Witnessing – and making — history in Paris

Note: This is an article I published about my experiences at the Paris climate conference in the newsletter for the Sierra Club Central Ohio Group (pdf). 

In December I traveled to Paris as part of the Sierra Club delegation to the COP 21 climate conference.  The conference marked a turning point for humanity, resulting in an agreement by almost 200 countries signaling that the age of fossil fuels is over.

Although I did not have a badge for the actual climate negotiations – the United Nations issued many fewer badges than usual this year – Sierra Club members got daily reports from Fred Heutte, lead volunteer for the Federal and International Climate Campaign.

That left most of us free to attend civil society events and actions – and there were a lot. Throughout the two weeks, the Sierra Club had a booth at Climate Generations, the space next to the negotiations where hundreds of organizations had displays, and as many as eight speakers and panels on climate were going on simultaneously.

There were also dozens of meetings, festivals, actions, and other events occurring daily throughout Paris – sometimes it was hard just hearing about them all. There was no way to attend everything – you had to choose.  But no matter what you picked, it would be good.

The hostel where I stayed, called Place to B, had daily programs featuring speakers such as James Hansen, Vandana Shiva, and Amy Goodman.  There were also numerous side conferences such as UNESCO’s Earth to Paris, featuring an all-star lineup of scientists and activists and an interview with Secretary of State John Kerry; and the Climate Summit for Local Leaders, at which 1,000 mayors pledged to take their cities 100 percent renewable by 2050.

Here are some highlights from my time in Paris:

1.5 degrees. Although most observers expected participating countries to agree to limit warming to 2°C, almost no one anticipated the momentum to lower that limit to 1.5°C.  It started with a call from climate vulnerable countries led by the Marshall Islands. Then France and Germany joined, then Canada and Australia, then the United States and China.

In the end, all countries pledged to limit warming to “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels” and “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.”

Indigenous peoples. Indigenous people from around the world were key players in many events such as an anti-fracking summit and a conference on women at the frontlines of climate change.

They also led the Indigenous Flotilla, featuring the Canoe of Life which traveled from the Amazon.  Dozens of indigenous people canoed and kayaked into Bassin de la Villette to present world governments with their “Living Forest” proposal drawing from indigenous experience to live in harmony with nature.

Rights of nature. A two-day International Rights of Nature Tribunal explored the rights of nature as a legal concept and how they might be defended in a series of cases against violators of those rights.  Cases included:

  • Climate crimes against nature such as fossil fuels, deforestation, and water use;
  • Financialization of nature, including carbon trading and REDD;
  • Agribusiness and GMOs;
  • Criminalization of environmental activism and murders of activists;
  • Shale fracking operations, which speakers argued was akin to rape of the earth;
  • Megadams in Brazil that destroy ecosystems and displace indigenous people;
  • Ecocide through oil operations in Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park.

Trade and climate. Throughout the two weeks were events on trade, unions, jobs, and climate, emphasizing that while addressing climate change through renewable energy creates jobs, bad trade deals destroy both jobs and climate. The culmination was a general assembly at the Climate Action Zone on “Capitalism and Climate” featuring Naomi Klein.

While climate agreements are not legally binding, Klein said, trade deals such as NAFTA and the TPP are not only binding but would allow corporations to sue to overturn laws protecting the climate that hurt their profits.  The trade and climate movements should work together to defeat this, she said.

Exxon trials. There were two mock trials of Exxon similar to the successful RICO case against tobacco corporations by the Justice Department. A recent investigation by Inside Climate News shows that Exxon was conducting some of the foremost climate science in the 1970s and 80s, but in the 1990s chose to bury this information and instead fund climate denial campaigns.

In the first trial, held at the People’s Climate Summit, Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein called a series of witnesses affected by climate change to show the damage that Exxon’s denial campaigns have done. The second event featured Matt Pawa, an environmental attorney who has won cases against Exxon and AEP, building a RICO case based on recently released documents.

On and off police actions. Before COP 21 started, French authorities banned large climate marches due to the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris. The attacks were still fresh when I arrived. Massive numbers of flowers, candles, photos, and other mementos were placed around the statue of Marianne at Place de la Republique as well as in front of and across several blocks near the Bataclan club, where most of the victims lost their lives.

I was taking photos at Place de la Republique on November 29 when police cracked down on a few hundred demonstrators, and I was nearly swept up. By December 12, thousands of activists were flooding the streets, and French authorities finally relented and gave them a permit.  The result was a beautiful Red Lines demonstration organized by 350.org.

The climate conference in Paris was historic, not only for the agreement it produced, but for the breadth, depth, and global nature of events and actions surrounding it. I feel privileged to have participated in these events and witnessed history being made.

Saturday, December 12 – We have an agreement

Today was my travel day back to the United States. It was also the day that the final draft of the Paris Agreement was to be released — and the day thousands of climate activists had vowed to flood the streets of Paris in defiance of a ban on demonstrations by the French government — both happening around noon.  With my flight from Paris to New York leaving at 10:30 a.m., I was in the air for nine hours, plus an additional six hours due to changes in time zone – putting me out of communication for a crucial 15 hours.

Lots of legroom in business class

Lots of legroom in business class

Fortunately I was able to upgrade to business class for the long flight, which meant I could actually sleep a few hours after staying up very late packing,  But by the time I landed in New York at 8 p.m. Paris time, 2 p.m. local time, I was desperate for information.  My friends on social media were only too happy to supply it.  The negotiators at COP21 had reached an agreement — by most accounts a good one.  The French government at the last minute had issued a permit to climate activists.  My feed was flooded with stories and analysis about the historic Paris Agreement, my email was overflowing with reactions from NGO groups, and my friends were posting photos and videos from the day’s events.


The photos and videos from the demonstrations organized by 350.org and others are amazing, and remind me of the 2014 People’s Climate March in New York City.  I am so glad that the French government finally came to its senses and allowed people to express themselves.  Perhaps they had no choice, as literally tens of thousands of activists were in the streets, and there would be no way to arrest even a small percentage.  Perhaps this chain of events shows people like Naomi Klein know more about activism than I do.  When she urged people to take to the streets in mass numbers, they did, and they won.  I was now sorry that I couldn’t get an extra day at Place to B, but then I’m also glad to be home.

My Paris flight landed 45 minutes late in New York, giving me only half an hour to go through customs, collect my luggage and recheck it, get to the other side of the airport, go back through security, and find my gate.  I got there two minutes before the plane was to take off, but it was already gone.  It took me awhile to rouse up someone at an American Airlines counter to rebook me, and when I did they were incredibly rude.  Air travel has become extremely stressful and unpleasant.  On the other hand, the three-hour wait for the next flight gave me time to get a good dinner and catch up on all the COP 21 news and reactions.  Here is some of what I found.

Paris Agreement

UNFCCC – Final agreement

UNFCCC – Press release

Video – Fabius bangs gavel on COP21

President Obama – Video statement

White House  – Press release

Ban Ki Moon – Statement

Saturday actions

350.org – Video

350.org – Photos

Citizens Voice – Video

Greenpeace – Video

Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben – Facebook live

News stories 

The New York Times – Nations Approve Landmark Climate Accord in Paris, by Coral Davenport

The Washington Post – 196 countries approve history climate agreement, by Joby Warrick and Chris Mooney

Politico – The one word that almost sank the climate talks, by Andrew Restuccia

Think Progress – In Historic Paris Climate Deal, World Unanimously Agrees To Not Burn Most Fossil Fuels, by Joe Romm

Mother Jones – Breaking: World Leaders Just Agreed to a Landmark Deal to Fight Global Warming, by Tim McDonnell and James West

Guardian – Paris climate deal: nearly 200 nations sign in end of fossil fuel era, by Suzanne Goldenberg et al

Al Jazeera – World leaders make history with climate deal in Paris

BBC – COP21 climate change summit reaches deal in Paris

Carbon Brief – Analysis: The Final Paris climate deal


Sierra Club – Sierra Club on the Paris Climate Agreement: “A Turning Point For Humanity”

Citizens Climate Lobby – With Paris agreement adopted, climate action begins in earnest

James Hansen – James Hansen, father of climate change awareness, calls Paris talks ‘a fraud’

Bill McKibben – World leaders adopt 1.5 C goal — and we’re damn well going to hold them to it

Climate Action Network –  Civil society responds as final Paris Climate Agreement released

International Council for Science – Top scientists weigh in on current draft of Paris climate agreement

The Conversation – Historic Paris climate pact reached: Experts react

After 22 hours of travel, I am happy to be home.

After 22 hours of travel, I am happy to be home.

Thursday, December 10 – State Department warning and Naomi Klein

Today started with an email from the U.S. State Department warning me that the French government is likely to crack down on climate demonstrations planned for Saturday.  As it happened, my plane flight home was scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Saturday, so I can’t take part in this anyway.  Knowing that UN climate negotiations have a history of going over by a day, I asked Place to B before my trip if I could stay until Sunday.  But they said they had another event starting Saturday and would not have room, and I didn’t want to try to find a place to stay in Paris for just one night.

COP21 edSo I scheduled my flight to return home Saturday, and now I am just as glad. I nearly got swept up at Place de la Republique my first day here, and do not want to try my luck again.  It sounds as if there will be mass arrests not only at Place de la Republique but also Le Bourget.  Although I respect each person’s decision about practicing civil disobedience, and under the right circumstances I might decide to do so myself, I am not interested in getting arrested in France.

I spent the day in a low-key way trying to catch up on news from the Blue Zone and touch base with my friends back home though social media.   The truth is, I have been here 12 days and am ready to go home — but negotiations over the agreement are entering a crucial phase, and I want to see this through.  Yesterday at 3 p.m. the UNFCCC released its latest version of the draft text — to the pleasure of no one.  Many important areas of disagreement still have not been hammered out — for example, there are still three options regarding temperature target, and some of them still have brackets.  Activists staged a huge sit-in near the replica of the Eiffel Tower in the Blue Zone while negotiators stayed up most of the night working on the text, with another draft due today.  I’m thankful that Amy Goodman with Democracy Now is inside reporting on events.

I also got news from back home of a Senate hearing organized by Ted Cruz this week on “Data or Dogma? Promoting Open Inquiry in the Debate over the Magnitude of Human Impact on Earth’s Climate” —  featuring testimony from a right-wing radio host and three of the only scientists in the world who disagree with the 97 percent consensus that climate change is real and caused by humans chiefly through burning of fossil fuels.  Cruz’s stance on climate change is to claim that his denial is based on science, even though pretty much every scientific academy in the United States and across the rest of the world disagrees.

merchantsofdoubtHowever, Greenpeace had a surprise going into this hearing.  Earlier it conducted an investigation in which its agents posed as representatives of a Middle Eastern oil company and offered one of the witnesses, William Happer, professor emeritus of physics at Princeton, $250 an hour in exchange for a research paper touting the benefits of carbon dioxide.  The parties even discussed how to route the money through a nonprofit called Donors Trust, known for its support of climate denial, so that Happer could state he was not paid for the research.  Happer bragged that he had been paid $8,000 by Peabody Coal in exchange for testimony at regulatory hearings in Minnesota, and that he had donated the funds to CO2 Coalition, run by a man with ties to the George C. Marshall Institute, Competitive Enterprise Institute, and American Petroleum Institute.

Just before the hearing, Greenpeace confronted Happer personally, and it was this footage I saw today.  While I wish such investigations were not necessary, unfortunately right now they are.  Scholars such as Robert Brulle and Riley Dunlap have documented the vast network of dark money front groups that fund climate change denial — groups that are completely legal under our current system because they don’t have to disclose their donors, but which are used to mislead the public based on a model pioneered by the tobacco industry.  The subject has gotten comprehensive treatment in Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, now available as a documentary.

Oreskes and Conway argue that climate denial is not about science but about politics, and is rooted in free-market fundamentalism that has transferred the old Cold War mentality of fighting Communism to fighting environmentalism.  Despite the emphasis on money, Oreskes and Conway think that the few scientists involved with climate denial front groups are motivated not by money but by ideology.  This makes sense in Happer’s case, as he was donating any money he got to a climate denial front group.

3,000 people ready to hear Naomi Klein.

3,000 people ready to hear Naomi Klein.

Today in Paris I decided to visit the Climate Action Zone, or ZAC, held in the Centquartre, an arts complex located near the basin where the indigenous flotilla took place.  It is yet another multi-day conference held in conjunction with the negotiations at COP21.  ZAC started on Monday, but today is the first day I was able to get there.  Each day ends with a general assembly, and tonight’s assembly featuring Naomi Klein was on “Capitalism Against Climate: How Free Trade Agreements Undermine Climate Actions.”  This time I heard about the event in advance because the Sierra Club is a co-sponsor through its campaign on trade and climate, and we were asked to tweet from the event.

Naomi Klein speaks at the Climate Action Zone.

Naomi Klein speaks at the Climate Action Zone.

The Centquartre, or “104” turned out to be an enormous open building — which was good because 3,000 people were already there to see Klein when I arrived 15 minutes early.  I had wanted to get there earlier, but had a hard time finding a place to eat in the area.  There were few restaurants, and the one I found through Yelp turned out to be closed – but fortunately another one was open across the street where I got a delicious potato-cheese casserole with a side salad for about 12 euros.  Up and down each side of the main auditorium were large climate banners and posters, and I managed to find a place to stand on some steps in the back where I could see proceedings.

Naomi Klein kicked off the event with a 20-minute talk on trade and climate.  Calling the rise of awareness about climate change coupled with the rise in multinational trade agreements an “epic case of bad timing,” Klein gave examples of cases in which trade agreements allowed corporations to sue governments to stop projects that would be good for climate – a solar plant in Quebec and community ownership of power plants in Germany.  She argued that the Kyoto accord contained express provisions stating that trade agreements trump climate agreements, and that while the United States was insisting the Paris agreement not be legally binding, fossil fuel corporations were heavily involved in insisting that trade agreements such as the TPP be as binding as possible.  My Citizens Voice colleague Jeremy Lent was there and recorded her talk.

Also speaking was German climate activist Tadzio Mueller; Ilana Solomon of the Sierra Club Responsible Trade program, and Joseph Purugganan, a climate activist from the Philippines.  Mueller discussed how the trade and climate movements don’t talk to each other but should.  Here is video of his talk from Jeremy Lent of Citizens Voice:

Panelists for “Capitalism Against Climate: How Free Trade Agreements Undermine Climate Actions.”

Panelists for “Capitalism Against Climate: How Free Trade Agreements Undermine Climate Actions.”

The event made me think a lot more about the crossover between trade agreements and climate.  I disagree with Klein’s implication that the Paris Agreement needed to be binding, because that would require it go before the U.S. Senate, which as we know would never approve it. The world cannot afford for the United States to pull out of this agreement as it did from Kyoto.  On the other hand, I did not know about the rules allowing trade to trump climate, and believe we will need to take action to ensure trade does not multiply greenhouse-gas emissions or that corporations can sue to dismantle climate programs and regulations to guard their own interests.

After the trade and climate event, I walked to Generator Hostel to catch the discussion after their showing of Groundswell Rising.  I got there as a doctor with Physicians for Social Responsibility was discussing the health aspects of fracking.  This is what ultimately got Gov. Cuomo to ban fracking in New York, and has not been seriously considered by states like Ohio where fracking is rampant.  Several British fracking activists were present, including Maria from Scotland, and they made plans to have a tour of the movie there.  I also met a former fracking worker named Ray from Dimmock, Penn., the epicenter of fracking problems in the United States.  He was featured in Josh Fox’s Gasland and knows every anti-fracking celebrity in the book.  Discussion went so long that there was not a second showing of the film, so I hope to catch it another time.

Saturday, December 5 – ADP, People’s Climate Summit, Sierra Club dinner

This morning the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP) released its draft negotiating text. This text is basically what last year’s negotiators in Durban are handing off to this year’s negotiators in Paris for finalizing a climate agreement that starts in 2020. The text started with a lot of alternatives in brackets — for example [1.5C] or [well below 2C] — and it was the job this week of the Durban committee to wheedle those brackets down before handing the text off to Paris . They got about half the brackets decided, but many others including the choices on temperature target remain.

One controversy arose in the wake of the new negotiating text: the rights of indigenous people, which had been mentioned in Article 2.2, were removed and put into the preamble. Even worse, this was done at the request of Norway and the United States.  Indigenous groups were furious because they are among the people most affected by climate change.  Article 2 is important because it explains the purpose of the agreement and how it will be implemented.

Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network discussed this with my Citizens Voice colleague Jeremy Lent:

Here is how Article 2.2 looked going into the negotiations:

[This Agreement shall be implemented on the basis of equity and science, in [full] accordance with the principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities[, in the light of national circumstances] [the principles and provisions of the Convention], while ensuring the integrity and resilience of natural ecosystems, [the integrity of Mother Earth, the protection of health, a just transition of the workforce and creation of decent work and quality jobs in accordance with nationally defined development priorities] and the respect, protection, promotion and fulfillment of human rights for all, including indigenous peoples, including the right to health and sustainable development, [including the right of people under occupation] and to ensure gender equality and the full and equal participation of women, [and intergenerational equity].]

And here is how it looked coming out of the ADP:

[This Agreement shall be implemented on the basis of equity and science, and in accordance with the principle of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances, and on the basis of respect for human rights and the promotion of gender equality [and the right of peoples under occupation].]

Rockstrom's original nine planetary boundaries.

Rockstrom’s original nine planetary boundaries.

Today was Action Day at COP 21.  Inside the Blue Zone, negotiators got to hear from people like Al Gore, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Johan Rockstrom, of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, whose pivotal 2009 paper in Nature established the idea of planetary boundaries.  Outside the Blue Zone – in fact, outside the entire planet – astronauts aboard the International Space Station sent a message to negotiators.

Meanwhile I decided to visit the People’s Climate Summit and Global Village of Alternatives, a two-day festival in the Montreuil suburb of Paris sponsored by Climate Coalition 21.  For people from Columbus, imagine a version of Comfest in which everything centers around climate and environment — then translate it all into French.  There were sections on agriculture, energy, education, industry, culture, economy, biodiversity, and more covering about 12 city blocks.

This tree was held hundreds of ribbons expressing what people did not want to lose to climate disruption.

This tree was held hundreds of ribbons expressing what people did not want to lose to climate disruption.

On entering the festival, I was greeted by a large wooden tree with hundreds of ribbons in all colors hanging from its branches.  The idea was to write something close to your heart that you did not want to lose to climate disruption  on a blank ribbon. Then you would tie that ribbon somewhere on the tree and take a ribbon that someone else had left that connected with you.  My ribbon said “The creeks, mountains, and forests of Northwest Arkansas,” where I grew up and first learned to love nature. The one I took said “Sequoia National Park and all the beautiful trees in California.”

Some of the alternative living arrangements on display included styrofoam packaging that had been refashioned to grow plants, hanging art made from plastic bottles and other trash, and composting toilets that used sawdust rather than flushing with water. There were lots of food booths, lots of book booths, and lots of art.  One particularly memorable piece of art was a huge replica of the Statue of Liberty with steam coming out of her lantern and the words “Freedom to Pollute” on her tablet.

Hanging art made from trash

Hanging art made from trash

There were also interesting actions.  People on a bicycle built for four pedaled through the crowds.  The Greenpeace polar bear wandered about, at one point with little kids trying to pull his tail.  At another point, several people in mock hazmat suits and hardhats came through the streets pushing large barrels marked as containing oil.  They would try to get people in the crowd to drink the oil, proclaiming it perfectly safe and pretending to drink it themselves, but then spitting it out.

Unfortunately for me, even though the website for the summit was in English, pretty much all the displays were in French so I couldn’t get a deep understanding of what a lot of them were about.  However, there was no misunderstanding one woman who ran after me after I took a photo at her booth.  For the second time on this trip, someone did not want me to take their picture – but in this case she was worried that I might be police or some sort of spy.  When it became clear that I was just a tourist she lightened up, but told me that I needed to ask permission before taking any more photos.

This Statue of Liberty proclaims Freedom to Pollute.

This Statue of Liberty proclaims Freedom to Pollute.

After that I was not sure what to do.  In the United States, this would be considered a public event and I would have a constitutional right to take photos.  But now I was in another country that was on edge having just been through a terrorist attack.  I walked around without taking photos for awhile, then saw a woman with a nice DSL camera.  I asked her if she spoke English, and she did, so then I told her what happened and asked if I really needed to ask permission to take photos in a setting like this.  “Absolutely not,” she said, apologizing for how I had been treated.  I didn’t need the apology, but was relieved to find out the problem was one irritated person, not French law.  I ended up talking with the photographer, whose name is Chris Dyn, for about half an hour about climate, environment, agriculture, and diet, and we became Facebook friends.

summit poster

By then it was closing in on 5 p.m., and I needed to be at a dinner for the Sierra Club delegation at 6 p.m., so I started off. While riding the train back to the central part of Paris, I was checking social media only to find a post about an event that had started at 4 p.m. at the summit I had just left: Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein were holding a mock trial of Exxon in which they were calling a number of important people as witnesses, including the climate scientist Jason Box.  How had I not seen or heard about that??  I would have gone if I had known, but it was not on the event lists for either Sierra Club or Citizens Climate Lobby.

Later I found out that the mock trial had been announced through the CAN email list, but since it literally takes two to three hours to go through all that email each day, I had not seen it.  Fortunately there are a number of news accounts from Desmog Blog, Climate Home,  National Observer, Santa Barbara Independent and World Report Now.  350.org also posted a video with highlights from the event.

The Sierra Club held its Saturday dinner at a restaurant near Generator Hostel in Paris.

The Sierra Club held its Saturday dinner at a restaurant near Generator Hostel in Paris.

Once back in Paris, I went to the Sierra Club dinner at a restaurant near Generator Hostel, where most people in the Sierra Student Coalition were staying.  I had invited my Climate Reality colleague John Davis to attend, and he was able to make some connections with people in the Sierra Club.  After dinner I talked with the producer and director of a new film about fracking called Groundswell Rising.  It turned out they were staying at Place to B, so we all ended up catching a cab ride back there together.

Wednesday, December 2 – CCEN launch, Eiffel Tower

I woke up this morning feeling pretty awful.  I’ve had migraines all week, and today’s was bad.  I had hoped to make it to a 10 a.m. presentation by the Healthy Climate Project, a workstream within the Citizens Climate Engagement Network, itself a project of Citizens Climate Lobby and Citizens Climate Education which seeks to engage citizen input into the intergovernmental climate negotiating process.  Healthy Climate Project would be discussing what a healthy climate should look like and how we can get there — but I wasn’t able to get there due to a crippling migraine that only got better with a long breakfast, medication, and shower.  Thank goodness my doctor had gotten the insurance company to pay for extra prescription Imitrex, which is the only thing that helps these headaches.  At the rate I am going through it since coming to Paris, I may run out.

Sarabeth Brockley, global strategy advisor for Citizens Climate Engagement Network, speaks at its launch.

Sarabeth Brockley, global strategy advisor for Citizens Climate Engagement Network, speaks at its launch.

For the afternoon I had two choices: I could go to Naomi Klein’s Leap Manifesto, which was pulling in hundreds of people but somehow still had seats, or to the launch of Citizens Climate Engagement Network.  I chose the latter for three reasons: one, because the Leap Manifesto was centered mainly on Canada; two, because it started earlier than CCEN and I was still dragging; and three, because Joe Robertson, the global strategies director for Citizens Climate Lobby, really wanted everyone to come to the launch of CCEN.  Since I am co-leader of the CCL chapter in Columbus, I felt that if there was one CCL event I needed to attend, it was this.  But for those interested in the Leap Manifesto, you can find more information at Democracy NowHuffington Post, and Guardian, and you can read the 15 Demands and sign the manifesto here.

I did make it to the CCEN launch.  The event ran from 1 until 3:30 p.m. and gave me a chance to connect with more of the CCL people in Paris.  Here is what it included:

  • Review of finalized Governance Strategy for the CCEN.
  • Review of the state of play in global negotiations.
  • Review of perspectives on carbon pricing principles, and strategies to use those principles to build value in any economic environment.
  • Participatory working session among attendees.
  • Insights from partners around the world.
  • Announcement of first organizations and agencies to join the Advisory Coalition.
  • Report from Citizens’ Voice team and first days of COP21 Workstreams.
  • Climate poetry, ethics discussion, and sharing of goals for 2016.

Several of the speakers stood out:

  • Joe Robertson, CCL’s director of global strategy, explained what Citizens Climate Engagement Network is and what it does.
  • Sarabeth Brockley, CCEN’s global strategy advisor who also works at the United Nations as a policy analyst for the sustainable development goals, gave us an outline of negotiations.
  • Peter Joseph of the CCL Marin County chapter, explained how pricing carbon can turn the economy from incentivizing all the wrong things to incentivizing the right ones.
  • Jerome Chladek, a marine biologist from Germany, explained the little-known role of oceans in regulating the climate and how our oceans are in trouble.
  • Peter Fiekowsky explained the Healthy Climate Project, so even though I didn’t make it to the event in the morning, I still got some information.
  • Claire Richer talked about Citizens Voice, a video news site for COP 21 to which many of the people in the room were contributing.
  • Several of the CCEN interns spoke including Isatis Citron, Morgan Wood, and Stephen Stoddard spoke.
  • And finally the event wrapped up with readings by three amazing poets talking about climate justice and the unequal effects of climate change on their families.  Their recitation at first felt like a slap in the face, but as they spoke, I came to realize the true human injustices that climate change entails.

Mindy Ahler and Paul Thompson of the Citizens Voice team streamed the entire CCEN launch live, and you can see their video here.  The volume is a little low at times.  You can also see just the three poets here.  You can also see my video of the event, which is of higher quality but unfortunately does not include the poets – my video camera battery died just before they came on.  You can also read a CCL blog post by Sarabeth Brockley with more information about the event and the poets.

After the CCEN launch, I made plans with several team members to cover panels at the Climate Generations space tomorrow, which is Oceans Day.  Then I went out walking in the neighborhood, which was the beautiful Bastille section of Paris.  There were lots of shops and restaurants, but what I needed at the moment was a place to buy some supplies that I had forgotten to pack.  I looked for a grocery store for about 45 minutes before thinking to check it on google.  It turned out there were several within a few blocks — they were just not well marked, perhaps to maintain the historic flavor of the neighborhood.  Once in the store I found what I needed, then looked for something to eat.  I found a small restaurant serving a fixed price meal with an entree (which in France is the appetizer — the entree to the meal), a main dish called a plat, and a dessert.

The meal gave me a chance to catch up on all the email from the CAN listservs and all the news coming out of the climate conference.  It also gave me a chance to simply rest.  I still was not feeling well, and as a consequence had not been able to contribute to Citizens Voice with much other than some social media posts and tweets.


After a leisurely dinner, I decided that if nothing else in Paris, I wanted to see the Eiffel Tower, and I had read that it would host a special light show during COP 21.  So I mapped out how to get there and studied the metro routes.  It looked like I would have to take three separate trains to get there from where I was, including one regional train, which as I had found out yesterday going to the COP 21 conference costs more than the internal city metro ride.  I was up for it.  At each stop I had to figure out where to go to catch the right train and get on it going the right way.  But I did it, and never did I feel unsafe traveling by myself even though it was closing in on 9 p.m.

The Eiffel Tower and its light show did not disappoint.  The tower is breathtaking — and huge.  There were no crowds by that time of night, although there was the ever-present police patrol.  I walked all around the area and underneath the tower.  I can see why it was considered an engineering marvel when it was built for the World’s Fair in 1889, and still is today.  The detail in the lattice work is incredible.  The four legs it rests on are huge, and underneath its belly hangs a large ball.  It has two sets of elevators, one to take you to restaurants and shops on the equivalent of the 17th floor, and one to take you to the top, which is the equivalent of about 81 stories.  You can also take the stairs.

I did not go up the tower, but I did take two videos of the light show, one from right below and one from across the Seine.  I also walked along the bridge across the Seine where there were two long rows of plaques discussing climate change, and watched the riverboats full of tourists cruising up and down.  I got a snack at a food stand across from the tower, then reversed the metro trip to head back to Place to B hostel.  All in all, especially given how I had been feeling, it was a worthwhile day.

Tuesday, December 1 – Green Zone opens

Now that the Opening Ceremonies and Leaders Event for COP 21 are over, the facility has opened for the rest of us.  There are two main parts to the conference headquarters. First is the Blue Zone, where the actual negotiations take place.  You have to have a badge to get into the Blue Zone, which I do not have. In the past, I am told, the United Nations has been pretty generous in issuing badges to observer organizations such as Sierra Club, but this year they were not.  Sierra Club had about 70 members coming to Paris, but they got only 10 badges.  This meant that only certain staff members and the highest-level volunteers could get in.  Citizens Climate Lobby had badges only for Joe Robertson and the global strategies advisor Sarabeth Brockley, who works for the United Nations.  Climate Reality had no badges for anyone but Al Gore and president Ken Berlin.

Wind trees create power from wind near COP 21.

Wind trees create power from wind near COP 21.

I knew going into the conference that getting into the Blue Zone was unlikely barring a last-minute miracle. For example, a couple of times someone posted on the CAN listserv that their group had an extra badge, but invariably it was snatched up within minutes.  Even knowing this, I decided to go anyway. I was on the fence until the Sustainability conference in October at Ohio State. Among the speakers was Andrew Light, staff climate adviser in the Office of Policy Planning for the U.S. Department of State.  Light had acted as a negotiator at several COPs, so he knew first-hand what it was like.  He told me that watching the actual negotiations was incredibly boring, and that most of the action was in the civil society section of the conference.  He described the hope he felt walking through the enormous civil society section which housed organization after organization working on some aspect of addressing climate change.  That made me decide that even without a badge to the Blue Zone, I could get a lot out of attending.

Entrance to Climate Generations.

Entrance to Climate Generations.

The civil society section of COP 21 was called Climate Generations, also known as the Green Zone.  That is where the Sierra Club had a booth set up, so today I set out to see the Green Zone and meet the people at the Sierra Club booth.  Getting to COP 21 from my hostel was pretty involved, but there were people in green jackets at the Gare du Nord train station to provide directions.  First I had to buy tickets for Line B of the regional train, known as RER, which were more expensive than regular metro tickets.  I had to take that train to the Le Bourget stop, then catch a free shuttle to the COP 21 headquarters.  Once I got off the shuttle, I had to walk over to the Green Zone.

Once arriving at the Climate Generations space, I had to go through airport-like security screening. They had about a dozen lines, and I didn’t get there until the afternoon, so lines were short.  Finally I was in the Green Zone.  It was a huge building, the size of an airline hangar, with all the facilities set up just for this conference.  Coming in there was a coat check, a station to recharge electronics, and an area of tables to meet at.  Down most of one side was a large auditorium and a series of seven meeting rooms.  These would be filled every day with panels, discussions, and other events.  Then there were various performance spaces and three different areas for civil society booths.

Sierra Club booth

Sierra Club booth in the Climate Generations space. From left to right are President Obama (in cardboard anyway); Glen Besa, Virginia chapter; Jim Dougherty, national board; and Tyla Matteson, Virginia Chapter.

I was wondering how to find the Sierra Club booth when I happened across area C, which housed about 50 booths, and saw that its map included the Sierra Club.  So I went in to say hi, and met several of the people who I would become friends with during the course of the trip.  These included Glen Besa and his wife Tyla Matteson from the Virginia chapter, Jim Dougherty who is on the national board, and Steven Sondheim from Tennessee who was in charge of staffing the booth.  These four were the mainstays of the Sierra Club booth and ended up doing the lion’s share of work staffing it.  Beside the booth was a life-size cutout figure of Obama, which people kept wanting to get their pictures with.

I had not had lunch, but lines at the restaurants were so long that I decided to skip it. My Sierra Club colleagues told me that this is how it always works the first day — the vendors just don’t seem to be able to handle the crowds.  Lines for food were at least an hour and sometimes two hours long. Tyla shared some of her croissant with me, and we all decided in the future to pick up food at the train station and bring it with us to the Green Zone.  I did walk around and get some photos around the building, and I located the all important bathrooms and water filling stations.  As a souvenir each booth got COP 21 water bottles to hand out, and I accepted mine gratefully.

James Hansen surrounded by media after his talk at Place to B.

James Hansen surrounded by media after his talk at Place to B.

Tonight was an important event at Place to B.  Each night from 6 to 8 p.m. the hostel has programmed special guest panels for a feature called Place to Brief, and tonight’s panel included Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything, and former NASA scientist James Hansen, known for testifying about climate change before Congress in 1988.  I knew the CCL people would be there to see Hansen as he is on the CCL board.  I wanted to see both, as did others from the Sierra Club.  Steven and I left the Green Zone a little after 5 p.m., but transportation took so long that we didn’t get to Place to B until right at 6 — and the downstairs area where Place to Brief happens was completely full.

James Hansen and Sustaina Claus at Place to B.

James Hansen and Sustaina Claus at Place to B.

Fortunately the hostel was live streaming the proceedings on TVs in the workspace upstairs.  Unfortunately a lot of people in the workspace would not stop talking, even though others were trying to watch the event.  I set up my GoPro video camera and taped the panel from upstairs, which meant that I was basically taping a TV show, but it was better than not taping anything at all.  The sound quality was poor at times, but we were able to catch most of it.  Later I discovered that a Facebook friend, Paul Beckwith, had also gotten into this event, taped Hansen’s entire presentation, and posted the video on his blog.

Costa Rica – Day 7 – End of home stay, ecolodge, hot springs

Our group with the Laureles farm family.  From left to right: Becca, Leesha, Fernando, Lidia, Carla, me, and the Laureles grandson in sunglasses in front.

Our group with the Laureles farm family. From left to right: Becca, Leesha, Fernando, Lidia, Carla, me, and the Laureles grandson in sunglasses in front.

My preparations the night before paid off, as I slept really soundly and not worrying about bugs. The whole thing with the dogs must have bothered me more than I thought because I dreamed that I was walking by a busy street in back of the UNC campus (where I did my undergrad) and found two dogs in different places who had been hit by cars and were lying by the road with broken legs. In the dream I scooped them up and was taking them to get medical care when I woke up.

A howler monkey brought her baby out to see us.

A howler monkey brought her baby out to see us.

I got up before dawn, and three of us (Carla, Leesha, and me) went to watch the sun rise over the farm. Just as at the beach at Tortuguero, the sun didn’t come up in a ball like we are used to seeing at home. It just got light. Fernando’s cattle were mostly sitting down (which cattle here seem to do a lot) or grazing peacefully. Leesha tried to make friends with one of their horses in the pasture, but he was shy and didn’t want to get too close. On the way back we stopped by the howler monkey trees again. The monkeys had been very active just before dawn howling to greet it. They were still active getting their breakfast when we stopped by the trees. We probably watched them for a half hour. At first they hid, but after a bit a few came out where we could see them, including a mom with a baby on her back. She sat watching us for a long time, and I got a ton of pics.

Fernando showed Carla how to milk a cow.

Fernando showed Carla how to milk a cow.

Then we went back to the farm where we got to help Fernando milk the cow. That was fun – Leesha was a natural, and I got the hang of it but am glad I don’t have to do it every morning. Fernando put the calf into a separate enclosure while we got a bucket full of milk. When we were done, he let out the calf, who made a beeline for his mom. I’m glad they let the calf stay with the mom.  The mother-offspring bond is the strongest in nature, and to talk the calf away so that we can take the milk does not seem right. It was enough to make me switch mainly to almond milk, though it’s hard to avoid dairy entirely. While we were milking the cow with Fernando, Lidia came out with a glass that we filled up straight from the cow. She then used that to make some of the very best pancakes I have ever eaten, which we had along with eggs, juice, and of course rice and beans.

<Optional thoughts about the book I was reading>

While the rest of the group walked for a swim at a river spot with difficult access, I got some reading done in This Changes Everything. Naomi Klein makes the case that climate change will require us to abandon unregulated free market capitalism to enact the collective solutions needed to address carbon emissions. She thinks it is a great opportunity to reshape human relations to be more just, equitable and fair, to enact protections for workers and poor people around the world.

It’s a compelling argument, but I’ve also read some interesting critiques. Basically the critiques say Klein was anti-capitalism before she started writing about climate change – she wrote about clothing factory workers in South America and about disaster opportunism, in which big companies use the opportunity of a disaster to make a windfall profit. The critiques think her current book is more of the same vein, and that she doesn’t give enough credit to some of the market solutions being proposed such as a price on carbon.

Klein says we need a mass social movement to force governments to take the steps needed to address climate change. I agree with that, but I think we need market solutions too. A carbon tax, preferably with the proceeds being returned equitably to everyone in the form of dividend checks or tax cuts as proposed by Citizens Climate Lobby, is a must. Klein thinks this idea is okay but not nearly enough. I think it’s just a start too, but it’s a vital one. We have to disincentivize fossil fuels and incentivize renewables if we want people to make the switch.

Klein seems to talk mostly about mass movements but decentralized control with communities taking charge of their own energy, transit and food systems. I would love to see that, and mass movements are important. That’s what stopped the Keystone pipeline, which is of huge symbolic value, and having participated with the Sierra Club in the People’s Climate March in New York City, I feel like the march helped provide immediacy and momentum to the UN talks that week.  It was shortly after that when Obama announced the first-ever agreement with China to lower emissions. Of course none of this is enough and the work is not done, but you have to start somewhere.

This year will be huge for climate agreements leading up to the talks in Paris in December where everyone is hoping for the first time to get a binding agreement across all nations. That will be a tall order. Klein is right that social movements will make a huge difference in the climate debates, and she is right that control needs to come down to the local level.

I’m pleased to live in Columbus, which has a very ambitious green plan.  But this leads to my critique of Klein’s focus on social movements.  As important as they are, in the end it is governments, whether local state or national, that will decide if, when, and how we address climate change.  This is why I’m studying public policy. I’m not exactly sure where this course of study will lead, but climate change is the most important issue not just in my lifetime but maybe in of all human civilization, and I want to be in a place where I can help address it.

<End of thoughts about the book and back to the trip>

Becca made friends with a rescued deer fawn.

Becca made friends with a rescued deer fawn.

So most of Friday afternoon was spent on the bus driving to the Villa Finca Tina ecolodge in the mountains, then to the Baldi hot springs. I’m pretty sure this will get changed up next year, since we didn’t make it to the hot springs until after 9 p.m. so had less than an hour. They were absolutely amazing though, as was the lodge which had several rescued orphan deer and even planted special grasses for the deer to eat.

In Ohio it is against the law to rescue orphan deer. I understand about wildlife rehabilitation needing to be licensed, but we should allow people who care – and most people do – to help animals that need help. Even if those orphans go to a sanctuary to live out their lives, that’s better than being killed just because they were unlucky enough to lose their mother. In one case, a police officer and his wife rescued an orphan deer whose mother had been hit by a car.  When the authorities came and take it, the couple claimed the deer had escaped the day before and showed their torn screen door. In reality I’m thinking they probably found a sanctuary out of state to take the deer.

It’s a ways until retirement, but it liked the ecolodge area and hot springs so much, I would give serious consideration to retiring there. The community seemed to have a lot of natural healing practitioners, and as of now it’s affordable. I’ll have to come back with my husband and investigate this idea more thoroughly before making any decisions, but this is now a possibility on the list.

Climate camps

The reading I was most interested in this week was Wainwright and Mann on “Climate Leviathan.”  Categorizations like this help us to understand current debates and schools of thought about an issue as complicated as climate change and what to do about it.

A similar paper came out just this fall from Matthew Nisbet called “Disruptive ideas: public intellectuals and their arguments for action on climate change.” Nisbet’s paper is much more U.S. based and discusses three camps: ecological activists like Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein, smart growth reformers like Al Gore and Jeffrey Sachs, and ecomodernists like Roger Pielke Jr. and Andy Revkin.

If I were to superimpose Nisbet’s analysis onto Wainwright and Mann’s, the ecological activists would likely fall into Climate X, while the smart growth reformers would fall into Climate Leviathan.  I don’t know where the economodernists would fall.  They seem to be most typified by an organization called the Breakthrough Institute, started by Ted Norhaus and Michael Shellenberger.  I finally stopped following them on Twitter because I never saw them put forward a constructive solution, but only criticisms of why anything that anyone else put forward wouldn’t work.  At some point you have to stop attacking others and advocate something of your own.  They seem to like nuclear power, but so does James Hansen, who probably belongs in the Climate Leviathan camp more than anywhere else, since his main solution is a carbon tax.

Given these considerations, I think Wainwright and Mann’s analysis of the climate debate is more comprehensive both in terms of geography and history.  Wainwright and Mann clearly trace the line of thought they discuss back to their historical origins, not just with philosophers like Marx and Hegel, but even back to the Book of Job.  They also include a discussion of non-American responses to climate change, such as a possible Asian response through Climate Mao, or even the Islamist response which falls into Climate X because it works against capitalism.

I thought their discussion of all four possible responses to climate change was really interesting and right on point.  Yesterday’s elections certainly showed Climate Behemoth.  Now that the Republicans have taken the Senate, the worst climate denier in Congress, James Inhofe, is in line to head up a key environmental committee.  Congress is likely to put bills in front of President Obama to fund the Keystone pipeline and gut the EPA’s carbon pollution standards.

Whether Obama will stand strong and veto these measures, or try to “compromise” by passing some of what the climate deniers want, is an open question.  Certainly people who care about the environment, such as the 400,000 of us who showed up to march in New York City, will need to make our wishes known.  Now is not the time to give up or go inactive.

The Climate Mao discussion was also interesting, especially in light of actions in China since this paper was published.  Wainwright and Mann point out that the major advantage to Climate Mao is the state doesn’t need the approval of Congress or anyone else to enact laws and measures to lower carbon emissions and control pollution.  They can just do it.  China did it in Beijing just before the Olympics, and they are doing more of it to address the terrible smog and pollution problems that plague the country.  The Chinese government knows it is not completely immune to civil unrest, and it doesn’t want these problems to lead to a rebellion.

I haven’t read Naomi Klein’s new book, “This Changes Everything,” yet – that’s planned for Christmas break.  But it sounds like she would fall into the Climate X camp as Wainwright and Mann call for it.  If everything went the way Wainwright and Mann describe, and a new world order could be created based in social justice and opportunity, that would be incredible.

But honestly, I just don’t see that happening, at least not in the near term.  We can certainly use the climate crisis to try to push this agenda, whether overtly or covertly.  The Green Climate Fund seems like one mechanism to do this, but as we read, it has a lot of problems – chiefly, who is going to fund it?  So I’m not getting my hopes up about a new utopia of climate justice.

Instead, I personally put my hat in with the smart growth reformers.  For now I feel like the best hope of lowering carbon emissions is a massive switch to renewable energy and a price on carbon.  You can argue both programs within the capitalist framework that so much American identity revolves around.  Renewable energy creates permanent, well paying jobs while preserving our natural resources, and it makes us energy independent while a cleaner environment improves human health.  A price on carbon addresses the market failure caused by the externalities of dirty fuels not having to pay for the costs they impose on society, and if the money is redistributed to America families, it would boost the economy and create jobs.

All of this seems like a much more palatable way to advocate for programs that would reduce carbon emissions.  Unfortunately other than on a volunteer basis, most Americans simply don’t care if Tuvalu vanishes into the sea or millions of Bangladeshis are flooded out of their homes.  The stock issues in any election are economy and jobs.  Fortunately, climate change can be addressed through those frames, and without having even to mention climate change itself, which has become politicized beyond all recognition.

The price of solar panels is continuing to come down, and soon I hope we will start to see a shift toward their use.  Of course the utility companies will try to fight this.  But letting people derive their own energy from the sun so they can be independent appeals not just to liberal environmentalists, but libertarian Tea Partiers.  There may be new alliances to be forged.

One thing is for sure: People who care about the environment will need to think openly and creatively, and not dismiss an idea or an alliance just because they haven’t used it before.  This is a time when all hands need to be on deck and all ideas on the table.

One thing Wainwright and Mann are also right about is the Climate Behemoth stance is not sustainable.  It is reactionary, but they don’t have programs or solutions of their own.  If smart growth reformers put forth real solutions, communicate them effectively, and make alliances even within the typical base of the Behemoth, they have a chance of success.