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The Parc Chanot exhibition space in Marseille, France, early last September was a sea of slim-tailored suits tapered tight at the ankles. Diplomats and agents consulaires floated through pavilions, vibing protocol. After a one-year Covid delay, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which gathers members from more than 160 nations every four years for an olympics of environmental policy called the World Conservation Congress, was convening again at last, and 137 motions were up for vote by the end of the week. One of the hottest was Motion 003, Establishing a Climate Change Commission. The original draft had read “Climate Crisis Commission,” but that was deemed by some a touch incendiary. So revisions were underway, debated in Zoom sessions called “contact groups.” Delegates would stop strolling booths periodically to grab any seat, open laptops, insert earbuds and participate virtually in the word wrangling. It was all very conventional.

Except in Exhibition Hall 3, where about two thirds of the way back, the Oceania-Hawai’i Pavilion pulsed with an all-age crowd, music and laughter, like an archipelago of ease. Business attire there meant visible knees and sun-kissed shoulders, and shoes seemed to slip off sometime before lunch. The diverse group of delegates from the Pacific Islands were as busy as everyone else on their laptops and phones, but they worked circled up in groups, muting their devices frequently so they could lean in close to strategize off-camera. Paper cups of French cookies were passed around, and after 5 p.m., bottles of local brew. The 50-person strong delegation from Hawai’i had raised funds, vaxxed up and endured Covid swabbing at every port to make it to the congress in person. They were deeply motivated and on mission, but as for methods? All their own, authentic to the place they’d traveled 7,000 miles to represent.

Kevin Chang, a lawyer by training (and singer-songwriter by nature) who directs the environmental justice nonprofit Kua’Āina Ulu ‘Auamo, sat on a squat stool between two circles of delegates, his phone in one hand and a pen in the other. Not quite 50 with a younger face and eyes that seemed to listen, Chang was a go-to resource in the pavilion, juggling questions about two motions at once. Contact groups for Motion 048, a powerfully worded renunciation of the Doctrine of Discovery—the legal justification for colonialism—and Motion 003 creating the climate commission were conferring at the same time, and Chang’s organization had sponsored both measures.

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