WORDS: Peter Hans Ward + Nicole Stanton
IMAGES: Adam Wells

A few weeks ago I attended a community dialogue on COP21. The panels and discussions were organized in an effort to share the experiences of local leaders who attended COP21 in Paris this past December. It was a moment of total gratitude when walking into a room packed with people. 

It felt necessary and so useful to have COP21 contextualized within our small mountain community. The panelists made a huge effort to express why this gathering of world leaders and world citizens was crucial to our immediate lives. What was especially thrilling was the hope they shared. Hope for change, hope for lasting solutions, hope for real action.

I will admit, though, that as inspiring as it was to hear from local leaders, I felt as though there was not enough attention or care to acknowledge the impact that under-30 crowd have had on the momentum of climate action. I craved a moment of community gratitude for the twenty-somethings from the Roaring Fork Valley who made the effort to get to Paris, simply to convene in the streets, to attend rallies, to speak with other young international citizens about what climate change means for our lifetimes, and how the hell we’re going to address it. Top-down change can work, it can happen. However, lasting, meaningful change will only happen from the bottom, up.

To satisfy my own desire for a platform for the millennial voice in this community dialogue, I wrangled local activist and entrepreneur, Peter Hans Ward to share his experience of COP21. You may remember Peter from our profile on his big-purple-school-bus-local-food-project Humble Plum.

1. Why did you decide to go to cop21?

The 2015 Paris Climate Conference marked the 21st Conference of Parties (COP) held by the UN Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC), representing over 195 countries and aiming to achieve a universal agreement on climate action with the intention of keeping global temperature rise below two-degrees Celsius. The historical context of the conference was unprecedented, both on diplomatic scale and in the face of global catastrophe if a unanimous agreement wasn’t reached.

My colleagues and I were amongst approximately 50,000 individuals who participated in and around COP21, of which about 25,000 were official governmental delegates that were involved in the negotiations at Le Bourget, the UN negotiation venue about 45 minutes north of Paris. Other participants included intergovernmental organizations, various UN agencies, nongovernmental organizations and civil society.

I went to Paris because it was something I couldn’t miss. I wanted to witness the energy, solidarity, and action surrounding this once in a lifetime event and participate within the global community that is fighting for climate justice. That being said, I was hired as a freelance consultant to assist with a campaign for Divest-Invest, an organization representing over 500 institutions and individuals with over $3.4 trillion in assets that have pledged to divest those holdings from fossil fuel investments. The group I was working with was very excited, and grateful, for the opportunity to contribute to such an important convening in a rich and magnificent city.

 2. What was it like while you were there? Give us a snapshot into the day to day. 

 It was intense. We arrived exactly two weeks after the Paris terrorist attacks, tensions were high and security around the city was a reminder that Paris had become a modern war zone amidst one of the largest global negotiations to date. Despite the reality of the attacks, over 150 heads of state and government attended the opening session. French President Francois Hollande enthusiastically noted, “Never before did so many heads of state from so many different countries attend a conference. But then again, never have the stakes been so high. It’s about the future of the planet.”

 The tone that the attacks set over the negotiations weighed heavily on everyone but also highlighted the importance of reaching a comprehensive agreement that has the potential to save us from ourselves. Despite various high profile events being cancelled due to security precautions, I think the attacks were a reminder of what we are capable of as a species and how we react to threats on our existence.

 We were there for almost three weeks and our day to day was mostly dependent on which events were going on, what meetings we had and how best we could leverage various networking opportunities. While we were primarily there to produce several events and facilitate meetings for Divest-Invest, we were also strategizing and collaborating with others on what the post-COP21 political and economic landscape is going to look like.

 My good friend Adam Wells is a freelance photographer who also joined us for the trip to tell the behind the scenes story of what was happening around Paris during the negotiations. We would often split the group up to go shoot with Adam for the day, go sightseeing or get some work done at our AirBnB.

Never before did so many heads of state from so many different countries attend a conference. But then again, never have the stakes been so high. It’s about the future of the planet.

 3. Who did you spend your time with? What were the attitudes around climate change with people from different backgrounds/cultures/origins?

 Our core team stayed together in the city and consisted of myself, Adam, Abby Stern (Co-Producer of the American Renewable Energy Day Summit in Snowmass Village, CO), Katie Hoffman and Corie Radka (owners of the Resilience Collaborative, a coalition of entrepreneurs, investors, advisors and strategists that collaborate around various climate projects and event production).

Being from the US we are incredibly insulated from the effects of climate change and the reality of the problem. Further, we are the only society to not fully embrace climate change as a significant threat and also one of the greatest greenhouse gas emitters with China, producing a combined 50% of global emissions.

The attitudes from less developed countries (LDCs) are more urgent because they are much more vulnerable to climate change because, as the UN Development Program states, “they are least able to recover from climate stresses and their economic growth is highly dependent on climate-sensitive sectors.” Moreover, the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), a UN Delegation representing low-lying coastal and small island countries, faces the greatest risk to survival with rising sea levels that may wash entire countries away into the ocean.

 4. Any good anecdotes from your time there? People that really stood out to you?

 My whole experience was overwhelmingly awesome and inspiring, everyone we met was involved in solutions based action around the world. It wasn’t necessarily one person that stood out; it was the collective representation of everyone working towards solving this global dilemma.

One evening we received a message from the U.S. Embassy in Paris notifying travelers of a planned and unauthorized demonstration surrounding the COP21 climate negotiations. Deciding to document the crucial role of civil society’s participation, and understanding the context of this climate pact amidst a declared State of Emergency, we safely ventured towards the designated area. The peaceful and welcoming community-organizing event we discovered was far from the expectation outlined by the State Department.

Instead, down a small side street on the east-side of Paris we were welcomed to large quantities of a potluck vegetarian meal and “anarchists” convening to organize against a development project that aims to construct a commercial airport in their neighborhood. Dating back to the early 1960’s, this project was revitalized as a candidate for spurring economic growth in the Paris suburb back in 2001. Believing this danger as inherently toxic for their community they have been organizing themselves ever since.

The group was alert to the sensitivity surrounding the COP21 negotiations and raised concerns over the legitimacy behind the gathering, citing corporate ‘green-washing’ sponsors as a conflict of interest to the desired outcome. Being local delegates of action they believed it necessary to be vocal advocates and stakeholders. Further, the community members expressed appreciation for the free publicity complimentary of the United States State Department.

5. Why do you view these talks as so significant?

We are now living in a time referred to as the Anthropocene, where human activity is having significant geological and ecological impacts across the world. These effects are the direct result of our contribution to increased greenhouse gas emissions, through burning fossil fuels and modern agriculture.

A report released by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in September 2014 outlines our global ‘carbon budget’, the estimated amount of carbon the world can emit while still having a chance of limiting global temperature rise to 2C from pre-industrial levels. This budget, of about 1 trillion tons of carbon (1,000 PgC), has been 52% consumed as of 2011, after total emissions exceeded 515 PgC from pre-Industrial levels.  To ensure that we are able to cap warming at 2C, emissions will need to peak by the year 2020 and be reduced 50% by 2040, which equates to levels reached in the 1960s.

Thus, just over four years remain to stabilize the emissions of a fossil fuel industry that has dominated energy markets for over 50 years and is valued at over $5 trillion. These geopolitical manipulating corporations control remaining fossil fuel reserves that must remain in the ground for this 30-year budget to be a reasonable attempt at avoiding moderate to severe climate anomalies.  

 The talks in Paris were focused around reaching an agreement that keeps global temperature rise within this 2C threshold. The good news is that countries agreed to limit temperature rise to 1.5C, the bad news is that the agreement is not legally binding. The agreement reached was a reasonable first step, but there is much more work to do to keep 1.5C a reality.

Lastly, there must be a price on carbon if we want to maintain this trajectory. As soon as carbon has a fair price point on global markets we will see true technological innovation, political inspiration and systemic adjustments in the production, management and use of energy across the globe.

6. What is the value in younger people being involved in events such as this?

Climate change is the greatest risk that we face as a species, and the past year and a half has heralded a major shift in climate consciousness across the globe. The People’s Climate March in September 2014 was a testament to the scale of which we find great concern with inaction, with almost 400,000 people marching in the streets of NYC. Last summer the Pope’s Encyclical urged the human race to start recognizing the impacts that we are having on the earth and to correct ourselves for the sake of humanity.

As millennials we have evolved with the advent of the internet, unprecedented technological innovation and hyper connectivity unimagined by our parents’ generation at our age.  As of this past July our generation now represents a larger population than the baby boomers, leaving us with the responsibility to develop and scale climate solutions. Physically representing values and action in person by taking to the streets and demonstrating is what made the Civil Rights and Anti-apartheid movements successful. We can rely on technology and the internet as a tool, but analogue representation is much more powerful.

Kate WeinerComment