Why I’m going to the climate conference in Paris

Note: I submitted this column to the Columbus Dispatch a week before my trip to the COP21 climate conference in Paris.  They asked me for a photo to go with it, but never published it.  I include it here because it is a good explanation of why I decided to go.

Headlines about climate change greet us daily. Just last week in the Columbus Dispatch, we learned that a melting glacier in Greenland could boost sea levels almost two feet (“Sliding glacier could raise sea levels by 20 inches,” 11/14); last month was the hottest October on record (“Absurdly hot October as Earth sets 8th heat record this year,” 11/18); and ocean temperatures have reached a new high (“Ocean warming tops previous El Nino record,” 11/19).

In Ohio, former state climatologist Jeffrey Rogers tells us that climate change has increased instances of extreme weather, leading to more rain coupled with more periods of drought, higher temperatures, and greater windstorms (“Map shows weather is worsening, group says,” 11/13).

COP21 logoThe ongoing urgency of climate change is why next week I will travel to Paris to participate in events surrounding the United Nations climate talks. As a volunteer for Ohio Sierra Club, Citizens Climate Lobby, and Climate Reality Project, I will be staffing booths in the civil society section of the conference; attending debates, workshops, screenings and presentations on climate change risks and solutions; and reporting on events through blogs, social media and online video. And yes, I will offset the carbon emitted by my flight through a purchase at NativeEnergy Travel Offsets.

As this one week of headlines shows, climate change is one of the most pressing problems of our time. Climate scientists agree that if left unaddressed, climate change would destabilize the Earth’s environment, making parts of the planet virtually uninhabitable for humans and many other species by the end of the century. Nor can the solutions to climate change wait. Physics doesn’t care about politics, which puts addressing climate change on a non-negotiable timeline.

The good news is that most observers expect the Paris climate conference to rise to the challenge. Throughout the year, nations have held a series of meetings leading up to the Paris talks, and so far 168 countries have made “intended nationally determined contributions,” or pledges to reduce their carbon emissions. If all nations come to an agreement on lowering carbon emissions in Paris, it will be a historic first, as past UN climate conferences have covered only developed countries.  This year the agreement is expected to cover developing countries too.

The momentum for the Paris climate talks began a year ago when President Obama announced a historic deal on lowering carbon emissions with China. The United States, relying largely on the EPA Clean Power Plan, agreed to lower emissions 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. China agreed to peak emissions and get 20 percent of its energy from renewables by 2030. China is closing coal plants, building solar plants, and will launch a cap-and-trade program next year.

One mark of momentum going into the Paris climate talks is that this year for the first time, 100 world leaders will arrive on the opening day of the conference, rather than waiting until the last minute to swoop in and try to hammer out an agreement. Everyone wants to avoid the failure of the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009 when leaders could not agree and the talks fell apart.

Scientists and policymakers have set 2 degrees Celsius as the maximum we can warm the planet without destabilizing the environment, and some think the limit is 1.5 degrees C. Will the expected agreement at the Paris climate conference bring emissions down far enough? Most observers think probably not. The Earth has already warmed almost a degree since the Industrial Revolution, with about a half-degree more locked in due to the long half-life of carbon.

But what a climate agreement among all nations would do is provide a baseline to start, so that negotiators can then continue to move the ball forward. One proposal being discussed is a requirement for nations to revisit their pledges every five years, which would provide a platform for pushing them to continue doing more until we are within a safe threshold for climate.

By going to Paris, I hope to help make a difference in this process. As one person, I can vote, contact my legislators, and organize local meetings and events – all of which I do. But by banding together with thousands of others from around the world, I can contribute to making a strong statement to world leaders that their citizens want them to take action on this crisis.

Cathy Cowan Becker is on the executive committee of Sierra Club Central Ohio Group, co-leader of Citizens Climate Lobby Columbus Chapter, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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