December 12, 2015 has been described as historic – the day we turned the tide on climate change. On that day, after two weeks of negotiations, 196 nations unanimously agreed to adopt an international climate pact, known as the Paris Agreement. Just a few weeks ago, history was made again when 174 nations and the EU signed the Paris Agreement, the largest number of signatures to an international agreement in one day, ever.
It was both a privilege and an honor to not only be present at COP21, where the Paris Agreement was developed and finalized, but to be present with ten education ambassadors committed to climate change education. It was also transformational, as I was able to witness first hand the process of international policy making and the organizing of people on a grand scale to inform and challenge the policy being made. It honestly wasn’t until April 22, the day the Agreement was signed, that I truly felt I had returned from Paris. I finally took time to look back and reflect on all the moments that made our time there memorable and transformational. There are many stories I could tell, but I think this is the one that best captures how COP21 transformed all of us who were able to attend.
December 2, 2015 Janet and I touched down in Paris at 8:00 AM and hit the ground running. We had four days we could spend in the Blue Zone, where official UN badges were needed, before we handed them off to two of our teachers. The whole city was ready. The green COP21 leaf was posted everywhere: on posters and subways and on the “COPwear” of people ready to guide you to the right place.
As we stepped off the shuttle to COP21, pillars with the flags of every country in the Conference of Parties spread out before us, I choked up for the first of many times. This felt big. This felt historic. Weaving through the pillars ahead of me were people from every continent of the world in suits and saris, Inuit Anoraks and Muslim Hijabs.
In need of a bit of fortitude, Janet and I got in line for a French latte and croissant and were drawn into the first of the many conversations we were to have. Don and Jon were from the Pacific Northwest and were representing their tribes and indigenous rights. It was here, our first hour at COP21, where we heard that indigenous groups, island nations and others were asking that the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees C be lowered to 1.5 C. It seemed outlandish. I had never heard such a thing. Yet they were asking, in fact they were demanding, and these two Indigenous leaders we met explained the momentum was building.
It was conversations like these that made the COP21 experience. It is through them we met the people of the world. Island nations going underwater, African nations mired in drought, South American rainforests being designated off limits to the people that have lived there for centuries; this isn’t abstract anymore for me. I have met the people that live in these places and I have heard their pain, their determination to fight climate change and their voices demanding they be heard in the charting of international climate policy. It is these conversations, these stories of real people, that our education ambassadors overwhelmingly cited as the most powerful part of their experience in Paris.
In preparing their students for their journey to COP21, each of the teachers – Kristy, Phillip, Nicole, Roy, Beckie, Kathy, Peter, Shannon, Lauren and Billy – asked for position statements on what these talks meant to their students and what climate action looked like to them. After practicing many acts of patience and persistence, Janet and I were lucky to secure a 45 minute meeting with Dr. John Holdren, the President’s Science Advisor, to present these statements at the U.S. Embassy in Paris. This meeting happened three days into the teacher’s week at the conference, and the mood at the talks was low. It wasn’t clear if the Agreement was going to happen. Those stories and conversations I mentioned earlier weighed heavy on the Ambassador’s minds and hearts and they carried them, along with the position statements carefully prepared by their students, into the stately old French mansion which is the U.S. Embassy.
We sat around a long table and each teacher shared with Dr. Holdren what their students had written. Kathy, from North Carolina, went first, reading a short statement written together with her students. There was silence when she finished. Dr. Holdren turned to her and asked “Is this in the book you’ve presented to me?” She said “Yes,” and he responded with, “Good. I am going to share that with the President.” And that was just the beginning.
Kristy, from West St. Paul, explained her video project that included the voices of 350 students. She said; “Dr. Holdren there were two questions I heard, time and time again and they were: Why isn’t anyone doing anything? and, Why doesn’t anyone care?” Dr. Holdren responded without pause. “You tell your students that the President cares and the President is doing everything he can. Every week he comes to us and asks what else he can do.” Hearing these words were powerful. But even more powerful, was listening to Kristy webcast back to a full classroom of West St. Paul students later that afternoon and to hear her tell them, “The President wants you to know that he cares and he is working on this issue.” It reminded me that this experience wasn’t just for us or for the ten teachers, it was for their students too.
Peter Johnson was the first to apply as an Education Ambassador, 30 minutes after the application was online. He teaches 8th grade earth science in Pine Island, Minnesota. He is a veteran and the father of 2-year old twin boys. He wore a suit every day in Paris and wore his badge, one of only two we could offer, with pride and responsibility. When it came time for him to share he took a deep breath. He talked about his classroom and his family and the people he cares about. He mentioned the people he had met with at COP21 who had expressed their high hopes for a 1.5 degree goal… And then he started to cry. He said, “I just don’t know if this deal is going to happen, but is has to. You know how there are moments in history when they lock the doors until a decision is made? We have to lock the doors.”
John Holdren looked at Peter and at all of us and he said, “I know what you’re feeling. We know this isn’t enough. We know that even if this plan happens people are still going to feel horrific climate change impacts. But you know what gives me hope? YOU all. That you are here and that you are talking to your students about climate change and that they care. That makes all the difference in the world.”
I don’t think it is a spoiler if I tell you the Paris Agreement did happen. It isn’t perfect, but it does include some important things that wouldn’t be there unless a lot of these important and powerful stories had been shared. And this really was the message I took away from Paris: that telling your story with loud and united voices is powerful. Not only that, there are people that are listening and actually expecting us to tell our story. I saw this on a grand scale on the grounds of COP21, where the voices of 40,000 helped make the Paris Agreement happen, but I also saw this in a little room at the U.S. Embassy filled with the President’s science advisor, ten teachers and the hopes and dreams of their students.