd was diverse: villagers impacted by large dams, urbanites worried about climate change, children carrying anti-nuclear messages, and anarchist teens calling for system change. There were a sea of blue-black flags fluttering in the wind, while hundreds of yellow scarves decorated the shoulders of contingents of rural organizers fighting a program of frenetic dam-building that would displace their communities and destroy cultural heritage.

I asked marchers why they had come. A Green Party member wanted to8 avoid a Turkish Chernobyl. A mom and daughter opposed nuclear energy and wanted more renewables. "We never want to live without water and trees," a man in his forties slowly wrote in my notebook, in his best English. A group of friends described how their town had been united in opposition to dam policy. The day after, I was describing the protest to a doctor from Iran staying at our hostel, and his eyes widened. How were the police, he asked. OK, by and large, I told him. The conversation reminded me of the value of free speech and assembly, but also of their role as an outlet to manage dissenting sound and fury. After all, if these protests could fundamentally change anything, wouldn't they be banned, as in Iran?

I was at the march to to meet Gökşen Şahin and Erkin Erdoğan of KEG (Global Action Group), which has been focusing on Turkish climate issues since 2005, when they did education work and helped coordinate a 2,000-person demonstration in favor of Turkey's joining the Kyoto Protocol. Concerns about climate threats grew, and two years later, their pro-Kyoto demonstration attracted 12,000 attendees, while a pro-Kyoto petition was signed by 100,000 people, which they delivered to Parliament. These are huge numbers in a nation with a young civil society and emerging environmental movements. The government finally signed on to Kyoto in February 2009, but without specifying national emissions targets. Last year, KEG members were at COP15 in Copenhagen, sending back news to Turkish newspapers. This year's plans include connecting with labor groups around green jobs initiatives, creating climate action networks at the Istanbul European Social Forum, and building October 10 "Get to Work" campaigns.

In Ankara, Turkey's capital city, we met Cem Gundogan. Cem moved to Ankara ten years ago, as a physics student. He discovered climate issues three years ago, and started working with other youth activists, doing teach-ins, a 10/24 bike action, meeting members of parliament, and working on media relations. While he sees growing awareness of the issue, it's still theoretical for some. "Some people think climate change is all about the north pole and polar bears. Even with recent flooding and droughts [in Turkey], the problems are rarely linked to climate change." He described Turkey's growing renewable energy investments in projects like wind farms, and also the layer of greenwash to work through; a company touting the benefits of wind farms might also do incredibly inefficient construction projects, wiping out the gains many times over. Two steps forward, one step back.

Turkey's challenge is two-fold. On one hand, they are likely to be one of the most be highly climate-impacted nations in the Mediterranean region, facing serious crises like desertification. On the other, it's an Annex 2 economy that increased carbon emissions 110% in the past two decades, and the government wants to ensure the nation's right to develop. In Turkey, climate action doesn't fall on a simple left-right spectrum. KEG members described how in 2008, Turkish environmentalists were surprised to see left parties claiming that climate change was an imperialist plot to prevent Turkish development -- a position based more on nationalism than on science. Things have turned around somewhat since then, but recognition of climate impacts and responsibilities is still uneven. Things are further complicated by the fact that Turkey is a candidate for European Union membership, but will find it difficult to accept strong EU strong carbon reduction mandates. The result? Silence. Turkey's political leadership seems to be most comfortable with a wait and see attitude, possibly hoping that not changing course is the best policy. Turkey's climate action community is working hard to break that silence.

We ended our trip in Ankara meeting Ürün Güner from Flying Broom, one of the oldest women's NGOs in Turkey. Flying Broom works on democratization, social development, and gender issues, and runs Ankara's annual International Women's Film Festival. The US-backed Turkish coup of 1980 led to the mass dissolution of civil society organizations; Flying Broom was founded in 1996 by elder feminists, making it one of the oldest women's NGOs in Turkey. Part of its work involves transferring knowledge and histories from 40 years of organizing into the current wave, connecting local groups, and helping them become more political and powerful. The EU process, started in 2003, has helped with capacity building and fundraising. Ürün described a strong emerging women's movement, working to tackle a wide variety of deep structural inequalities. This is everything we want for the climate action movement, but we don't have decades to get there.

Leave a comment

About us...

We're a landscape architect (Barnali) and tech geek (Anirvan) from San Francisco spending a year trying to travel across continents aviation-free while talking to people exploring solutions to transportation and the climate crisis.

Enter your email to stay updated!
(unsubscribe anytime)

Recent Entries