As a climate change educator and community organizer, I have been following closely the developments of the yearly United Nations climate conferences known as COP (Conference of the Parties) summits over the years. I had been eagerly anticipating the 2015 Paris COP21 summit because this was the year that the international leaders were planning an international climate agreement, called the Paris Agreement.
The year 2015 had already proven to be successful for the climate justice movement. Bans on fracking were passed, Shell Oil pulled out of drilling in the Arctic, President Obama finally said no to the Keystone XL Pipeline and Canada voted in a new Prime Minister who seems to care more for the planet than his predecessor. These are a few examples proving citizen action is both necessary and successful.
Yet the question remained whether the global governments would come together in Paris to provide a collective common agreement, since the latest IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report states that the science is unequivocally clear that we must act now. Also, the call for global leadership was more than evident in the Pope’s Encyclical, released in 2015, inviting everyone to heed the moral call to “care for our common home.”
A Tall Order
The famous saying, “All roads lead to Rome” may well have been “All roads lead to Paris,” in 2015. Countries began sharing their climate action commitments well before the Paris summit. These were known as INDCs (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions). This new strategy for countries to determine their own commitments and bring them to the table, so to speak, was a key ingredient to walking away with an agreement. Countries making these non-binding commitments towards climate action mean that its people must now hold their governments accountable. This is a tall order. We do have the technology and solutions at hand.
We simply lack political will, which we must feed. The U.S. government is strongly influenced by the fossil fuel industry and it is time that changes. Does the United States want to be left in the dark compared to China or Brazil when comparing climate actions or rushes to renewable energy markets? Does India want to do less than its neighbors, for example? Does Canada want to have the worst environmental record ever? Or do they want to help lead the world as we transition away from fossil fuels?
How I Got There
Knowing the significance of the Paris COP21 Summit, I had long dreamed of the opportunity to witness history, in person. The opportunity to attend became a reality when I won a $1,000 WWU Sustainability Award for organizing a fall climate conference at Western called Climatefest.
Because I’m studying what moves people to take climate action for my master’s degree, I saw an opportunity to ask climate activists in Paris what moves them to take action. These are exemplary activists from around the world gathering in Paris to make sure that the people have the last word, taking over the streets of Paris at the end of the climate summit. The activist community wanted to emphasize that the Paris Agreement wouldn’t be sufficient.
More than 15,000 people filled the Avenue des Champs-Élysées along with the other roads throughout Paris the last day of the summit, with a sense of celebration, exhilaration and a strong spirit moving forward. What I witnessed and felt throughout my entire time in Paris was an enormous amount of energy from people doing what they can toward solving the climate crisis.
The roads through Paris crossed many intersections. These intersections were filled with activists, journalists, diplomats, scientists, negotiators, government officials, CEOs, celebrities, heads of state, heads of organizations, consultants, indigenous leaders and others working day and night to come up with a global climate agreement. Even at the Green Zone (area of the COP Summit open to the public), I saw exhibits from organizations, countries, networks, businesses, indigenous peoples and artists sharing ideas and actions that inspired the countless visitors of all sectors of society every single day. There were panel discussions and presentations delivered at the COP summit locations in Le Bourget, a suburb of Paris, and various venues throughout Paris that were not only educational and inspiring, but also provided essential ingredients to climate solutions.
The buzz in the air at every turn was electrifying. I was moved by the passion and dedication from every person and experience I encountered. I walked away with the feeling as though every single person who was touched by each conversation, exhibit, presentation, lecture, art display, billboard and action while in Paris will help guide us down the roads that lead us out of Paris. I now feel a sense of obligation as an ambassador of sorts, to share this passion and what I learned, to help us on our roads toward a livable future.
For example, one thing that struck me is that the roads out of Paris are many and we need to travel down all of them. We also need to close down the roads that lead towards climate disruption and destruction. There isn’t just one solution; there are countless and we are all unique and have different skill sets that we need to deploy. The roads leading out of Paris signified the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era. What does that mean to us as individuals? We are all traveling down our own paths, yet we must collectively choose the roads that require less carbon use.
People want to take action, as I am asked over and over when I give climate change presentations, “What can I do?” Yes, we must rise to this challenge. We must collectively demand bolder and swifter actions from our elected officials to transition to a clean energy economy. We must put a climate change filter on our every action, from what we buy to how we consume energy. Our roads must intersect with all sectors of society and we must demand social and racial justice with climate justice.
My biggest takeaway from Paris is that the world leaders finally acknowledged that we must act on climate now and that we must help show them the way (see sidebar: “December 2015 Paris Climate Conference (COP21) Outcomes”). This requires concerted action from everyone, in every corner of the globe, from all sectors of society. Which roads we take matter and our children and future generations are standing on the sides of the roads, watching which way we travel.
To follow updates on the Climatefest project visit: https://www.facebook.com/climatefest?_rdr=p.
To follow local actions with 350.org, visit: https://www.facebook.com/350Bellingham/ or sign up for 350.org email list at 350.org.
Jill MacIntyre Witt is earning a Master of Arts in Environmental Studies at Huxley College of the Environment at WWU. She gives climate change presentations as a Leader and Mentor for the Climate Reality Project and organizes for 350Bellingham. As a mother of two daughters, Jill doesn’t want them asking her why she didn’t do anything about climate change when she had the chance. She hopes to inspire others to action, and at the very least, for the world’s children and the future generations.