Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Reflecting on COP21 and the Paris Agreement

We are experiencing an extended stretch of unusually mild weather here in eastern Pennsylvania. How much of this is due to a strong El Niño as opposed to being a symptom of climate disruption is not known. Regardless, we do know that 2015 is on track to be the warmest year since humans began recording temperatures, and global temperatures will soon reach the benchmark of 1º C above preindustrial levels. Against this backdrop, on December 12th, almost two hundred nations unanimously committed to greenhouse gas emissions reductions aimed at keeping total warming “to well below 2°C above preindustrial levels.” Despite two decades of climate negotiations, such consensus has not been previously achieved, and never before has the need to deal with climate change seemed so urgent.

I recently returned from the United Nations climate negotiations in Paris – my seventh COP meeting in as many years. Over the years, I have witnessed international disappointment when negotiations repeatedly failed. Despite growing frustration and cynicism, attempts to tackle this most pressing and complex issue have continued. The emotional ups and downs this year have been great – beginning with unparalleled optimism after the approval of the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals, the release of the Pope’s Encyclical, and the U.N. Climate Summit in September. This enthusiasm was diminished, however, by the terrorist attacks in Paris that left many of us wondering whether COP21 would still occur. Perhaps it was this juxtaposition of terrorism and recent weather extremes that led to COP21 opening with the largest gathering of world leaders in history – all pledging to take on the formidable challenge of climate change.

There will be much analysis and criticism of the 31-page Paris Agreement. Already, activists and scientists from around the world have pointed out that the pledges are insufficient to protect the most vulnerable people or to reverse the trend of rapidly declining biodiversity. Indeed, the 188 national commitments received to-date for reducing greenhouse gas emissions will not limit global warming to 2ºC, and the commitments are non-binding. However, the Parties to the Agreement acknowledge this and have pledged to work on more ambitious goals over the next few years. As with any negotiations, this deal is a compromise – attempting to balance costs, benefits and risks, along with politics. It is far from perfect, but it is an important leap forward, especially considering that the document had almost 1000 sections of bracketed text (areas of disagreement) just one week ago.

Language indicating that the world will be fossil fuel-free is missing, but many oil-rich nations would never have accepted such wording. Yet, as noted by Secretary of State, John Kerry, the Agreement does send a strong signal to the business community and financial markets that we are moving to a low-carbon, renewable energy future. Fossil fuels still make up about 80 percent of the world’s energy mix; according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, the combined stock value of the world’s coal, oil and gas companies is about $5 trillion. The barriers to transforming to a low-carbon future are substantial.

At COP21, I heard about many new developments in energy storage and transmission for solar and wind energy and breakthroughs in carbon capture and sequestration technologies. Most of this innovation was not coming from our country. Some healthy global competition might revitalize U.S. support for science and technology, and perhaps a redirecting of U.S. subsidies to fossil-fuel companies to better uses.

Many are expressing disdain for the behind-the-scenes politicking used to reach an outcome that could be accepted by the U.S. Given that we still have one of the large carbon footprints per capita of any country, the U.S. has to be a signatory to this agreement. There is also strong criticism that the Agreement does not provide a basis for any liability or compensation which essentially allows past polluters, like the U.S., off the hook. But there was much talk in Paris about new models for insurance and financial plans to deal with the loss and damage of extreme weather events, coastal erosion, climate refugees, and other impacts of climate change. We can continue to bicker about the past, or we can get on with the business of helping countries adapt to the inevitable changes of climate change, share technology to help them leapfrog past dirty energy options, and work together to build capacity and resilience for vulnerable communities and people.

Finally, there have been many complaints over the past few weeks that the youth voice was silenced in Paris, in part due to security measures imposed by the French government. However, I don’t recall ever hearing so much focus on the youth and future generations at the conference – especially from the world leaders. Registered civil society groups representing a wide range of perspectives, including indigenous rights, least-developed nations, farmers, mayors, the business community, researchers, trade unions, women and gender, and youth, all had significant access to the negotiations and there were regular meetings with the high-level staff of the COP21 Presidency. And the Agreement clearly acknowledges the “Parties obligations on human rights” – a major victory.

Civil society can complain and consider this Agreement as a betrayal, or it can celebrate this as a major step forward and work with scientists to continue to educate the public about the seriousness of climate change and to be relentless advocates for even stronger climate action at the local, national, and global levels. I prefer the latter approach.

What the students are saying

It seems appropriate to share links to MoCo students in the news:

Sarabeth Brockley ('10) attended COP 15, 19, and 20 as a member of the Moravian College delegation and attended COP21as an employee of the United Nations:


Four current students who were in Paris were interviewed by Channel 69 WFMZ:

Paige Malewski, Laura McBride, Audrey McSain, and Stephen Stoddard

Saturday, December 12, 2015

"It always seems impossible until it’s done"

In 2009, Moravian College sent its first delegation to the UNFCCC in Copenhagen.  The expectation was that there would be an agreement -- hopes ran high as Obama both won the Nobel Peace Prize and personally lobbied for an agreement. Finally, six years later, we have a legally binding text, once ratified by the countries. Countries have until April 21, 2017 to sign on, and once there are 55 nations, representing at least 55% of the world's total greenhouse gas emissions, the agreement will go in to effect.
One has to give a lot of credit to the French COP President, Laurent Fabius.  At the end of his final presentation, he quoted Nelson Mandela, saying "It always seems impossible until it's done."  He also noted that the "world is holding its breath, it's counting on us."  There's still work to be done -- but this is both an historic moment and a tipping point.  A moment of celebration seems in order.


Friday, December 11, 2015

Human Rights and Climate Change

On Wednesday and Thursday, many of the side events focussed on human rights and gender equity. Yet, sadly, the new draft text has omitted mention of both. We must wait and see the final text, now postponed to Saturday, to see if this crucial element is restored.

We went to two panels documenting the impacts of climate change on human rights.  The first panel was a discussion of the impact of coal mining -- focussing on the peoples of the southern hemisphere. There is a full report and video.  The second panel, sponsored by the HBCU Climate Change Initiative and the NAACP, focussed on racial inequality.  They noted that communities of color in the United States are found disproportionately near coal plants and industrial areas, and they suffer more from asthma and respiratory diseases. In addition, students from many historically black colleges and universities have participated in tribunals, where they have gathered testimonies about racial inequality in relationship to climate change.

The related area, also currently left out of the text, is gender equity.  Wednesday's theme for side events was Women and Climate Change, and an excellent collection of essays regarding these issues can be found here. Mary Robinson spoke of her experiences, beginning in 2007 in Bali, when she heard a few researchers talking about the impact of climate change on women.  No one was listening. Winnie Byanyim (executive director of Oxfam International) went to the leadership with others to ask for a place, but was told "these negotiations are highly political and highly technical" and there was no room for a women's constituency.  Finland took up the cause, and included women on the delegations.  Women now have a constituency, and they continue to put language in the text for gender equity.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The Role of Youth

It has been five days since I was last at COP 21 in Paris, and honestly, I cannot stop thinking about it.  I had such an amazing time that I wish I could go back!  One of the things I have been pondering as I finish my last week of classes is what my role as a youth delegate and observer was.  What was the purpose of me going to COP 21?  If I wanted to learn about climate change and the different impacts and adaptation strategies, I could have looked at the news and searched the internet.  So why did I feel so strongly about going to Paris?

The answer I have devised is that it is important for young adults and youths to attend the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change so we can understand how significant the problem is, and how enormous the solutions must be.  Climate change is a global problem that every country needs to try to tackle, and not to just leave it for one or two to care about.  Because it is a global problem, there need to be global solutions.  Nations need to come together and agree to reduce emissions and invest in renewable technologies, while helping their neighbors and allies around the globe.  Everyone must work together as one, not as 195 diverse countries.

As an observer at COP 21, I was not allowed to be a part of the negotiation process, and sometimes could not observe the different negotiation sessions.  This was a little frustrating because I came to Paris with the intention of watching the negotiations and seeing how the different countries would compromise and work out the problems that would arise.  Many young people argue that they do not have a voice.  I disagree with them.  I think we have a voice; it is just not for COP 21.  The role of youth is to take what we learn at the conference and bring it home to share with our families, friends, classmates, professors, employers, neighbors, cities, etc.  It is our job to spread the word of climate change and how we can fix it.  We cannot participate in the negotiations because of who we are; we are young people who are mostly in college and are still pursuing our education to get a degree.  We are young activists and researchers who want to see a change within the world, but we do not have the correct credentials to be a part of the official process.  I think the fact that we are not directly involved is very important.  This gives us the opportunity to watch the delegations and the individuals in charge of our countries to see what approaches and solutions work and what does not.  This gives us the chance to learn from their successes and failures so when it becomes our turn to sit at the table and negotiate, we have an experience to draw upon.  We need to be diligent observers so in 30-50 years when we start seeing the effects of climate change and a warmer world, we already have the foundation for solutions and how to interact with each other instead of only thinking of ourselves.

Being a youth at COP 21 is probably the best situation because nothing depends on us. We can soak it all in and gain a lot of knowledge so when the time comes, we are ready when it does depend all on us. 

21 pages of text reduced to 14

Today, the draft text has been updated and published. Christiana Figueres spoke to the Civil Society Observers earlier today, and she pointed out that in the "Committee of Paris" process, there has been an acceleration of negotiations.  Over the past three days, there have been parallel negotiations on various aspects of the text, and no one party has seen the entire text until it was released today at 3 PM. Allowing five hours for the Parties to read the text and prepare responses, over three hours have been devoted to listening to the Parties' responses since 8 PM. The President has reminded the Parties that while all countries have the right to reflect on the statement, the plan is to continue work tonight in order to have another text by tomorrow afternoon, which will be *close* to the text for adoption on Friday.

The COP President is hoping that articles 12-26 (with the exception of 15, 18 and 19) can be sent in advance to the linguistic and legal language team to review.  The remaining concerns include dissatisfaction with finance, adaptation, loss & damage, REDD+, and ambition. The majority of countries want to include the 1.5 degree goal, which is perhaps the best news of the week.  However, there are still significant challenges for the next two days.

I applaud Ms. Figueres, who responded to an Observer who wanted to include "food security" in the text.  She pointed out that the priority needs to be to have an agreement -- and pointed out that by its very existence, a global agreement would be our best bet for "food security, water security, health security, and well-being security." As the text goes forward, there will be a need for compromise and the text will lose specificity.  It won't be perfect, but to have an adopted text is essential for moving forward.
Word Cloud of Current Text (12/9) created with Tagul.com

What its like being Un Jeune Délégué

A young delegate...sounds important, right?? Sounds even more important in French (that’s the title if you didn’t catch on!). It sounded even MORE important when I was describing it back home!

“You’re going to Paris?? What! Why?!?”

“Ohhh, nothing really. I’m just a delegate for Moravian College at some meeting called the United Nations Conference on Climate Change COP21.”

“What..? That’s awesome! I wish I got to do cool stuff like that!”

“Yeahhh, I know… I’m pretty great.”

Little do they know the only reason I got to go was because I was in the right class, with the right teachers, and I had a genuine interest in climate change.

But…at the actual conference its completely different. I’m still a delegate for Moravian College, but I’m also just an observer. Being an observer means that, well, I just observe. Don’t get me wrong, the presentations and speakers that I get to observe are absolutely fantastic! Its unfathomable that I get to witness live presentations from people like Al Gore or Vandana Shiva, let alone be in the same room!

But still, with so many very important people, less important people, the press, and the other more established observers, its hard not to feel a little insignificant. And being one of the young observers doesn’t make it any better. I mean, I’m not naïve, I knew that nobody at the conference really cared what I had to say or thought, but I still had a little bit of a brazen attitude where I personally wanted to have an impact at the conference and in the battle against climate change. I think a lot of young observers probably feel the same way. We keep getting told that it’s our generation that is going to fix the planet, that our generation will fix the changing climate, the poverty, the racism, the everything; and I genuinely think a lot of us would like too, but we just don’t know exactly where to start, or at least that’s how I felt.

Those are the types of thoughts I was having at day one, week two of the conference. As I finished up day two though, I realized something… I’m already at a starting point. I’m actually past the starting point, and so is every other young delegate here at the conference! Because the first step in solving any problem, is to first admit that there is one!

At COP21, we know there’s a problem and we are fully immersed in the decisions to fix that problem, even if we are just observing. I realized our jobs as young delegates is not to make speeches, or to even really be heard at the conference. Our job is to take what we learn at the conference home. To Share it with our friends and families so that they understand that there is a problem. To take that knowledge with us in our futures and do something with it. To go find our calling in life and implement our knowledge for a better tomorrow, and a better tomorrow after that, and even after that until we get to a point where we already know tomorrow is going to be pretty darn good for everyone.

So now that I’m really thinking about it, at COP21 we may just be young delegates and observers, and we may not be the solution today. But the days after the conference, when we go home and out into life, we are going to be the leaders, and we are going to be part of the solution. And with that thought…I gotta say it feels pretty damn awesome to be a young delegate at the United Nations COP21.

Photo Credit: Hilde Binford

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

“The Arctic is the Advanced Sentinel of Climate Change” -- Messages from Artists

There are over 120 art exhibits in Paris during COP21, and they all have a theme or idea that the artists are portraying related to climate change.  In the installation by the artist Olafur Eliasson (with geologist Minik Rosing), there are 12 melting iceburgs (originally weighing 80 tons) from Greenland placed in a circle like a clock face to remind us that time is running out. This is a particularly popular site, and inspired a lot of discussion.  Sadly, the overheard dialogue between a father and daughter (American) was not so positive, as the father explained that it was already “too late.”  But other conversations seemed animated and hopeful, as the COP has had a lot of attention here in Paris.

Photo by Matt Bosch

Photo: Hilde Binford and Matt Bosch (photo credit -- Fabian, our guide)

Other art exhibits are a bit more traditional, like the 80 photographs in “The Honey Roads” which are on public view at the Luxembourg Gardens, documenting the plight of bees.  Others are performance art, like the theatrical presentation from ClimActs of Australia where “Climate Guardians,” dressed as angels, protest against Australia’s inaction.  

For a listing and description of all of the art exhibits, go to http://www.artcop21.com/fr/events/.

And if you’re interested in buying works by the artists (with the proceeds going to the NGOs involved in climate change), check out the Christie's auction at http://www.christies.com/exhibitions/2015/artists-4-paris-climate

The art installation "Unbearable" is quite moving -- a polar bear is impaled on a "oil pipeline in the shape of a CO2 graph!  Check out the concept.  And the new play, "Extreme Whether" was extraordinary as well. 

Monday, December 7, 2015

Education Matters: Generating a Green Citizenry

Many people ask what the role of Moravian College is at the U.N. climate conferences. There are actually several roles, including being a part of the official civil society voice on a topic that we care deeply about, participating as members of the research community related to climate change, and witnessing first-hand the complexity of negotiations on the international stage. But perhaps the most important role, however, we play is in education.

Our decision to apply for observer status to the UNFCCC in 2009 grew out of discussions that my colleague Hilde Binford and I had when we first began co-teaching a course on climate change. It is one thing to read up on the U.N. negotiations process and try to relay the information to students. It is quite another when you can actually take them to the international conference and have them be directly involved. For those who cannot attend, our faculty who attend are gaining direct and current knowledge that can be shared with students back home.

We learned early on that the U.S. media doesn’t routinely provide detailed coverage of the COP meetings, and, in general, there have been significant weaknesses in how the topic of climate change more generally is covered in various news outlets. Thus, we initiated this blog to share the observations of Moravian faculty, students, and others who attend the COP meetings with campus and the larger community. As I write this, we are approaching 40,000 views on our page suggesting that we have reached at least some people. In addition, our students and faculty have given talks at a wide range of events when they return each year; we don’t have numbers for those audiences.

Attending COP meetings has had a profound impact on the student participants. Several have gone on to graduate programs related to environmental science, climate change policy, and/or sustainability. Some of these former students work at the United Nations, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, or for the city of New York (on climate change policy); others are working as environmental consultants. We are so proud of them.

At COP21 this year, there was an entire day devoted to the theme of climate change education. Some highlights of the discussions are included in a video. I was struck by the opening call by Irina Bokova, the Director General of UNESCO, not just for greener economies, legislation, policies and regulations, and societies, but also for “green citizens.” She and others went on to express the need for education to “shape the new values, skills and knowledge for the century ahead.” The links to our college mission and how we define a liberal education are quite clear in my opinion.

Yoka Brandt, the Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF, noted that empowering the children “reduces their vulnerability to their climate risks’ and “contributes to resilient families and communities and indeed to sustainable development." She went on to say:
It is not only about the planet we leave to our children. It is also about the children we leave to the planet. They have the potential and the passion. We have the responsibility to give them the tools to turn this passion into a powerful force for change.
As an educational institution that prepares future teachers, scientists, economists, policy makers, innovators, problem solvers, and yes, citizens, we have to share in this responsibility and challenge.

The Research and Independent NGOs side event on Research and Climate Policy featured many young researchers

A Look Back, as Week Two of COP21 Begins

Over the weekend, the draft text for a Paris Agreement was released. This is the document that high-level ministers from countries around the world will focus on during week two of COP21. They will negotiate the details and unresolved issues, and hopefully, they will come to consensus on an international accord. All sorts of individual experts and members of non-governmental organizations have been analyzing the details of this draft since Saturday. You may see media coverage and reactions from the legal community, politicians, and civil society over the next week. But for anyone reading this blog, some perhaps for the first time, it might be useful to look back to see what brought the world to this pivotal moment and to understand the overarching goals of the COP meetings.

The UNFCCC negotiations process is full of acronyms and jargon, starting with its name. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is essentially a treaty – one of three that was signed at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. Each year, there is a Convention of the Parties, or COP session, where delegates from different countries around the world meet to hold consultations, to negotiate, and to attempt to come up with solutions to both the causes and impacts of global climate disruption. This year, COP21 represents 21 years of negotiations post-Rio – longer than many of my students have been alive.

The main goal of the multilateral UNFCCC agreement, which now has 196 Parties or signatories, is to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” Yet solutions to this challenge have been evasive. Despite extensive scientific evidence that demonstrates how rising levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases (GHG) destabilize the climate and research tools that allow us to model the impacts that will result from such destabilization, mitigating the problem (i.e. reducing GHG emissions) is not a simple task.

The world has long been reliant on fossil fuels to drive technology, development, and the global economy. Carbon dioxide, the GHG that is a product of combusting these fossil fuels, is one of the main contributors to climate change and thus, you often hear reference to a low-carbon future or decarbonization. (There are differences, but they aren’t necessary to explain in this post.) Different countries have different national processes for ratifying international agreements, Several billion people around the world still either live in extreme poverty or have a significantly lower quality of life than most in the United States can even image. And according to the provisions in the Framework Convention of 1992, consensus of all Parties must be reached. Thus, economics, politics, vast inequality gaps, and the need to change human behavior in order to address climate change all present significant barriers. Try to imagine a committee meeting where 196 individuals were in attendance and, before leaving, all in attendance had to agree on a long list of items about priorities and actions they would be committed to for the next several decades. Again, not an easy task.

Despite these complexities, some progress has been made over the decades. The Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997 and entered into force in 2005. Under this agreement, 37 industrialized nations and the European Community committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – to an average of five percent against 1990 levels. The U.S. Senate never ratified this agreement, so our country was noticeably absent from the agreement, despite our long being one of the largest contributors to GHG emissions. During the second commitment period under this Protocol (2013 – 2020), Parties pledged to reduce GHG emissions by at least 18 percent below 1990. Again, the United States did not agree to this and several other nations who had been Parties to the original Kyoto Protocol (all large GHG emitters) backed out (1).

For a number of reasons, 2015 has been viewed as the year that a strong agreement aimed at resolving climate change would finally be reached. At COP17 in Durban, South Africa (2011), the Durban Platform -- a new platform of negotiations under the Convention was launched

to deliver a new and universal greenhouse gas reduction protocol, legal instrument or other   outcome with legal force by 2015 for the period beyond 2020 (2).

In other words, this was the year the world was to replace the Kyoto Protocol with a new legally binding agreement that included all Parties to the UNFCCC, not just the developed nations. So at COP21, you see much reference to the ADP working group – which stands for “Advancing the Durban Platform.” A few years ago in Warsaw (COP19), a plan for allowing countries to find different paths to mitigation was set forth providing flexibility for finding ways to reduce carbon emissions. The Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs were to be submitted by each Party in advance of COP21, and by the opening of the conference, 181 countries had done so. Add this to the commitments announced by two of the largest GHG emitters, the U.S. and China, in November 2014, and it seemed as though there were at last major breakthroughs.

The year of 2015 was also when the United Nations finalized the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals that are aimed at addressing the large inequalities around the world. Compared to the Millennium Development Goals, the new SDGs have a stronger focus on environmental issues, including climate change, so the links between addressing the needs of developing countries and addressing the disparate impacts of environmental problems are now more clearly defined.

Finally, the newest science clearly indicates that the window for reducing carbon emissions in order to keep the planet from experiencing more than a 2 degree Celsius increase in temperature may be closing. There is much controversy about this target, since models show that even that amount of global temperature increase will have devastating impacts, particularly on small island nations and coastal areas due to sea level rise and on already rapidly declining biodiversity. The INDCs that have been submitted to date will not even get us to this 2° target. And even if against all odds, an ambitious legally binding agreement is reached at COP21 in 2015, it won’t go into effect until 2020 and the reduction of GHG emissions will occur over an even longer timeframe. These pollutants have residence times in the atmosphere measured in years, so even if we were to stop all GHG emissions tomorrow, the problem doesn’t immediately go away. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the planet has already warmed by 0.8°C, and all indications are that 2015 will be the warmest year on record, possibly pushing that overall global warming to 1°.

Yes, much is at stake here in Paris. The world faces many complex problems including terrorism, food insecurity, poverty, an ever-growing inequality between the haves and have-nots, economic uncertainties, and many forms of environmental disintegration. But, in the eyes of many, no problem is more important and urgent than addressing the one of climate change. That is why 150 heads of state gave impassioned speeches on the opening day of COP21. And that is why so many people here are calling this an issue of human rights.

Please wish the world leaders luck going forward this week. They are going to need it, along with courage and strong political will.

Moravian College students discussing the status of negotiations at COP21

1. See http://unfccc.int/kyoto_protocol/items/2830.php
2. See http://unfccc.int/key_steps/durban_outcomes/items/6825.php