Saturday, November 4, 2017

Destination: COP 23

I am at the airport awaiting my flight to Bonn, Germany to attend the annual U.N. climate conference – COP23. This will be my 9th such trip having first attended COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, and I find myself reflecting upon what has changed over that time span.

As a refresher, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was one of three treaties to come out of the Rio Earth Summit held in 1992. The framework was enacted in 1994, and the first Conference of the Parties or COP1 was held in 1995. Parties are the signatories to the agreement -- the nations working to find ways to mitigate the problem (largely by working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions) and to adapt to the impacts of a changing climate.

When Moravian College delegates attended COP15, the sense of optimism was unmistakable; with a new administration in the White House, many felt that the shift in priorities and perspectives would finally result in progress towards developing a new significant international agreement on climate change. Despite that optimism, it would take until 2015 in Paris for that agreement to finally happen. And then, one year later, the results of the U.S. election came in while we were attending COP22 in Marrakech. The mood immediately shifted from excitement about working on implementation of the Paris Agreement to a gloomy sense of a new uncertainty. Despite decades of scientific data telling policymakers what should be done, it was immediately obvious that politics of just one country – mine – can quickly overshadow all the will and hard work to address such a global challenge.

If my experience at the Community-based Adaptation Conference in Uganda this summer is any indication, any delegate from the U.S. attending COP23 will face difficult questions, frustration, criticism, and even anger about the anti-climate change rhetoric and lack of cooperation on implementing the provisions of the Paris Agreement coming from the U.S.

The news is not all discouraging. The #WeAreStillIn initiative of U.S. cities, corporations and institutions of higher education (including Moravian College), the dramatic global progress being made in switching to renewable, non-carbon based energy sources, and the innovations occurring in technology, companies, and other countries – rich and poor alike – are all signs of hope.

Here in the terminal, as I chat with the students who are part of our delegation this year, I can’t help but notice their enthusiasm. Of course, they are excited to be traveling to a new country, but they are also eager to participate in COP23 and share stories through our blog to those back home. For four years, they have been studying environmental issues – the science and policy – and now, they will get to participate in the nexus between the two at the international level. They understand the severity and urgency associated with the challenge of climate change. They are frustrated by the climate denial and inaction in the U.S. Yet, they, like my own sons who are about the same age, are not without hope that we can still make a difference at the local and global level to address this challenge.

The UNFCCC process has its flaws. It is complex and slow. But 197 nations agreed to the provisions of the Paris Agreement. Think about that: 197 countries in agreement about something. As of this week, 86% of those countries have ratified that agreement through their own internal processes. The Paris Agreement opened the door to the private sector, cities and sub-national governments across the world to participate and innovate; over the past two years, we are seeing what the U.N. refers to as “game-changing actions.” The agreement sent strong signals to markets -- where to invest and where not to. Faith-based communities across the globe believe that, as stewards of all creation, we have a moral obligation to address climate change. And developing countries are beginning to leapfrog dirty, outdated technologies as they work to raise their standard of living.

This week, I will be sharing my reflections on what has changed during the past nine years since my first COP -- in terms of the scientific understanding, the technology, the policy and politics, the public attitudes and the role that I have played. As we attend COP23, we will all be reporting on the issues and our perceptions on the progress being made toward implementing the Paris Agreement provisions. Hopefully, we will provide some glimmers of optimism along the way.

Nature decrees that we do not exceed the speed of light. All other impossibilities are optional. 
Robert Brault

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