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A Graduate Student Reflection on the COP 21 in Paris

The 21st Conference of Parties (COP) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 1992 (UNFCCC) was recently held in Paris from November 30 to December 11, 2015. The COP was attended by over 40,000 delegates which included representatives from more than 190 countries who got together to come to a decision on responding to Climate Change. The opening session saw over 150 heads of states congregate at Le Bourget, the venue of the conference. Never before had so many leaders been present at a venue, nor had they been entrusted with a responsibility this monumental: the fate of mankind.

Students from the University of Michigan have been participating in COPs since 2009, when the first delegation of students and faculty travelled to the 15th COP held in Copenhagen. I had the privilege of being selected as one of the 8 students who attended the COP in Paris. As preparation for the COP, all delegates (along with other interested students) took a 1 credit course at the School of Natural Resources and Environment (SNRE) to study the complex unravelling of climate science and the over two decade long diplomatic efforts to combat global warming. We named ourselves “Climate Blue,” and the delegation included two faculty members as well as other Rackham students from the Ford School of Public Policy, SNRE, and the College of Engineering. The delegation participated in the COP as observers, whose presence at these negotiations intends to ensure greater transparency and public participation. Some of the key focus areas of the group were issues of equity and climate justice, the complex role of science in formulating policy; and to understand the transfer of technology for mitigation. The delegation set up a Twitter account and a Facebook page through which they regularly posted updates and views.

In the long list of conferences held under the UNFCCC, the 21st COP in Paris was pegged as the crucial one that would save an imperiled earth. At the UNFCCC meeting in Durban in 2011, governments agreed to draw up the blueprint for a legal agreement by 2015 to deal with climate change beyond 2020 (when the second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol ends). Given the massive hype and media scrutiny, all of us went to Paris with a sense of expectation.

Early into the negotiations, differences over certain issues relating to finance, adaptation and quantum of mitigation cropped up between two broad coalitions of the developed and developing countries. Many developing countries did not want emission restrictions that are comparable with developed countries, based on the principle of ‘Common but Differentiated Responsibilities’ enshrined in the UN Convention. Malaysian representative Prof. Gurdial Singh Nijar, speaking on behalf of Like-Minded Developing Countries at one of the plenary meetings, underlined the need for continued industrialization and economic growth in the Global South in order to eradicate backbreaking poverty. He warned that countries like Malaysia could not work for the success of an agreement, if it meant choosing starvation for their people. The representative from Marshall Islands spoke of the existential threat his country faced, and asked nations to agree to sharp emission reductions. Attending these tense moments were a powerful experience, where in the midst of the ensuing thundering applause, one could hear the desperate cries of billions of people in the Global South who are facing the dual challenge of poverty and climate change. These issues strengthened my belief in the fact that development and environment cannot be seen as antithetical to each other, and countries have to work together to find socially just and economically viable solutions to climate change.

As a graduate student, being able to attend COP helped me appreciate the complex decision making process of international negotiations and the difficult task of achieving consensus between countries with divergent views. Climate negotiations are not just about the science of greenhouse gas emissions, but also about the ecological fallout of global extractive economies, social inequity within countries and unequal trade relations between nations, issues of race and discrimination, and control through intellectual property regimes. The COP also enabled me to meet some of the fiercest climate activists from across the world. Can one remain unmoved when an indigenous woman from the Amazon critiques REDD+ and market formulae to solve deforestation by asking for a valuation of the placenta and umbilical cord that was buried in the forest at her birth, as a sacred tie between human and nature? One is forced to acknowledge the differential impact of climate change when talking to Cathy Towtongie, Inuit leader from Canada who faces not just melting ice but a threat to her people’s way of life and culture.

There were instances where acrimony and disagreement overshadowed negotiations, and it was feared that countries would not be able to agree on a climate deal. However, despite seemingly insurmountable differences, countries were able to agree upon a climate agreement that tries to accommodate the differing views of nations.

While I am enthused by the fact that the world leaders agreed to take enhanced action to combat climate change, I am also disappointed by the vague drafting of some portions of the text that is open to interpretation and what I see as dilution of the principle of equity. While words like intergenerational equity, climate justice, the problem of overconsumption and relevance of Mother Earth were included in the preamble, their application in the substantive portion of the text is lacking. The provisions on loss and damage specifically excludes liability and compensation. Also, even the most enthusiastic supporters of the Paris agreement will concede that the current framework lacks ambition and would hardly help limit global warming to under 1.5 degree centigrade, and that we are heading towards at least a 3 degree warming. That would mean more intense weather events, cyclones, droughts and floods, mass migrations and the possible disappearance of many small island nations. Much like an unfolding Shakespearean tragedy, we continue to self-destruct even though we see ourselves hurling towards a tragic end of our own making. However, I am an eternal optimist and hope that countries will wake up from this delusional slumber and start taking enhanced action towards mitigation, adaptation, disaster management and capacity building. Paris is not the culmination, but only the beginning of climate action.

As advised by Ivan Illich, I’ve learned to differentiate expectation and hope. While I went to Paris with expectations, I look to the future with hope; that at COP 22 to be held later this year in Marrakesh, Morocco, countries will agree to more ambitious emission cuts in order for the world to stay under the 1.5-degree Centigrade limit, as well take greater action on adaptation and capacity building. Now that the promises have been made, I am sure future University of Michigan delegations to COPs will continue to speak for the youth and hold countries accountable to their word. In the words of Harvey Milk, hope will never be silent.

Mayank Vikas is a Fulbright-Nehru fellow and recipient of joint funding from Rackham and SNRE. To know more about COP 21 and Climate Blue, please follow their blog to read more about their upcoming event 'Good COP, Bad COP?' on January 21, 2016 at Room 2435, North Quad from 4:30 to 8:00pm along other events. At the symposium, Climate Blue will share their experiences and views from Paris, and also discuss some of the key issues under the Paris Deal with an esteemed panel of senior faculty members from the University of Michigan.

The views expressed here are personal and do not reflect the views of the official delegation to COP 21, the University of Michigan, SNRE or Rackham Graduate School.