The Paris Climate Conference: Hope in a Time of Hard Realities

, senior climate scientist | November 30, 2015, 1:45 pm EST
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This post is a part of a series on The Paris Climate Agreement

The violence in Paris and elsewhere in recent weeks has made parents around the world hug their children a little tighter, and to ask for the strength to confront the many risks we face in the world. Climate change is one of the risks we can change, and the Paris climate talks may mark a moment of global courage, in which we alter our course and begin to build the future we want to leave for our children.

Following the attacks in Paris, after feeling an outpouring of empathy and grief, I imagine many of us sought something solid to hold onto amidst the irrationality of such violence. Grasping for stability, I recalled the words of a prayer for serenity: “Give me the strength to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the ones I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Then I boarded a plane and flew to Paris, along with thousands of others, to face the challenge of a different issue: climate change. Representatives of nearly 200 countries converged at the UN climate meeting in Paris, which aims to complete the latest round of climate talks. If successful, we will emerge with a new, global agreement for preventing dangerous climate change – but success will require an unprecedented display of strength, courage, and wisdom from our leaders.

Entrance to COP 21.

The entrance to the United Nations climate meeting in Paris.

When words become action

Like many here, I have spent years building my knowledge and honing my understanding in order to be prepared for what will happen at the meeting. Yet in spite of such intense preparations, the activities at the UNFCCC negotiations will seem mundane from the outside, and quite often boring. Much of our time will be spent poring over words, parsing their meaning, debating formulations – even punctuation. It has always been easy to dismiss these efforts as merely a foolish exercise in wordplay.

But words are given meaning when they guide action. And we can already see actions underway around the world, signaling and supporting the intent for the future. Nearly every country has offered its own contribution—some modest, some ambitious—to reduce climate pollution and shift to a less harmful source of economic growth and well-being. Some countries already have deep experience in this regard; others will be taking steps for the first time. Their actions will help to protect and nurture future generations. Our future is cradled in their actions.

There is an attitude of seriousness at this meeting, at a level I have not seen for several years. In his statement to the conference, President Obama commended the French government for its perseverance, then said “Let nothing deter us from building the future we want for our children.” The spirit of working for something better that will last beyond our lifetimes echoed the call from Pope Francis earlier this year, and has been taken up by many other world leaders.

President Obama addressed the climate meeting, along with many other world leaders, calling for a renewed spirit of cooperation.

President Obama addressed the climate meeting, along with many other world leaders, calling for a renewed spirit of cooperation.

Acting together, with a new level of cooperation and effort

The intensity of focus has already made it clear that Paris is no fool’s errand. The attention of our highest religious leaders, our most careful scientists, and our most powerful political leaders will be fixated on Paris. They have heard the cry of the vulnerable. Standing with them, thousands of civil society activists will speak out around the world, to say “There is a better way. We demand a change.” Business leaders will stand up and say “We can’t continue on our current course. We want to be part of a different path.” Innovators will step forward, saying “We want to find the solutions and build a better future.”

Combined, our strength is formidable.

The path will be surveyed, prepared, and paved by a cadre of professional diplomats, scientists, lawyers, activists, and policy makers. At each meeting, I become more and more impressed by the skill, patience, and dedication of these people. And I feel honored and humbled to be counted among them, to contribute my tiny piece to the work they are creating. Many of them have far more experience than I do, with expertise constructed over years and tested by experience.

Collectively, our wisdom is vast.

From the building blocks contributed by each nation, we will assemble a global agreement that can accommodate everyone, and take us into the future. It is a delicate enterprise. The risk of failure is real, and failure could be catastrophic. As the president of the Marshall Islands said: “Everyplace I know, and everyone I love, is in your hands.” For those in Paris, there is no way to ignore the possible risks to our own safety and security—but the places and people we love will be foremost in our minds. We have come, we will face the risks, and we will do our work.

Together, our courage is undaunted.

An art installation at COP 21 flickers with light and hope, like the city of Paris.

An art installation at COP 21 flickers with light and hope, like the city of Paris.

Shaping the future

And what if we succeed? What if the words we craft in Paris spur unprecedented action? Then, perhaps, our children and grandchildren may live long lives and not witness crippling droughts that lead to the horrors of famine. They may live to see conflicts sputter out, instead of being intensified by the desperation that comes with vanishing resources. They may live to see vast forests rejuvenate, rather than be consumed in the ravaging fury of wildfires. And one day their descendants may hear reports that the seas have stopped rising, that the glaciers have stopped retreating. Perhaps billions will live to experience a sense of serenity.

For those of us in Paris, and for those around the world whose future is cradled in our actions, we ask for strength, courage, and wisdom. We may be among many in Paris who seek serenity, yet we will seek it not for ourselves, but for the generations that come after us. Let today’s hard realities spur us to change the things that we know must be changed.

 

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