Traveling home from COP22 and Marrakech, not even adrenalin-invoking near misses on flight legs with no back-up options or a night on the cold stone floor of Charles De Gaulle airport could dampen the spirits of the SES COP22 delegates as they began to reflect on and process their experiences in Morocco. Reading their COP22 reflections, it is clear that the potential impact of the U.S. election on progress to combat climate change has been on their minds, but equally evident is their resolve and determination to move forward.
The mood of the students mirrored the COP itself. While there were conversations about the U.S. election early in the conference, it seemed to be a function of the timing of the election coinciding with the negotiations, and the initial uncertainty brought on by the results. But as the conference wore on, it was clear that the efforts to combat climate change by the rest of the world were not going to hinge on the political vagaries of one country, even if that country is the United States. The prevailing thought was that the Paris Agreement had helped unleash global economic forces, particularly around renewable energy, by sending strong signals to investors, and that the momentum in those market forces would not be stopped. This was evident in Marrakech, where sessions described the involvement of banks, global investors, international commodities, and the renewable energy and technology sectors, providing support for the belief that the world is committed to moving forward toward a greener future.
But it is also important to remember that the work of forging and implementing an international climate agreement like the one agreed upon in Paris was always going to be difficult. In the first 21 years of COP conferences there were many times along the way that not only was the possibility of an international agreement in doubt, but the fundamental ability of the international community to work together was called into question. And yet, just such an agreement was celebrated last year in Paris. And now the work toward implementation is underway.
It was hoped that COP22 in Marrakech would be a COP of action, focused on how to implement various aspects of the Paris Agreement such as pre-2020 action, long-term ambition, and climate finance for adaptation, loss and damage and technology. In this respect, COP22 left much to be desired. While this is a disappointment to be sure, the common denominator among all seven of the COPs I have taken part in has been frustration, particularly from civil society, that the final agreement did not accomplish or go far enough. This may be small consolation for some, but I have come to believe that this frustration, and the resulting pressure to go further and do more, have been essential to the international advances we have seen, including the Paris Agreement.
The final summary document of the COP 22 conference, the Marrakech Proclamation, begins as follows:
“Our climate is warming at an alarming and unprecedented rate and we have an urgent duty to respond. We welcome the Paris Agreement, adopted under the Convention, its rapid entry into force, with its ambitious goals, its inclusive nature and its reflection of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances, and we affirm our commitment to its full implementation.”
While this is hardly a tangible plan of action, the collective affirmation of the core tenets of the Paris Agreement by the international community, a year later and with a seismic shift in U.S. leadership on the horizon, is significant. It shows the world that the agreement is durable enough to take a blow, and helps build both confidence between countries and confidence in the market signals the Paris agreement provides. Of course this silver lining gives little comfort to those who realize that the climate change clock is ticking, and that the work toward slowing and stopping the ecological impacts and human suffering that will result from climate change does not have the luxury of the slow-moving, laborious timeline so often seen in the COP process. But it is important to remember that action on climate change does not require an international agreement, and that individuals, communities, companies, organizations, cities, and states do not have wait for anyone’s permission to take action towards creating a more sustainable climate future.
Several years ago, in the first SES partnership with Climate Generation, a group of SES students traveled to Clyde River, Nunavut on Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic to meet up with Will Steger and his expedition team, which was traveling by dog team to Inuit villages on the Island. One morning the team was discussing how to navigate a particularly challenging portion of the route that lay ahead. Lack of snow and changing, unexpected conditions meant that the team would have to somehow get people, dogs, and fully loaded expedition sleds up a series of frozen waterfalls. At a class session with the students later that day one of the students said, “Did anyone else notice that no one mentioned giving up?” It was a powerful lesson for those students then, and a powerful metaphor for our collective and individual efforts to address the climate change challenge going forward.