Day 6: Action Day

Today is the COP21 Action Day, an event with speeches, debates, video screenings and artistic performances centered around immediate climate action. The Action Day Plenary session featured world leaders including François Hollande and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as well as local leaders. One highlight was the local leader panels including mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo, former Mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg, and the Governor of California Jerry Brown.

Gov. Brown emphasized that, “We’ve got a long way to go, and we can’t be complacent.” During the panel, the leaders highlighted that local governments can implement the regulations and incentives that national governments struggle to agree on. Fortunately, cities and states/provinces have already made progress on this front. Mayor Hidalgo and Michael Bloomberg organized the Climate Summit for Local Leaders and Gov. Brown organized the Under 2 MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) between California and Baden-Württemberg, which today has 65 signatories. Through this engagement, California has reached 25% renewable electricity, and is on pace to generate 50% renewable electricity by 2030.

Ultimately, the progress of cities is important because the primary challenge to effective climate policy is political will, especially at the national and international level. Local governments, being more accessible to grassroots power, can overcome this challenge by implementing the policies that we need, even when national governments stall progress.

Here at Action Day, we have seen the power of collaboration between local jurisdictions to address climate change. Although the progress we have made is not nearly enough, Action Day has served as a powerful reminder of the opportunity of the local approach to implementing sustainable policy and practices.



Day 6: Action Day

Day 5:#indigenousCOP21

Although as I mentioned in my previous post, this year’s COP places emphasis on ADP negotiations, there is still a wide array of public activity at Le Bourget. Today I spent time at the Climate Generations space, which is open to the public, to attend side events at the pavilions there. At this event, many NGOs have booths geared toward individual action for Climate Justice. Highlights from the side events at the Climate Generations space include:

  • a panel of mayors from across the world showcasing their city efforts to reduce emissions
  • an exhibit from MedWet: The Mediterranean Wetlands Initiative on how their organization unites Mediterranean countries’ efforts to conserve and sustainably use wetlands
  • a French exhibit on how to harness the power of citizens to encourage government and corporate change

Most striking, however, is the indigenous peoples’ space. Here, indigenous peoples from across the world gather due to the unique challenges they face as they are often at the frontline of the effects of climate change. Many visitors came in solidarity with indigenous peoples to advance initiatives to protect indigenous ways of life on a warming planet. During one event, the Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia, and Far East of the Russian Federation came to showcase the challenges they face and how it threatens both their culture and their survival.

Many of the talks at COP21 discuss various ways of mitigation and adaptation. For the  Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia, and Far East of the Russian Federation, adaptation is a particularly challenging goal. In a landscape where melting permafrost threatens an entire way of life, adaptation can imply sacrificing one’s culture. This event served to communicate that challenge for indigenous peoples.

Day 5:#indigenousCOP21

Day 5: CBDR

  • Lower-level negotiators released a draft agreement today ahead of tomorrow’s deadline for a document for high-level negotiators — the text is 48 pages long
  • UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon announced The State of City Climate Finance report for large-scale, sustainable development of city infrastructure
  • New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and Bank of England governor Mark Varney launched a new financial taskforce to advise companies about the risks of climate change
  • Fossil fuel divestment has gained momentum: over 500 institutions representing $3.4 trillion have ceased investing in fossil fuels

Today, my question is philosophical: How do we enact a positive change in climate? As in, how do we change our actions so that we can better sustain the Earth? I think the answer lies in the United Nations concept of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR), which means exactly what it says if it were not capitalized and made into an acronym.

I had the extraordinary pleasure of hearing Al Gore speak (and capturing pictures of his face) today at noon. He’s the environmentally-conscious former vice president who lost the presidency to George W. Bush in 2000. With inspiring words like other charismatic politicians, but without their farce, he spoke directly to the concerns of civil society members in the audience.

Gore gave a short introduction and conveyed his optimism about the conference. Comparing negotiators and waiters at restaurants, he said, “The people in charge of the butter are shepherding it very skillfully.” He likened the environmental movement to the anti-apartheid and civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights movements, which were driven largely by young people. He expressed support for electrification, sustainable fishing and agriculture, divestment, and other climate change solutions, and he borrowed the words of a prominent economist: “Things take longer to happen than you thought they would, but then they happen faster than you ever imagined they could.”

At the heart of Gore’s talk, between his answers to a Ugandan farmer, Arctic Inuit, Bangladeshi lawyer, and French student, among others, was the message that if you care about the environment — as you rightfully should — you can help save it. “You don’t have to be unkind, you don’t have to be overly confrontational, but you do have to be persistent,” Gore said.

The responsibility of civil society members like you and me is to make our values known, even if they do not carry price tags, even if they encompass the entire world. We impel our representatives governments and international organizations to “align with science,” according to Pierre Cannet of the World Wildlife Fund, and to avert the crisis of climate change.

But the role of negotiators rests in a different room — meeting rooms, to be precise. Often behind closed doors, they grapple with texts dozens of pages long, containing words too strong, weak, vague, or specific, and with literal and metaphorical implications. I observed one of these negotiations (supposedly about article 3 but actually about article 2 and 2bis because negotiations were moving slowly), and in the frame of an hour, I watched people representing countries and blocs of countries talk to each other with all the intricacies of social interaction, moderated by a single, jaded chairperson. Sudan, Australia, the Alliance of Small Island States, and others threw in their hats for South Africa, which represented the G-77 and China, a developing nation bloc. Maldives called for the reinsertion of the words “Mother Earth” into the text because they had symbolic value. Turkey wanted to bracket an entire article. Venezuela said, “We know how to do our work” and continued to talk. I was perplexed.

So COP21 operates at two levels, one that is esoteric and removed from civil society. No wonder youths have called out the COP presidency for limiting their participation in actual negotiations. No wonder my taxi driver said he had no clue what “COP21” stood for. The responsibility of negotiators is to create a document that can be consistently interpreted and supported by all the countries in the world, but the responsibility of civil society members is to care — outside meeting rooms, in the field — about Mother Earth.

Person of the Day: A high school girl who stood up to ask Al Gore a question. No one is too young or too naïve to care.

Article of the Day: The jargon of COP21, explained.

Day 5: CBDR

Day 4: Uniting Nations and Youths

  • Young and Future Generations Day (#YFGDay) celebrated youth action and power at events endorsed by COP21 leaders
  • Negotiators are moving toward five-year review cycles of emissions reductions, but financing (who pays), long term goals (limits on temperature and carbon), and human rights remain divisive issues in the draft agreement
  • 10 major transportation iniatives were announced; nations, cities, organizations, and other stakeholders call for electric vehicles, vehicle efficiency, and multi-sector emissions reductions
  • 18 countries and 60 organizations launched the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction to accelerate emissions reductions in buildings and cities

At dinner today, someone asked why there were apparently no climate denial demonstrations at COP21. Maybe there are, but they aren’t newsworthy. Maybe the security guards are too competent. Or maybe, everyone who arrives at the site of COP21 assumes climate change is a morally, politically, diplomatically, legally, and environmentally urgent issue. From my experience here, I believe this assumption is widespread. I believe it to be true.

At the “Focus on Transportation” event this morning, French negotiator and minister of ecology Ségolène Royal did not assume retaining current transport systems as an option. Instead, she spoke about health impacts of public and private transport vehicles that use fossil fuels, and she urged people to start thinking about transportation in relation to quality of life. She announced three French initiatives as if they were only the beginning, which COP21 assumes they are.

In a press conference about current negotiations, Greenpeace representative Kaisa Kosonen said nations were stuck on the issue of how to reduce carbon emissions in the long term. Will the final agreement go for near-zero carbon emissions (reductions to a certain percentage), net zero (emissions peak soon and decrease to zero), carbon neutral (emissions peak now and decrease to zero), or full decarbonization (zero emissions now)? The last option is extremely strong, but it pushes to keep global temperature 2 degrees Celsius or 1.5 like over a hundred nations want. There is no option for carbon as usual. “We are really starting the beginning of the end of fossil fuel era,” Kosonen said.

On the issue of finance, too, the question is not whether nations must contribute funds to mitigating and adapting to climate change, but how those financial responsibilities will be distributed. Developing nations want developed nations to bear a bigger burden; the least-developed ones ask for clear signals of the $100 billion promised in annual climate funds, and they want money post-2020. They want separate funds to compensate for losses and damages incurred by climate change so far. A few developed nations want the responsibilities between all states to be symmetrical — but those nations are the minority, and I have not heard them speak.

It is not only the negotiators, nations, and big organizations, however, who assume and respond to the issue of climate change. Civil society members, especially youth, force them to act. We are the first and last generation to fight climate change, and we cannot afford to fail — if we want to live. In an event celebrating youth, UNFCCC president Christiana Figueres and UN youth envoy Ahmad Alhendawi acknowledged our role. But Canadian-Indian Anjali Appadurai stated in more eloquence and charisma than either of them that youth should have a space to unite and act as a bloc. In this United Nations conference, nations, organizations, and delegations are not the only ones that are united around the cause of climate action — youths are, too.

Person of the Day: Riddhima Yadav ’18. A fellow Yalie, she will present her policy work on water ATMs for India tomorrow. Good luck to her!

Article of the Day: The plight of small island nations who need a 1.5°C limit on global warming — to survive.

Day 4: Uniting Nations and Youths