This past Monday, world leaders from all over the globe, along with thousands of other activists, journalists and representatives, have gathered in Paris for the UN Conference of Climate Change. The event, known colloquially as COP21, calls for 12 days of negotiations on the issue of humans’ environmental impact. Many are heralding this as the biggest and most influential conference on the subject ever organized.
If you are reading this article, chances are you already knew about COP21 or were, at least, vaguely aware of its happening. As a Northeastern student, and a self-identified environmentalist, living in Europe for study abroad – I wanted to know how I could get involved. A lot of my time in Prague has been spent travelling for pleasure and it felt like time to be a part of something that was bigger—much, much bigger—than myself. Climate change is an issue that will affect me, but the impacts it will have on my future children, my future grandchildren, and so on and so on will be even greater. I want my descendants, even the ones who won’t know my name, to look back on this time as history as the time we started changing the way we live to become more sustainable and less consumerist.
The purpose of the article is to not to educate you about the hazardous pace with which we humans are destroying our planetary home – although I will include some informative links at the end. I’d much rather instill in you a sense of optimism, which is what I came away from Paris with this past weekend. While I was not able to attend the UN conference, I was able to spend one day at the 11th annual Conference of Youth, or COY11. With this came the opportunity to experience Paris as it geared up for these potentially historical negotiations and simultaneously recovered from the atrocious terrorist attacks just two weeks ago.
On the weekend of November 26-28, approximately 5,000 young people from all over the world gathered at the Parc d’Expositions in the Parisian suburb of Villepinte to give presentations on their environmental work, listen to interviews and speeches given by well-known environmental activists, participate in workshops and plan mobilization in a youthful and optimistic atmosphere. Although it was not the first COY, it was the largest ever, mirroring the COP21.
I was only able to attend the Conference of Youth on its last day and it was in full swing by the time I made it to Villepinte around noon. Unsure where to begin, I entered a room (it was less a room than a partitioned area with chairs and a welcoming banner) where a young Brazilian woman named Beatriz led a presentation on her work with educating impoverished children about climate change. Because these children did not always receive consistent love from their parents, nor did they always have food in their bellies or a safe place to sleep every night, it was hard to communicate to them about the importance of saving the environment. It is a privilege to care about more than just your own basic needs, she summarized, and the way she was able to get the children’s attention was to be a stable person in their lives, to give them the love they desired, to ultimately speak the language that they also spoke: love.
“From my experience, people don’t really care about climate change if you just go with the climate change usual speech, people don’t really care, at least in Brazil, people think they have much bigger problems like poverty, health, education problems,” Beatriz told me after her presentation. “What I’ve learned is that if you love what you’re doing and if you love that person whose on the other side listening to you… the person will listen if there is love involved.”
Beatriz, who works for two different Brazilian NGOS, Engajamundo and Verdeluz, explained that we must keep this in mind even as we go against the ‘bad guys’ like oil companies. Those companies are still comprised of humans – and it’s important to remember what we have in common with each other despite the giant gulf of disagreement about these critical political issues. Her message was also something I thought the more militant (for lack of a better word) activists should keep in mind when crusading their “my way or the high way” environmentalist beliefs.
After Beatriz’s presentation I listened to a Q&A session with Asher Jay, an artist and ardent protector of wildlife. (You can read more about her here.) Her artwork, which raises awareness about wildlife issues such as elephant poaching or overfishing, was also on display. She spoke eloquently of the conservation issues which many of us, the interviewer included, thought had been solved years ago. I really enjoyed listening to her and it was easy to feel how strongly she felt about these issues and how much of her life was dedicated to them. The most memorable thing she shared was this:
“We are still losing an elephant every 15 minutes.…I would say the ivory issue is one of the issues of our time and has come to affect my personal life, particularly my dating life because every time I go on a date I can’t help but think of the fact that we’re losing an elephant every 15 minutes so by the time I come to desert, I can’t help but wonder if this guy is worth 6 elephants….
“If you think about your time in that matter, you would think about your day very carefully because every second, you could be utilizing it more productively to help these issues and to give voice to those who are being suppressed and marginalized just because they can’t speak the same language as those who are in power… I can’t help but fight because it’s an unjust fight.”
Many of the booths and presentations were in French and while translation services were available for the major speeches, I definitely missed out on a few really cool things. After eating lunch and wandering around a little more in amazement, I stumbled upon an Art Space, replete with paint, brushes, and cardboard. While the People’s Climate March, which was meant to take place the next day, had been forbidden by the French government for security reasons, many people were still planning to gather on Sunday. Therefore there were several groups of people in the Art Space working fervently on banners and signs to bring with them to the Human Chain gathering, which would replace the prohibited march. One group invited me to work on their banner and I happily accepted. We painted the background with an Earth-colored gradient and after that dried, wrote with white paint the words “conscience planeterre” – which, according to their explanation (and the obvious cognates) is a play on words to mean “planetary conscience,” with “terre” being the French word for Earth. It was a masterpiece.
I listened to a few more presentations about things like mangrove forests and coral reefs, wandered around the exposition center simply absorbing everything that there was to see, and caught the last few minutes of Nicolas Hulot’s speech, which required a headset for English translation. Hulot is a French environmentalist who gained celebrity hosting a popular documentary show about nature. He is also involved politically, and has even threatened to run for president unless the other candidates seriously addressed climate change. To be honest, I had never heard of him but there was a huge crowd listening to him speak. I only caught the last few minutes of his speech, which mostly was praise for the COY presenters, organizers, and participants and a reiteration that “something must be done or we’re doomed.” (That’s not a direct quote, but I’m sure Mr. Hulot would agree with the general sentiment.)
I left COY with a lot of hope and optimism. We now know that our great-grandparents’ and our grandparents’ generations started us on this ecologically devastating trek through industrialization and consumerism, we have watched our parents’ generation stall in taking serious action or even seriously addressing the issue – our generation must be the one to affect change. I hope we can look back at this time in history as the beginning of humanity undoing the damages of the past couple hundred years.
As I previously mentioned, the People’s Climate March in Paris was cancelled due to security concerns by the government after the attacks by Daesh two weeks ago. I was very disappointed by this but I knew that the activists, who had been planning the march worldwide for months, would have something up their sleeves. I also knew COY would be the place to find out what that something was. Indeed, a Human Chain running down Boulevard Voltaire was organized and the next day I went to go check it out.
What I found was hundreds if not thousands of people holding hands in a line, peacefully standing in front of buildings and businesses so that others could walk by. Many of them were dressed up as different animals and holding serious or comical signs. There were kids and octogenarians, and many, many young people. I even recognized a few familiar faces from COY. I was so happy to see this continuation of joyful demonstration after leaving the conference the day before. In some parts, there was a near constant ‘wave’ going down the line accompanied by the requisite “wooooo!” from every individual as they lifted their arms, grinning.
Then, I noticed the innumerable candles, flowers, and miscellaneous items lined up just across the street – a memorial to the victims of Daesh.
To say it was simply beautiful would be a disservice, it was also heart wrenching and maddening. To see two such public displays right next to each other… it took me aback. So many people eagerly trying to make an impact on the future just two weeks after so many peoples’ lives were unnecessarily brought to a halt in such a repugnant manner. The memorial went on for several blocks and it really was aesthetically lovely – the votive candles, the photographs, the children’s drawings, outrage and mourning expressed in both English and French. It was a very emotional scene and I was couldn’t help but remember the viral video of the dad and son, which expressed the kind of hope that can only be found sprouting out of moments of such evil and hate.
It took me a moment to realize why the memorial area was in that particular location. Then I looked to my right and saw the Bataclan nightclub, the military personnel with their red berets and camouflage and guns protecting it, and the announcement for that fateful night’s performance: The Eagles of Death Metal. Right there, in that very spot, true evil had appeared and took too many innocent lives down with it.
The insidious paranoia that followed those attacks has been felt everywhere in Europe. Even in my home city of Prague, which is quite a small, under-the-radar city, many people have called for refusal of any Muslim refugees and some large gatherings have been cancelled due to the same security concerns. Even my own mother, who has had a love affair with France from afar for as long as I can remember, was terrified about me going to Paris to stand in large crowds.
But I went anyway, and I’m so glad I did. Despite the open wound that the Daesh attack left in Paris, the city remains the inspiring and beautiful place that it always has been – perhaps more now than ever.While I was there, I did take the time to see the timeless landmarks and museums that are permanently etched in pop culture, but I was more grateful to see Paris at this particular moment in its long history.
It would, however, be a disservice to ignore the violence that took place in this same area, Republique, later that day. I was only there personally to witness a peaceful demonstration, but there were news reports of some protesters “pelting officers with bottles as well as candles that had been left in tribute to the victims of the Paris attacks.” Around 200 people were arrested. This was extremely disheartening news to hear at the end of the day – especially as the protesters’ weapons were originally tokens of love, mourning and solidarity. While I would love to over-romanticize the climate movement as I witnessed it last weekend, the truth is that it’s rarely as simple as good versus bad. More positive news of the demonstrations, which I did not personally witness either, were images of hundreds of pairs of shoes festively arrayed in the same area, some from important people like Ban ki-Moon, the UN secretary-general, and Pope Francis.
One of the other activities that had been planned by the activists I met at COY11 was the “Climate Games.” As it was explained to me, the Green Team (environmentalists) would be going against the Black Team (the coal and oil industries and the like) while trying to evade the Blue Team (the police). I walked away from that conversation thinking it didn’t feel quite right to list the police as an enemy, especially since they were responding to very real security threats. These games were meant to take place over the next two weeks as COP21 was taking place. I didn’t get any more information on the Climate Games since I wasn’t going to be in Paris during the time, but I was unpleasantly reminded of that when I heard about the protester vs. police violence. I do, however, believe that it was a small group of people who would cause such chaos in what should have been a peaceful demonstration, and their actions are not a good overall representation of the people and protests I myself witnessed.
Like much of the world these days, Paris is in the midst of big things: some things exciting and inspiring, and some things dark and painful. Our world as we know it is going through major growing pains. Climate change, terrorism… these are a few of the very real and very scary consequences of globalization and technology. As young people beginning to think about taking up the mantle of leadership, it will be up to us to peacefully navigate this big scary world, and these seemingly insurmountable problems in front of us. To do so, we must find ways to unite in our humanity, not create more division.
For more reading on COP21, COY11 and the general issue of Climate Change:
Climate Warriors by Vogue- thirteen of the most prominent women fighting climate change
Six graphics that explain climate change by the BBC
The Conference of Youth official website
Citing Urgency, World Leaders Converge on France for Climate Talks by the New York Times
Climate Change and Moral Responsibility by the New York Times Op-Ed section (June 2015)
COP21: A Potluck Dinner in Paris by the New Yorker
and, of course…