The fact I am now writing this from Paris, where I am at the twenty-first Conference of the Parties, or COP21, meeting with Caroline, along with twenty-nine other Stanford students and an extraordinary teaching team as we conclude a ten-week course on international climate negotiations, testifies to the power of one student with a good idea.
Caroline radiates a fiery intelligence and joyfulness that make her highly effective in organizing environmental initiatives on the Stanford campus. Among her accomplishments is her collaboration last October with several students, also now in Paris, to organize a massive climate rally featuring Vice President Al Gore. In his speech, Gore drew on the inspirational words of Martin Luther King to encourage the hundreds of students assembled, declaring the inevitable victory of the climate movement to “bend the arc of history toward justice.”
They are a tightly knit network of students with 1000-watt intellects, purposefully intent on using their years at the university to prepare themselves for careers devoted to making our world a more just and more livable planet for humanity and the other species with whom we share our one and only home. They are a new breed of environmentalists, students who are deeply aware of both the interconnections between social and environmental injustices and the legacy of the environmental movement’s largely monochromatic history in the U.S. They are students who are as likely to point to Sylvia Earle and Al Gore as they are to Naomi Klein and Pope Francis and Bill McKibben as their environmental heroes. They know that time has run out for forestalling the impacts of climate change and that people—particularly some of the planet’s most vulnerable people—are already suffering from the impacts. And they’ve had enough of waiting around for someone else to do something about it.
Back on that November morning last year, Caroline and I chatted about ideas for a COP class and discussed why she was interested in learning about the international climate negotiations process. She wanted to dig in to understand the nuances of the multi-layered process that would produce the text of an agreement that would have enormous implications for the future of her generation. We talked about the context students would need to understand in order to make sense of the process established by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a context that integrates climate science, ethics, politics, economics, history, issues of legal form and of justice, all served with a side of the acronymic lingo that is the UNFCCC alphabet soup. We talked about what it could mean for students to journey to Paris to observe the negotiations process for themselves.
As I talked with Caroline, it occurred to me that I might be looking at a future negotiator or a director of an environmental NGO or perhaps a future politician. I sensed that this conversation was a catalytic moment in my career as a teacher, after which I would need to bring to bear the full force of my effort to make the class happen. Not just for Caroline, but also for the many other students who desired the opportunity to learn how the climate negotiations process works (or fails to work, as was the case in Copenhagen) and apply their knowledge by observing the negotiations process in Paris. I wanted these students to have the opportunity to be in the thick of things. And a year later we are here.
These students understand that we’ve known about the climate problem for decades, and they see our failure to mount an aggressive campaign to take the issue head on years ago as an egregious injustice of the highest order. They see this injustice as a failure of capitalism as it is practiced, in which individuals accumulate wealth by stealing from the world’s most vulnerable and from the future. They see it a failure of a society addicted to the hard narcotic of consumerism that ravishes nature and tosses the remains into a landfill once it is bored. And I find it hard not to agree with them.
Caroline sent me an email shortly after our meeting in which she included a photo of herself with a friend at the People’s Climate March in New York City, which had taken place just a few months earlier in September. In the photo, she and her friend held up a huge Texas flag emblazoned with the words “Texans for Climate Justice” written in big white letters. As if I needed any more convincing.
I printed the photo Caroline had sent me and tacked it up on the corkboard in my office. Looking at the picture, I considered the disconcerting mixture of pride and embarrassment I’ve felt for years regarding my lingering attachment to my home state of Texas. I thought about a recent trip I’d made back to Texas with my wife and daughter to see family. On that trip we visited the Alamo, sacred ground to those of us born and raised in the Lone Star State.
Remembering the Alamo, I turned back to study the photo of Caroline. She had claimed the Texas flag as her own, smiling defiantly and proudly with all the charm and steel of a young Ann Richards. Remembering the Alamo, I thought about what it could mean for students engaged in the fight for climate justice to engage intellectually in the twenty-first meeting of the Conference of the Parties in Paris.
These students are deeply committed to the fight for climate justice, carving out time from around the margins of their considerable academic responsibilities to bring about change in the world in big ways and small. Some have shown formidable leadership in running a brilliantly organized, indefatigable campaign to push Stanford to divest from fossil fuels. Because of their efforts, the university administration divested from coal in the spring of 2013, an act widely embraced by the Stanford community and hailed by environmental leaders as a bold and courageous step in the march toward decarbonization of our energy system. But students see this as only a first step, and they have been unrelenting in their campaign to motivate the university to “divest the rest”, that is to push the university to move endowment funds out of investments in the most egregious carbon polluters.
Other students work for justice in more quiet ways. One student-led program engages middle-school students living in East Palo Alto, a chronically impoverished and underserved community a few miles from the Stanford campus, on trips in which they immerse themselves in learning about nature and environmental science in the mountains and beaches of coastal California. The stunning beauty of these places is a little more than an hour’s drive from the community of East Palo Alto, but for many of the children who live there, it might as well be in Paris. Such is the nature of poverty; it confines one’s world in almost every way imaginable. For my Stanford students, working with these children, providing them with access to and contact with nature that is their birthright as Californians, conveys something about the simple fact that transforming the world can be about committing one transformative act at a time, one person at a time.
I remember taking my own daughter to the California coast since the time before she could walk, dipping her toes in the bracingly cold Pacific. It was where a few years later, she would discover as a toddler the glow of a sea anemone nestled in the aqueous world of a tidepool and let it grasp at her fingers with its delicate, luminous tentacles. It was where she would smile with delight upon coming into contact with the mysterious heart of an infinitely beautiful universe full of hope and possibility.
Watching my daughter make this discovery is an experience that is not unlike being with students here in Paris, as they engage in every aspect of the COP21 meeting, interviewing negotiators and indigenous representatives, attending talks by government and industry leaders and the heads of NGOs, tweeting and blogging their observations, analyzing the text of the Paris agreement as it unfolds. I see them start to internalize their brief time in this beautiful and historic city of light, watching as their experience begins to transform what they envision is possible in their own lives, as well as what they envision might be possible in our world, our one and only home.
Cross-posted on Feral Naturalist