Right now it is 9:30 PM. I am sitting in the “chill out” area of our hostel. To my right, there is an interview taking place about climate refugees and the displacement of people whose homeland is no longer habitable. Farther to my right, a young adult group, SustainUS, is debriefing the day. To my left, four high school students from the School of Environmental Studies (SES) in Minnesota are talking about the famous people they have met in the course of being here at COP21 and Skype-ing back to students who weren’t able to come. It is amazing to overhear their conversation as they describe all they are seeing, hearing, and experiencing. Their conversation is incredible and, impressively, shows how they have become familiar with this whole scene, discussing key words, key ideas, and key climate actors at the conference. They are discussing the possibility of a new climate goal that could become a part of the agreement: a goal of limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius rather than 2 degrees. Farther down the room, my teacher colleagues and friends from Climate Generation are working on their blogs, with the deadline of 10 PM approaching.
This is day 3 of my life as a “citizen journalist.” I am part of a group of 10 teachers who are Education Ambassadors with the Minneapolis-based nonprofit Climate Generation. Before coming to Paris, we taught our students about climate change in various ways, using curriculum from Climate Generation. Now that we are here, our days are filled with talking and listening to people regarding the many dimensions of climate change and international climate policy. Days are also filled with chance encounters, occurring all over the city, with people who have come to Paris for the conference. We are constantly gathering new ideas and information and then processing them, picking and choosing among a multitude of experiences and topics to find stories that can convey a piece of what is happening.
Every day we have at least one discussion group with an invited guest who has expertise in a particular area. These are always interesting, because they offer an in-depth, engaging introduction to some particular dimension of the climate puzzle. Communications are key during these busy days – trying to use What’sApp, texting, and e-mail to know what is happening at many different climate change events all over the city, receiving and dispersing information to other members of our group.
When we go to the conference center at Le Bourget, we take the metro to a shuttle bus. This is a great chance to talk with people, especially people wearing badges that show what part of the conference they have access to. Pink badges are the country representatives, who are in the restricted area where the negotiations are taking place – the “blue zone.” The negotiators are working on the draft of a document to come out of COP21, which is the main goal of the conference. Imagine the intricacies of 196 countries working by consensus, not majority rule, to produce a document that will succinctly and specifically set out the target goals and outline expectations for reducing carbon emissions. Yellow badges are observers who also have the right to enter the negotiation area. The general public can enter the “green zone,” which is free and open to anyone who is interested.
I asked the students from SES what was their favorite part of being at COP21. Their answers also represent a big picture of what is happening. One student really likes “meeting people.” It is so amazing that really famous people in the climate world and the political world can become accessible here. Al Gore was at the conference today, as well as Arnold Schwarzenegger. Other big names that can be encountered are heads of state, governors, city mayors, and state representatives. This conference truly reflects the incredible nature of people from all walks of life, who are convening here to engage, work, and share perspectives around climate change. Another student said that she really liked seeing the “actions.” Actions are ways of informing the public about a particular topic by drawing attention to it, a little like a protest. The difference is, actions can happen without confrontation and can be a clever or animated way of drawing attention to and bearing witness to a particular problem, event, policy or situation. Actions represent the idea that some people are here with the desire to influence the opinions of others. A third student said he really liked the policy aspect of being here. There are all sorts of decisions and rules on many levels that govern emissions and other aspects of climate regulations. He really liked how policy plays out in real life and how it can bring together various perspectives.
For me, the most striking part of being here is hearing the first-hand accounts of what life is really like in far-flung parts of the world, and how life in these places is drastically impacted by climate change. In the conference center, there are people of various backgrounds sharing their perspectives and their culture. Today in the park, I met a man from El Salvador who had just arrived 2 days ago. There was an exposition about new ways of reducing energy use for various things in a city, and we stumbled upon it at the same time. It turns out that Apautemac, or “El Gran Rio” in Spanish, had been brought to Paris by Friends of the Earth International. I am so glad that many organizations have helped bring lots of diverse voices to the scene here in Paris, and hope that their voices will not be forgotten!