Monday, November 30, 2015

Reflections of COP21 Day 1: The Call to Action

Everything has lead up to this: my major, leadership experiences, research... It was about this time, in the fall of 2012, that I heard Moravian College took students to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. It was during that first semester that I decided I would attend the UNFCCC before graduating in May, 2016.

Today was the opening of COP21. I knew beforehand that this was a significant moment in time, but nothing prepared me for what I experienced today. Despite the terrorist attacks, France has held strong and the convention has continued in the hope of creating a better and more sustainable future for all. It is incredible to be surrounded by countless strangers all longing and working towards similar ends as you. Beyond that, there is nothing like sitting in an enormous room full of  heads of state and listening to the representatives give their remarks as to why we must come together to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Granted, I did not have the ability to hear the statements of all the world leaders who were present. It is impossible to split yourself in half in order to be in the two plenary rooms these high-level delegates were in. I did however, pick up on a few recurring themes:

  • We must act now: Some see this as the last chance we have to make a difference, or that if we miss this, we will be past the point of no return. Others view it as a fresh start, or as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stated, "You are here to write the script of a new future."
  • The COP21 Agreement must be legally binding and fair: There are more things on the list of criterion for a successful agreement, but legally binding and fair were by far the most common principles. We must hold each other accountable, be inclusive, have transparency, and allow for flexibility in an ever-changing world. 
  • Acting on climate change is a moral obligation: We know the science behind climate change: how it works, why it is happening, what can (and likely will) happen, and what we can do. It is the standard and highly credible argument for mitigation and adaptation. What is not argued as often or taken as seriously is the ethical argument. Here we had many world leaders calling climate action a moral obligation. We owe it to ourselves, the people surrounding us, and our fellow human beings around the world to save this planet. We owe it to our friends and families. We owe it to future generations.
It occurs to me that an awful lot of time and energy is wasted over not being able to get over our differences. The President of Senegal asked an important question, "Are we prepared to get over our national egos?" Every nation may not agree exactly on how to approach climate change, but it is clear to me that despite those differences, we have core values that are quite similar. Perhaps it is time to reevaluate how we view this problem. Instead, perhaps it is time that we see it as an opportunity.

Tears were brought to my eyes as the world leaders made their remarks. They informed us of their nations efforts against climate change, shared expectations they hold for the world as a whole, and acted as inspiration for a new future. What impacted me most was the stories of how climate change directly affects their nations. It struck me that nearly every world leader was present and making a case for humanity to come together in a time of need. It cannot be denied that this is real. It cannot be denied that this is global. It is crucial for us to act now.

COP21 Day 1 – and oh what a day!

The Venue - Anticipation of What Was to Come

I spent the morning of Day 1 at COP21 sitting in a large plenary room where I got to hear short speeches from a long list of world leaders including Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary General and Presidents (or King’s representative) of France, the United States, Paraguay, China, Morocco, Egypt, Djibouti, Russia, Lithuania… all before lunch. Never before have 150 heads of state been in the same place at the same time focusing on the same issue.

There were repeating themes in the messages:

1) There were many statements of solidarity with France, given the recent “barbaric attacks by cowards.” Several presidents noted that terrorism and climate change are two of the biggest global challenges, and that climate change has the potential to magnify conditions that lead to conflict (drought, poverty, displacement of people, loss of homeland, etc.).

2) The leaders stated that they were hearing the voices of the people from around the planet and needed to respond with strong action to show that they are listening. They spoke of the need for an ambitious, legally binding agreement to keep the warming of the planet from going above 2 degrees Celsius, and preferably no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.

3) Leaders from developed countries shared specific examples of what they are already doing to mitigate their emissions, develop new technologies, etc. Can you imagine a sustainability “arms race” to outdo one another with clean energy and technology for a low carbon economy? In contrast, leaders of developing countries called for assistance with technology transfer, adaptation to the impacts of climate change, and funds to help them not only deal with the negative consequences of climate change, but also to help them develop sustainably along a clean energy/low carbon path.

4) Most of the presidents commented on the importance of protecting the planet for future generations, and to address inequities of the impact of climate change on the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. Of the leaders I heard, none was more passionate about this than His Excellency Mr. János Áder, President of Hungary who pondered the conversation he would have with his grandchildren in 2030.

5) All of the heads of state referred to this historic moment, not only because of the unprecedented gathering of world leaders, but because of this being such a pivotal moment to enact change. Many noted that this agreement has to come to fruition now, as it may very well be our last chance to prevent irreversible planetary damage that will impact all of humanity. I am not prone to hyperbole; those were their words.

I was struck by the commonalities in the words of these different world leaders. It seemed to be such a sharp contrast from what we hear in the news – the focus on differences and disagreements. I was also struck by the sharp contrast from the messages I am getting from home (friends and family back home worried about our safety in Paris) versus what I was hearing from the dignitaries in the room who were much more worried about the safety and security of future generations. These are the glimmers of hope – that maybe, just maybe, these individuals will truly use this moment to lead.

I leave you with a series of screen shots – literally! It certainly was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. (See if you recognize some of these world leaders - just a sampling of the 150 who made statements today.)

The Amazon rain forest, Offsetting CO2 and Climate Change

The Amazon rain forest is 5,500,000 square kilometers. This large area of trees has created a carbon sink in the Amazon. Carbon sinks are a huge collection of CO2 where the carbon absorbed is more than what is emitted. This rain forest however could result in a huge threat to the climate. With the climate changing it pushes the heat to rise and results in droughts that could kill the trees in the rain forest and release the carbon it’s been storing. The public's opinion of this carbon sink was positive because it appeared that we had been keeping more CO2 out of the atmosphere. However, recent research presented at the talks today show a recorded increase in the biomass (including CO2) of the rain forest trees. With these conditions plus our changing climate, the rain forest has the potential to release a lot of carbon we have been "saving" to offset other types of carbon emissions. If these trees would happen to emit all of their carbon it could increase the rate of climate change because it is a source of potential carbon emissions that hasn’t been accounted for. 

 Programs that promote offsetting CO2 emissions by planting trees could contribute to this potential problem. Along with the possibility of displacing indigenous people from the forests by buying and planting trees these programs can’t guarantee that the trees will not die and emit the carbon it had been storing anyway. We are still emitting CO2 with our transportation and lifestyle choices. By investing in offsetting we feel better about our emission rates but what if by conserving all of these trees and planting more we actually end up not only hurting the local indigenous populations but also increasing the chance for climate change to occur at a faster rate because it is creating another/ bigger carbon sink? The next question that this leads into is: how does this effect polices that are trying to be enacted by our political leaders?  From what was suggested at the conference talks today this only provides an even greater incentive to try to deviate the climate from changing. With more research, scientists can get a better idea of exactly how much carbon could be potentially released. This proposes a call for funding not only for research in this area but also to implement potential policies and actions. By doing this the hope is to avoid such a problem from occurring or to take preventative steps to decrease the amount of damage it could do to our climate.

COP21 Day 1 ReCap

Today was the opening day of the twenty-first conference of the parties (COP21) and wow was it everything and more than I expected. After an early morning commute and security checks I along with other Moravian College representatives opened the door to what I think everyone anticipated to be the most historical COP of our time. With the news of the approximately 150 Heads of States from around the world planning to show up for the first day we were unsure if we would be able to attend or even enter any of the conferences, side events, and various exhibit booths. With the great news that the venue would still be open to those with accreditation, we made our way into the center. The excitement was in the air between the beautiful artwork lining the different paths, the expectations of Heads of States opening remarks, and COP21 itself. With the expectations to watch the opening address and plenary meetings on large projector screens in separate viewing rooms, I was awestruck when I was graciously offered and received a badge to enter into and sit in on the High Level Plenary meetings where the various Heads of State were giving their remarks on COP21.

Many of the remarks from the Heads of State plenary discussed or touched upon similar topics such as solidarity among member states, transparency, ambition to act now, compromise, shifting incentives from fossil fuel subsidies to alternative energy solutions, and to remember future generations as well as those people who don’t have a voice. I think a good summary of the work expected to be done this COP21 can be from these quotes stated by Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, “You (Heads of State) are here to write a script for a new future” and “We must go much further, much faster.”

After leaving the plenary discussion (even though many more Heads of State still had to speak) I was advised to go and attend The Heads of State Media Event on Carbon Pricing which I am very pleased I attended. It was interesting to see the members who made up the team of states who promote and advocate for carbon pricing mechanisms in the economy. A  closing remark on the event was “Carbon is the Enemy.”

Overall, I have to say my first day was more than amazing and to think this is only day one …. can’t wait to see what the rest of the week will bring!

until tomorrow, Au revoir!

The Tipping Point

We walked into the entrance of COP 21, and I knew this was the moment when the world would change.  Over 45,000 attendees comprised of heads of states, delegations, and civil society observers representing 195 countries gathered at Le Bourget, Paris to make a commitment to work towards a legally binding document to stop climate change and keep the global temperature from increasing more than 2°C.  This is definitely the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced, and it will take countless hours of negotiation to come to an agreement.  The entire world and future generations are relying on the delegates to come together and work towards a global accord so we can secure our future.

The plenaries started at the beginning of the day with the opening of COP 21 and statements by the heads of states.  Several high key individuals spoke at the opening of the COP, including the French President, Prince Charles, and the President of COP 21.  All of them had the same message; now is the time for the world to work together to form a binding agreement that can save future generations from a greater than 2°C world.  As Prince Charles stated in his speech, “No one should give up their tomorrow for our today”.  He strongly encouraged the delegates to come to an agreement in Paris so future generations would not suffer. 

Today was an amazing experience that I would never have imagined that I would have been able to witness.  The rest of this week should bring more insights into how the world will come to an agreement, and how people like me can help make a difference.  

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Standing Up to Fear: COP21 in Paris

Moravian College has as its mission the following:

Moravian College’s liberal arts education prepares each individual for a reflective life, fulfilling careers, and transformation leadership in a world of change. 

This mission statement is will aligned with the definition of a liberal education in the 21st century provided by the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) the first sentence of which states that

A liberal education is an approach to college learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change.

I have been thinking a lot lately about the change that we are witnessing in the world and thinking about the future for not only my own sons, but for the students that I teach. It is a messy, complex, and pretty scary future that today’s youth face – a place where they will be confronted with what AAC&U refers to as unscripted problems. Climate change, food security, and global inequities are just a few of the grand challenges, and all of these have the potential to fuel worldwide conflict.

Ted Schultz, the late economist and Nobel Prize winner from the University of Chicago dabbled in many scholarly areas, but one of his many contributions was to consider the question of “Why does education matter?’ He came to the conclusion that education is important because it provides people with the ability to deal with disequilibrium – a state of disarray and change. I doubt many would argue that we are certainly living in times of disequilibrium. Thus, in higher education, it is our collective mission to help students make sense of this disequilibrium and to work with them to tackle the messy complex problems for which there is no script, no instruction manual, to guide us to the solutions.

One of these unscripted problems hit home recently as the college had to struggle with whether to still send a delegation of faculty and students to Paris to participate as civil society representatives in the United Nations climate negotiations process (COP21) in light of the terrorist attacks in that city. Since 2009, Moravian College has been accredited by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to attend the annual Conference of the Parties (or COP) meetings. Students had planned for this event for over a year and one has a research project that hinges on attendance. I had been working for months to organize a panel featuring researchers from around the world doing studies that can inform climate policy. The campus, of course, has to worry about the safety of the students and its own liability in the event something truly horrid was to occur.

Each of us had to reflect on exactly why it was important to attend, what the risks were, and what the implications of not going would be. The students knew this wasn’t just any trip to Paris, but a chance for them to be a voice in what is being considered the last chance for an international agreement to address climate change, and an opportunity to report back to the campus and larger community about not only this complex environmental problem, but also the messy process of finding a global solution when 196 Parties are involved. Media reports, where they exist, cannot truly portray these stories in the way that the youth whose future depends on global cooperation on this issue can.

In the end, after much personal reflection and many conversations among themselves, with their parents, and with administration, the students convinced administration of the importance of their going – in part, as a stance against fear of terrorism. As once noted by Dr. Cheryl Saban, an advocate for women and children and U.S. representative to the United Nations General Assembly:
Living fearlessly doesn't mean we are always stoic; nor are we aloof or numb to the frightening problems in the world. It simply means that at the crucial moment, we don't allow fear to be our ruler…. It's resisting inertia - it is facing the very thing that is causing the fear, and holding the belief that we can have an impact on it -- that we can make a difference on the outcome, even if that difference is merely changing the way we think about it.
Our students weren’t stoic nor are they numb to the frightening problems in the world. But they do still believe it is possible to make a difference, and that belief, along with their solid liberal education, will indeed set them on the course to be transformative leaders of the future.

A part of the Moravian College delegation to COP21: Stephen Stoddard, Paige Malewski, Laura McBride, Audrey McSain (Not shown: Matt Bosch, Hilde Binford, and Diane Husic)

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Digging the Pathway to Paris: What to Expect

In recent months, many countries have been gearing up for the highly anticipated Conference of the Parties (COP21) to be held in Paris, France November 30 - December 11 to formulate and finalize policies in regards to addressing anthropogenic climate change. Here is short list of what to watch out for during the two week intergovernmental processes.
  • Will negotiations that are made include language on sustainable development to achieve targets set forth by the recently adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals?
  • Will practices such as deep decarbonization (
  • be discussed as a sufficient means of keeping global warming below the 2℃ limit?
  • Will significant targets be set by high carbon emitting nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to set limits of parts per million (ppm) in the atmosphere to ensure a limit of 2℃ or less?
  • What policies will be formulated during the negotiations between the 190 represented governments and who will take the initiative in adopting formulated policies?
  • Will climate action policies be formulated to significantly mitigate the expected impacts from anthropogenic climate change?
All the world will be watching to see if Paris is the year climate negotiations are adopted with a strategic plan for implementation and execution. It will be interesting to see if the negotiations will include the voices of the poor and marginalized, who suffer the greatest from the detrimental effects of climate change. In addition, along with these negotiations and the recent encyclical, Laudato Si (,  by Pope Francis, observations will have to be made to see how the convergence of these documents will address climate change and poverty.

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