In August, shortly before I started my fellowship, a friend sent me a New Yorker profile of Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
The profile closes with a fascinating quote from Ms. Figueres:
“You know, I think that this whole climate thing is a very interesting learning ground for humanity. I’m an anthropologist, so I look at the history of mankind. And where we are now is that we see that nations are interlinked, inextricably, and that what one does has an impact on the others. And I think this agreement in Paris is going to be the first time that nations come together in that realization. It’s not going to be the last, because as we proceed into the twenty-first century there are going to be more and more challenges that need that planetary awareness. But this is the first, and it’s actually very exciting. So I look at all of this and I go, This is so cool—to be alive right now!”
I remember being initially skeptical of such an optimistic take. Climate change is certainly a high-stakes trying ground for new approaches to international cooperation. I had just completed a class that outlined, in frightening detail, the many climate tipping points around which there remain scientific uncertainty. Sitting in drought-plagued California, “cool” was perhaps not the first word that I would have used to describe these times, which will likely see island nations submerged and species driven to extinction.
But in December, I was fortunate enough to have the unbelievable opportunity to attend COP21 in Paris, and while in Paris, I found these words flashing through my head over and over, a unique fit for the tenor of the event. There was a clear recognition that this conference was about laying the groundwork for a fundamentally new relationship between countries and the planet. Though often tense with awareness of the high stakes of the conference – viewed by many as the last opportunity for the international community to meaningfully come together on climate change – the energetic and ambitious tone of the conference made Ms. Figueres’ words consistently apt.
To me, COP21 was most striking in its inclusiveness. Not only would the agreement eventually encompass both developing and developed countries – a first for a climate agreement – but the conversation itself around COP21 also set a new standard for inclusion. The Lima-Paris Action Agenda brought business and other non-state actors directly into the diplomatic zone to commit to ambitious climate goals. During the two-day Caring for Climate Business Forum, I listened as business leaders outlined their voluntary commitments in rapid sequence. (At the UN Global Pulse session of the Forum, companies committed to contribute data to inform new climate solutions. US Secretary of State John Kerry, opening the second day of the forum, affirmed the importance of this moment, telling us that such commitments had a key role to play that – complementing the forthcoming agreement – was critical to limiting temperature rise to two degrees Celsius.
Out of this inclusiveness also came a ready recognition that the climate affects each of us (albeit n different ways) and that we all are innately invested in this issue. In addition to the diplomatic zone where negotiations were held, the conference also offered a space known as the “Climate Generations Area,” dedicated specifically to public and civil society participation. The space was host to a variety of exhibitions, events, and commitments to action, and served as an excellent forum to bring the public voice directly to the conference. This space, in particular, emphasized that we are universally connected to the climate. While first walking around the Climate Generations Area, I passed a “tree of wishes” for the climate, and a woman offered me a piece of paper and a pen to write my own personal “wish for the climate,” to be hung among countless others posted by passers-by.
This is not to say that the differential impacts of climate change were ever less than clear. During my first day at the Climate Generations Area, a colleague and I watched an indigenous group carry a block of ice past us, playing a melancholy flute tune. It was unmistakably a dirge. The moment was an unforgettable reminder that cultures are deeply entwined with their environments, and that even with ambitious climate action, climate change poses serious risks to both cultures and ecosystems.
An enormous public and civil society presence helped to ensure that the high stakes of the agreement for these indigenous groups remained top of mind. Whether through art, songs, protests, or opinion articles, people from radically different walks of life, from around the world, made an enormous effort – and often huge sacrifices – to make their voices heard. They worked tirelessly to bring each aspect of climate change and its effects on various communities to the forefront.
Equally amazing to me were the endlessly dedicated and brilliant individuals – from the French presidency, to UNFCCC staff, UN staff, negotiators, and others – who worked through consecutive nights to ensure that the conference was as successful as possible. In the final days of the conference, I watched the agreement evolve at breakneck speed as exhausted negotiators sprawled across chairs and couches, updated drafts of the agreement in their hands. One day, I received an email from a professor pointing out that no mention had been made of the ocean in one draft; the ocean was back in the draft two days later.
When the final agreement was adopted, negotiators often gave their speeches through tears. Many expressed gratitude to be able to go home having achieved an ambitious agreement: at home, communities were depending on them to stave off further climate impacts, in addition to those they were already beginning to experience.
To my novice eyes, the conference was indeed, as Ms. Figueres had predicted, a landmark moment for the larger arc of learning how to address environmental problems as a global community. Around the world, people participated to help shape the policies that affect them. Business was a crucial partner in multi-stakeholder events, and made strong commitments to act on climate. Compromise is innately necessary for cooperation: both were ultimately possible in Paris, even as the agreement’s targets grew in ambition.
Such an outcome will undoubtedly provide some much-needed inspiration in the years to come, in a world where – as Ms. Figueres aptly noted – global cooperation on such issues will become increasingly necessary.
Ms. Figueres’ words are a fitting description for this conclusion as well: living through a moment like this one – and getting to witness it unfold – is pretty cool.
All views expressed within this blogpost are my own, and do not represent the views of UN Global Pulse.