“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.
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.
On the evening of December 13, 2015, delegates gathered at an airport complex on the outskirts of Paris, France made history. With consensus from 195 countries, the world’s first-ever universal agreement on climate change became a reality. This Paris Agreement has been nearly six years in the making, though the goal of an agreement to combat climate change harks back even further to the Earth Summit of 1992. There, nations signed on to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, an international treaty to consider what to do about global warming. The first Conference of the Parties (COP 1) took place in Berlin, Germany in 1995. In 2009, COP15, in Copenhagen, Denmark, saw hopes for a universal agreement crushed as developing and developed nations clashed over their common but differentiated responsibilities to limit greenhouse gas emissions. While all nations have a common responsibility to protect the environment, developed nations possess both the financial and technological resources to more actively reduce greenhouse gas emissions and have played a much larger role in historic environmental degradation than developing nations. The developing world understandably feels like it’s being asked to develop and cut emissions at the same time, instead of being given the same chance developed nations had to pollute their way to economic prosperity. However, many developing nations are also more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and simply want those countries with means to share their wealth, resources, and technologies to help the rest of humanity cope with a problem they didn’t necessarily cause. Thus, the past six years have been spent attempting to build consensus between the developed and developing world necessary to successfully negotiate a universal agreement in Paris.
In the morning on Wednesday, December 9, I was able to attend the UNFCCC Executive Secretary Briefing for Observer Organizations. It was an hour-long session meant to engage the civil society and other constituencies observing the negotiations, provide answers to our questions, and act as a bridge between us and the high-level officials.
UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres was joined by Minister Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, who is serving during COP21 as the President’s Special Envoy to Observers. Pulgar-Vidal previously served as the President of COP20 in Peru as that county’s Minister of State for Environment. Additionally, a youth representative moderated the lengthy Q&A session.
On Monday, December 7, high-level officials opened the second week of the UNFCCC COP21 meeting in grand fashion. Delegates from over 190 countries gathered in plenary La Seine at 10:00am to hear from leaders which included United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, COP21 President and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres, Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change Hoesung Lee, and UN General Assembly President Mogens Lykketoft.
The COP21 negotiation space at the Le Bourget site
Despite what you may think, we’re not discussing climate change over lunch with Obama while Narendra Modi cracks jokes about CO2 levels. In fact, the majority of the 40,000 people that have flocked to Paris for the COP will never even witness the negotiations between world leaders. Though this is obviously a crucial part of these next two weeks, the COP has much more to offer. Some may even argue that the most important work is being done outside the formal negotiation rooms. Read on for a day in the life of a student delegation.
On December 3rd, several Emory delegates and Dr. Eri Saikawa supported Mayor Kasim Reed at the Le Bourget La Galerie site as he spoke on behalf of Atlanta’s innovative sustainability initiatives to an international audience. The official “Buildings Day” panel highlighted the challenges and opportunities within the development sector on maximizing energy efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, especially since 80% of greenhouse gas emissions are sourced from urban areas. Other panelists included Mayor Clover Moore of Sydney, Mayor Bima Arya of Bogor, Indonesia, Mayor Marcio Araujo de Lacerda, of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, Councillor Johannes Van Der Merwe of Cape Town, South Africa, and Ms. Jennifer Layke of the World Resource Institute.
In a basement auditorium in a quiet Parisian neighborhood, writer Naomi Klein and fellow organizers held a free event to talk about their newly crafted “Leap Manifesto: A Call for a Canada Based on Caring for the Earth and One Another.” The document was composed by more than 100 Canadians with wide-ranging affiliations and spells out a specific policy plan for how Canada can begin to address issues of environmental and climate, economic and social justice, now.
On Monday, December 30, Heads of States from all around world kick started the 2-week long conference with their opening statements. Most acknowledged the urgency of the climate problem and called for global action to tackle the problem. However, such multilateral platforms are as much an outlet for colorful displays of diplomatic rhetoric as a place for negotiations. The true test of political will comes in the subsequent negotiations, where negotiators attempt (or not) to resolve key differences and challenges.