Damn the torpedoes – I’m headed for Paris!

Posted by Steve Nicholas
on December 1, 2015
COP 21 goal

This post is by Steve Nicholas, our Vice President of Urban Programs. Read his other COP 21 posts: Part 2, 3, and 4.


Not even those terrible acts of terror two weeks back can keep me from traveling to Paris tomorrow for the 21st annual United Nations climate conference, COP21. The attacks only sharpen my resolve – not only to be there, but to redouble my efforts, and those of my organization, to meet the urgent global challenge of climate disruption. As President Obama so eloquently put it: “What a powerful rebuke to the terrorists it will be when the world stands as one and shows that we will not be deterred from building a better future for our children.”


I usually steer clear of these giant UN climate summits. My organization focuses on local action, not international talk. And given the outcomes (i.e. lack thereof) of most of the first 20 such summits, I’ve never been convinced that attending would be worth the climate pollution I’d generate just getting there.


Until now. This year feels different. Our collective sense of urgency and opportunity is at an all-time high. The impacts of climate disruption – though pale in comparison to what awaits us if we fail to do much more, quite quickly – have never been more obvious, costly and discombobulating. Most of the inattentive and the ambivalent have been “scared straight” by Tropical Storm Irene, Superstorm Sandy and the like. All but the most die-hard deniers (who tend to be embedded in, or financed by, the fossil fuel industry) agree that it’s high-time to act. Two thirds of Americans now think the United States should sign onto a legally binding climate agreement this week. And the wealthiest American of all is putting $2B of his own skin in the game; Bill Gates is in Paris now announcing the creation of a multibillion-dollar public-private coalition (29 billionaires and 19 governments from 10 countries) to fund clean energy research and solutions. “If you have a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, you’d better be inventing in this next decade in order to have time to shift over the global energy system,” Gates said. “Usually it takes 50 years. We have to move faster than that.”  


There is, in short, a distinct “it’s now or never” feel to COP21. And there is an equally palpable sense that Paris really can be the game-changer we so desperately need. “The world is ready for change,” says Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change. “The political will to act on climate has arrived. We will look back at Paris as a turning point of this century towards a brighter future.”


Most exciting of all, for me, is that urban climate solutions – the pioneering work of a growing cadre of cities across the globe to reduce their climate pollution while at the same time making their communities healthier, stronger, better places to be – will be a visible and influential part of the mix at COP21. This urban climate solutions movement has been gaining momentum for about 10 years. When I led the development of Seattle’s first climate action plan, back in 2005, there were just a handful of cities in the U.S. and around the world taking climate disruption seriously; today there are several thousand. Hundreds of those local leaders will be out in force in Paris, telling their stories, sharing best practices and lessons learned, and urging their national counterparts to “get to yes”: ubiquitous ambassadors for what’s possible.


Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg – the UN Secretary’s Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change and a tireless champion for urban climate solutions – will co-host (with Paris Mayor Anne Hildago) a Climate Summit for Local Leaders, expected to be the largest global convening of mayors, governors and other “subnational” climate leaders. Mayor Bloomberg also is the driving force behind C40 Cities and the Compact of Mayors; so far more than 340 cities around the world have joined the compact, pledging to significantly reduce climate pollution, assess and address climate impacts and track and report out on their progress. ISC is one of the “endorsing partners” poised to support cities as they sign on. The Cities and Regions Pavilion, organized by ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability, will feature more than 120 leading local climate programs. I’m especially looking forward to presentations by the cities of Copenhagen, Stockholm, Seattle and Vancouver, which aspire to be fossil-fuel free by 2025, 2040, 2050 and 2050, respectively.


The global urban climate solutions movement, bubbling and building for more than a decade now, will reach a crescendo at COP21. I’m excited to be heading to Paris not to watch the wave, but to be a part of it. The inconveniences of “heightened security” – longer lines; more carefully checked bags; perhaps an extra pat-down or two – are a small price to pay for the chance to be there, among the ubiquitous ambassadors for what’s possible, adding my voice to what promises to be a loud and unrelenting chorus: We must do this. We can do this. Let’s go!