How has climate change affected your life and work?
During last year, in our community, people had less water. Because of climate change, we have to grow the crops that we used to grow at different times. For example, we used to harvest bananas in August, but now we cannot harvest them in August anymore. Native seeds don’t grow the same way because sometimes, for example, there is too much sun. Because of climate change, we don’t find the same plants in the same months. It also happens on animals, because they can no longer find the same plants to eat. It is all a chain. Everything has changed.
“Before we open up for a Q&A,” said Karen Florini, “I’d like to remind everybody that the questions must be directly related to the topic of this panel, and not about the events of last night—as much as you’d like to ask them.”
Florini, a deputy special envoy for climate change from the U.S. Department of State, had the unenviable responsibility of moderating a U.S. Green Building Council discussion on how health impacts could inspire local climate action—the day after the United States presidential election. Despite her best efforts, she couldn’t stop a flurry of pointed questions about how “new leadership” in the federal government could affect green building policies, inciting her PR manager to shadow her closely throughout the session.
Given Trump’s position on climate change—he once said that we “need global warming” because it was snowing in New York—talk of the election was inescapable at COP22, even if a lot of it was hushed around press offices. (We approached several UN representatives and officials unwilling to give us much more than, “I’m sorry, but I’m not allowed to talk about this.” One UN representative from the Norwegian delegation added, “I hope it will not affect too much of what’s happening here. I hope he changes his mind.”) Otherwise, however, Trump was on the tip of most delegates’ tongues—a universally sour flavor for climate activists across a variety of cultures and identities.
We have a project called 2020 or Bust!, which is designed to mobilize 500,000,000 individuals around the world by 2020 to take a specific set of actions individually. That in 2020, we will reduce the global emissions by 8 gigatons, which right now is the gap between where the UN and the Paris Agreement leaves us what we actually have to do in the crisis.
What was your reaction when you saw that Trump became your future president?
Of course Trump being elected is not good. As a climate activist, as a gay man, as somebody with the brain, it is not good. However, I think it is an opportunity for people to really wake up to what the government never set up to make life good to you. It is not ideal. It is a risk that he will denounce the Paris Agreement, it is a risk that he will completely dissemble the United Nations, I mean, all of that stuff is a risk. With the Paris Agreement, hopefully what they put into effect last week, will keep him from being actually come out of it, but again, as long as your kind of thinking is, that it is the agreement that makes all the difference, it is the same kind of mindset that got him elected. So the UN disagreement is not going to end the climate crisis, far from it. …
The vibe has changed here after the U.S. election. The walkways still bustle with people from all over the world. Scientists and businessmen and women still engage passerby with information about their organizations or research. But an air of uncertainty has fallen. American presenters noted they would not be taking any questions about the results of the election. Communication directors stood by to ensure that nothing inflammatory was said. Even the U.S. Green Building Council (USBGC) had to remind me that it “is a non-partisan organization.”
I’ve picked up a little Arabic and French since I arrived last Friday. And by a little, I mean I can thank someone and order an omelette with cheese.
But I didn’t need to be a UN-level translator to recognize the word “Trump” spoken by the Moroccan security guards at the gates of the complex. Everyone is thinking about it. No one is really talking about it, at least publicly. We don’t know the implications yet, and we’re not sure if the delegates know either.
The one thing we can all agree on is that climate change sparks a host of complex questions. Besides the questions of whether it’s occurring in the first place and if we’re responsible (hint: yes and yes), the debate then turns to its repercussions—how is climate change affecting our world? Our oceans? People and ecosystems of all nations and coasts? And most importantly, what can we do about it?
Unfortunately, it’s difficult—not to mention costly and ineffective—to fix something that you don’t understand (i.e. why Macs usually get replaced instead of repaired). Likewise, it will be very hard to effectively respond to climate change without collaborative scientific knowledge. Thankfully, this conclusion itself is common knowledge. The Paris Agreement, which became international law two weeks ago, reflects global consensus that “accelerating, encouraging, and enabling innovation is critical for an effective, long-term global response to climate change and promoting economic growth and sustainable development.” With this seed of thought—as well as watering and care from the UN World Meteorological Organization—the Global Climate Observing System (GCOS) 2016 Implementation Plan was born.
The plan was introduced to the 22nd session of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UNFCCC at Earth Information Day on November 8, 2016 in Marrakesh, Morocco. In general, the day also provided an important “up-to-date picture of the state of the climate an outlook on future development and opportunities to take the most effective climate action.” The UNFCCC’s Newsroom went on to report that the event would “link the work of the science community, including systematic observation, to the implementation of the Paris Agreement’s goals and aims to provide key information.” In other words, the day provided an overview of an international blueprint in the works for building a scientifically-informed, sustainable future.
Will you talk a little bit about your interest in climate change and how it relates to your life and your work?
I’m at the receiving end of the adverse effects of climate change. I come from Africa. We have a limited ability to adapt, limited ability to mitigate, limited ability to be resilient, so I am interested in what transpires at climate change conferences like this one. I’m interested in putting in place climate policy that’s gender-responsive, because I know that [women] are even more disproportionally affected by climate change than men.
How did you begin to be interested in that?
It was out of certain need. We put in place an organization to respond to the effects of climate change, even before we knew it was climate change. Because now there are seasons that vary, we are experiencing a 100% crop failure because of prolonged drought, and the violent rains are very destructive. So we put in place an organization… to be able to protect ourselves. It’s global, and what they’re doing is good adaptation.