COP21 Reflections

It’s time to light the flame.

Closing Ceremony of COP21, Paris. Copyright United Nations Photo

“I look at the room. I see that the reaction is positive. I don’t hear any objections.”

My nose hovers just inches from the screen, transporting me hundreds of miles across the Atlantic Ocean to this panel of flashing cameras and excited whispers.

Barely a pause. The magic words tumble out in a rush.

The ‘Paris Accord’ for the climate has been accepted.”

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, president of the 2015 United Nations-hosted climate change conference known as COP21, issued in a new era of climate cooperation with these words — and with an appropriately green-colored gavel.

So, this was it.

After a little more than two weeks of intense negotiationslive-streaming interviews, and grassroots demonstrations upon the city streets, the Paris Agreement had survived even the most unlikely of odds. It not only defied decades of international inaction against the pressing concerns of our changing climate, but it proved Paris — the ‘City of Light’ momentarily shrouded in darkness — would become a beacon of hope for the climate conscious of my generation.

Because no matter how many headlines I read about the imminent, rising-sea-level apocalypse that seems already upon us, I still feel our world is immobilized in a perplexing state of climate-change fear.

I’m just old enough to remember when the words ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ were new and evocative to the American public. Al Gore immediately became a martyr for sensational science — and the object of ridicule in my seventh-grade Biology class.

Flash forward seven years — now I’m an undergraduate sophomore at Ohio University — and Al Gore doesn’t seem quite as ridiculous anymore. In fact, it’s difficult to deny that our climate is changing, with noticeable weather and temperature extremes impacting flora and fauna alike in the past decade alone.

Severe floods that obliterate Japanese coastlines. The mega Typhoon Haiyan that practically swallowed the Philippines island nation whole. The paper-white corals, all the vulnerable and endangered wildlife, the drought in the West and the Polar Vortex in the East. Even Pope Francis — the reigning leader of more than 1.2 billion Roman Catholics throughout the world — pronounced climate change “a global problem with grave implications” in his most recent papal encyclical, released in late June 2015.

And that’s besides all of the complications coming from our current energy infrastructure: coal-fired power plants regurgitating health-averse smog and soot; fracking injection wells allegedly intensifying regional earthquakes; oil spills, massive methane leaks, and opposition from Congress every step of the way.

But there is reason to hope for a healthier, more sustainable planet Earth.

Just like the flower that blooms after a winter storm, companies and individuals are waking up to the reality of our planet’s rapidly changing future.Renewable energy opportunities are beginning to rival traditional extraction methods, some animal species are already adapting to changing temperatures, while private sector corporations are bolstering their resumés with eco-friendly products and sustainable business practices.

Watching those final moments of COP21 play out on my 15-inch computer screen — after two weeks of waiting and watching and tweeting and following — I recognized that this sphere of climate communications, international discussion, and environmental policy debate will become mine one day.

This climate change conference in Paris wasn’t the end of a legacy, but the beginning of an era. An era in which international policymakers are pressured to maintain vigilance and commitment towards safeguarding the most vulnerable communities and ecosystems of our planet. An era in which we see the end of nonrenewable energy dependence.

An era in which we are all equal in the eyes of the Earth.

I do recognize that the Paris Agreement was not, in fact, a catch-all accord to climate change salvation. Environmental justice, especially in regards to the rights of indigenous peoples, proved to be a difficult compromise for some developed countries to include in the final agreement. And there’s still no guarantee that all of the 195 countries represented at the conference will abide by their agreed-upon terms, come next year.

That is why I see it as my generation’s duty — no, obligation — to finish what the people in Paris started. There has never been a more pertinent time in recent history to inspire other individuals to care about and respect the planet with as much fervor as it deserves.

COP21 struck the match: It’s time for us to light the flame.

This essay also appears on Medium
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