Can Paris be a teachable moment?

Can Paris be a teachable moment?

When you learn how to speak in bureaucratic acronyms, there comes a point when you’re so far into the weeds on an issue that you forget what the acronym stands for. For me, it happened when I was working in Australia on a carbon pricing policy at the Federal Department of the Environment. It was an emissions trading scheme called the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, which naturally got shortened to CPRS.

I was at a party in Canberra telling someone what I was working on, and when they asked ‘what’s that?’ I actually couldn’t remember what the acronym stood for. When you live inside the carbon policy/international negotiation bubble, it can seem to people on the outside that you actually speak a different language.

So if you’re not going to Paris for the UNFCCC negotiations, and your audience doesn’t know what an INDC is, can Paris be a moment to leverage momentum for the climate movement? Where do you even start?

Your first port of call for working out what’s going on is the Climate Nexus information hub The Road Through Paris. Climate Nexus has laid out a timeline of which country is announcing what pledge when; complete with an acronym decoder, and a list of issues and sticking points.

But what if tweaking international policy won’t register for your organization? What else is happening? One of the things I’m watching with interest in the lead up to the Paris negotiations is the work being done by cities. The number of cities that are committing to 100% Renewable energy continues to grow, and Vancouver’s Mayor Gregor Robertson launched a climate pledge with the Vancouver Economic Commission to get private sector sign-on to Vancouver’s race to the top last month at New York Climate Week.  

Right now, cities, provinces and states are where the real political climate leadership is taking place. Where the federal and international stalemate continues, cities and states are already dealing with the price tag from extreme weather events and are stepping up to fill the leadership void.

This leadership will be reflected in Paris through the organizing of groups like the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) who have called for a ‘Cities and local governments day’ along with the C40 group, the City of Paris and the United Cities and Local Governments group. This follows the Global Mayors Compact that was announced in New York last year just after the People’s Climate March.

The great thing about all of the work that is happening at the city and regional level is that it effectively makes an international agreement at the Paris COP an added bonus rather than a ‘make or break’ chance to save the planet.
A successful outcome would involve an agreement reached in Paris that provides a mechanism for pricing carbon and counting externalities within economies as well as providing compensation to countries feeling early climate impacts. It will complement the work that is already being done, and push for better and faster action by changing the underlying systems, processes and policies with which grassroots organizations are working.

If no agreement is reached, regions will continue to coordinate their carbon pricing around trade and geography creating three ‘blocs’ of carbon pricing in Europe, through the Pacific Coast Collaborative in North America and in Asia centered around China’s emissions trading scheme.

So the answer to the question of ‘can Paris be a teachable moment’, for me is yes.

A lack of an agreement will reinforce the work that is already occurring at the local grassroots level, where people are rolling up their sleeves and creating alliances to prepare and plan for a changing climate. If world leaders fail to find a way through international negotiations, action at the local, city and regional level becomes even more important because physics doesn’t negotiate extensions on climate impacts.

On the other hand, an international agreement will give added legitimacy to existing climate work as well as added impetus and leverage for groups working at the national and international level. It could almost create a new social norm of action where acting on climate is something we do, and preparing for climate impacts just makes sense.


image via (cc) Amy Huva