The last two weeks have been an absolutely incredible journey. It’s very hard to capture the feelings and emotions in mere words. I feel like it may take some time to unpack the experience and the results that have come out of these negotiations. A highlight for me has been meeting people from every possible country on the earth, all brought together because of a passion, mission and urgency around one unifying issue – climate change. When you think about it, it seems a bit audacious that this event even took place. Not just due to the Paris attacks, but because bringing so many countries and cultures together to agree on anything seems by its nature and act of futility. Yet, here we are.
I believe that, more than anything, what I will take away from these talks is the role of civil society to influence policy makers. The role of citizen engagement here in Paris is bigger than it has been in any other previous COP. This was the first year of having a “green zone,” which provided a space for non-credentialed spectators (meaning, anyone who wanted to show up) to have a space to display, discuss, protest and gather. Some would say that this is why the organizers reduced the access to the “blue zone” this year, since the French Government provided this civil society space.
Having had access to the blue zone the first week and then green zone the second week, the different energy in each of these areas was immediately evident. The blue zone had a very formal, serious business tone. It wasn’t until we entered the green zone that we identified the absence of children, families, strollers, sign carriers, singers, energy and music that was missing from the blue zone. In the green zone, we saw Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, who is the amazing Marshall Islands poet who performed her poem, Dear Matafele Peinem, for the United Nations last year. Kathy shared that after she performed this poem, it completely changed the tenor and mood of the room. She said it brought some humanity back in to the discussions. It wasn’t just all numbers and words on a page, but real people that will face the consequences of the actions taken by these leaders.
We also traveled outside of Le Bourget this week, to the Climate Action Zone, Solutions COP21 and other art installations. These events provided a wide range of opportunities for participation, from the homemade Climate Action Zone signs to the clearly well-funded Solutions COP21 (which many people boycotted because of their tie to oil funding) with free food and wine at every high-tech booth. But, I truly found all of these spaces meaningful and engaging. To win on climate change, we are going to have to have everyone in the fight. Some will work on solutions because they really see reducing their carbon footprint as the way forward, while others want to drive a Tesla for the incredible coolness factor. We need all of these people involved in the effort.
I know there are many people who are disappointed in the draft language of the agreement released yesterday, saying that it doesn’t go far enough to protect Indigenous rights, intergenerational equity and gender equity since this language is in the preamble and not the operative text. Nevertheless, I take heart in the fact that most people came in to the Paris negotiations thinking that a limit of 2.0 degrees of temperature rise was an ambitious goal; however, thanks to the power, presence, persistence and personal stories of the Indigenous leaders and small island nations, the target goal of an even stricter 1.5 degree limit has gained traction.
Today, our group met with Ken Berlin, CEO of Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project. One of the biggest frustrations they struggle with is that although 70-75% of people in the U.S. believe we should be taking action on climate change, only 1% of the people vote based on climate change. And many climate action supporters, particularly people under 30, are not even voting, period. Although the election process can seem somewhat futile, it clearly makes a huge difference in how quickly and how justly we will be able to transition off of fossil fuels.
As Winston Churchill said, “This is the end of the beginning.” Now is the time for us to move forward as a force for good, using the momentum that is coming out of this Paris agreement. We need to bring in all parts of society to work together. Individuals, NGOs, business, philanthropy, government, financial institutions – we’ll need them all to truly follow through on the work that was started here, and, with purpose and commitment, to exceed these goals and preserve a way of life for all people.