As the COP 15 Climate Summit came to a close in Copenhagen, my hopes for the future were tempered with a healthy dose of reality. The challenges ahead of us may not be easy, but we can still choose our better future. Some proclaim that Copenhagen was a success, some that it was a complete failure, but I think that it was a little of both. The three page “Copenhagen Accord” that we left with was not the culmination that we had hoped for, but it paves the trail for a future agreement, perhaps in Mexico City, where the 16th UN Conference of Parties will be held.
As the conference began, there was a sense of hope permeating everything. “This is possible, Copenhagen will be the place where an effective, fair, and legally binding treaty will be wrought.” Before the conference, I had the opportunity to meet young people from across the world at the Conference of Youth. Throughout the summit we worked tirelessly to make sure that the negotiators listened to youth calls for a strong treaty. “How old will you be in 2050?” we called out on the Youth Day of Action. Climate change is not just a theory, but a legacy that we and our descendents will have to live with. The choices that we make in the next couple of years will influence our ability to lessen the impacts of climate changes and prepare ourselves.
United States Youth Delegates met with legislators and with our country’s representatives at the conference. We gave EPA director Lisa Jackson and standing ovation for her work in the new EPA rule that designates C02 emissions an atmospheric pollutant. We attended meetings with high level officials from President Obama’s Cabinet, including Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar and Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke. The question that we asked, and the question that I asked former Vice President Al Gore, was always preceded by the phrase, “I am here today with 500 youth from across the United States,” and then we would all wave. This showed our United States representatives that we had an organized presence at the conference, and a right to take part in the process that would determine our future.
Even if it may be difficult to tell how our presence at the conference may have influenced the result, our actions and organizing sent shock waves back to the many people we were representing in the United States, which I would argue was even more important. Through video conference calls with classrooms and students back home in Minnesota and in Washington D.C., I had the opportunity to send news back home about the negotiations process in Copenhagen, and discuss what the ephemeral next step should be.
The more that I think about my role at the climate summit, the more I think that many of the decisions made there were determined before it even began. The United States arrived with the climate bill still mired in the Senate, crippling our ability to fight for a strong agreement. On the other hand, thanks to the 350 Day of Action, the number “350,” representing the 350 parts per million of CO2 that is the safe cap in the atmosphere (right now we’re at 387) actually made it into the proposed treaty text.
So what is the next step? What is the best, most effective thing that you or I or anyone living in the United States can do about climate change? Well, although Copenhagen was propped up as the be-all-end-all-or-else-we-all-die-and-the-world-ends event, it doesn’t “be all” because it is only one step in a process that needs to take many forms, and it doesn’t “end all” but instead offers the opportunity for countries to go back home and come back in a year to create a real treaty together. Yes, that’s right “accord” is code for “let’s come back and figure it out later.” Not ideal, but here in the United States it gives us the opportunity to come back home and work for the passage of a strong CJAPA Senate Climate Bill. Then, we can have the framework for clean energy climate solutions here in the United States, and we can have an ambitious argument that we can bring to the next COP for a fair and legally binding treaty next December in Mexico City.
Copenhagen was not an end, but a beginning, and I am excited to be back home and to be part of the solution. If you want to do something right now that will take only a minute, call your Senator and ask them to not let the Murkowski ammendment to become part of the final bill. This ammendment would strip away the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to regulate greenhouse gasses and the coal industry, which could potentially lead to an increase in greenhouse gasses. Another thing that you can do is jump on your bike and take it for a ride. It's actually a lot easier to do in the wintertime than you'd expect. If you don't think that the roads are safe enough to bike on where you live, then do something about it. Did you know that the Minnesota legislature is considering a bill called the "Complete Streets" act that would integrate bike paths into street designs? You have the ability to influence the world around you: you just have to get off your duff and do it, and doesn't hurt if you can find some friends to take with you too.