Over the past week, I have had the privilege of witnessing much of the intense action in the Blue Zone at COP 21. Restricted access to the ADP negotiations did not prevent me from seeing negotiators walking briskly to and from meetings, often in conversation with their counterparts or representatives of NGOs, members of the press corps photographing or videotaping anything they could (including an interview I had with a UN official), and the many country pavilions and NGO exhibitions. The Blue Zone is perfect evidence of the fact that diplomacy is by no means a “spectator sport.”
As a concept, the INDCs represent a new “bottom-up” approach different from the “top-down” philosophy of the Kyoto Protocol. Regardless of whom you ask, the aggregate effect of the INDCs as of right now still does not bring warming below 2° Celsius by 2100. Perhaps as countries get more ambitious in the coming years, those INDCs may be revised to more adequately achieve the long-term goal, whatever it may be. Or perhaps not.
The success of COP 21 does not necessarily need to be defined by whether or not a strong Paris Agreement comes out of these two weeks. Negotiations are not all that occur at a COP. The tens of thousands of NGOs, businesses, observers, and civil society that gather in Paris, exchange ideas, build networks, and learn from each other may better represent our best chances for the future. Already, sub-national governments, businesses, NGOs, and individuals across civil society are taking some of the most innovative and meaningful steps.
Even if no agreement comes out of Paris, there will be a COP22, a COP23, and so on. Governments will have future chances to remedy their mistakes in Paris, and hopefully with heightened urgency to take meaningful action as time continues to run out. Yet, irrespective of what they do, people and organizations across the world are already acting and will continue to take action. Climate change can no longer be on the bottom of a list of important issues – it should be at the top, or at least near the top. In my opinion, the greatest victory that can come out of Paris is to make climate change such an important issue across the world that people will begin to hold their governments accountable for action. As I see it, this is the true “bottom-up” approach.
For many of my peers, COP 21 will be another step in their careers as, to quote one of the many signs across Paris welcoming attendees of the COP, “defenders of the planet.” For me, this class and COP 21 were the first. Regardless of whatever setbacks, negativities, and outright failures that might arise from COP 21 over the next week, I do not believe that any of us will surrender our hope for the future. Each of us will go off into our various fields, regardless of what they are, and still continue the honorable fight. We will have our occupations, but our common vocation as defenders of the planet will not change.
For me, I have imagined that I would serve as a negotiator one day. And while there is reason to be surprised or disappointed by the remarks made by that senior negotiator, I feel hopeful more than anything else. There is no doubt that the UNFCCC process is slow, tedious, and perhaps broken. Making the world a better place was never supposed to be easy. If all of this is a war for peace, justice, and a future for humanity, then we all have our roles to play and sacrifices to make, all for the achievement of these common ends. The only thing I can do right now, with so much more to learn and experience, is to say with perhaps foolish and naïve idealism: challenge accepted – let us begin.