Tuesday, November 12, 2013

At the Dawn of COP19, The Challenge of Making Climate Matter Politically

COP19, this year's round of the UN Climate Talks, commenced in Warsaw on Monday.
Monday November 11 marked the beginning of this year’s UN Climate Negotiations, COP19, in Warsaw.  I’m here in Poland leading a delegation of 17 people from SustainUS, a non-profit dedicated to empowering young people to advance sustainable development.  SustainUS has been going to UN conferences since 2002, and quite frankly, we’re fed up with being perpetually being disappointed by the conference outcomes.  We know we need ambitious international policy to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, and we know that what we have right now is inadequate.  And we intend to do whatever we can to break through the stalemate in international climate politics and move towards ambitious global policy.

Most of the domestic climate movement in the United States has effectively ignored the international process since the failure of the 2009 Copenhagen negotiations to create a global climate treaty.  In a lot of ways this makes sense, since the challenge of moving US national policy forward seems to be a prerequisite before the world can move forward with ambitious global climate policy.  We’ve been having some decent success in the US, with KeystoneXL still blocked, Obama releasing a Climate Action Plan, and the fossil fuel divestment movement spreading like wildfire.

However, a lot of things are missed by only focusing on domestic climate policy and fighting fossil fuels in the US.  There are obvious dramatic events in the UN, like how the devastation wrought by Typhoon Haiyan has impacted the climate talks and prompted the lead Filipino negotiator Yeb Sano to declare he will #FastForTheClimate until the world reaches a serious climate agreement.  But there is also the underlying math of climate change; most of the future projected GHG emissions are not going to come from the US, so by definition we need international action on the challenge. 

I believe we need to do two big things to make real strides on the issue of climate change:
1) Enact comprehensive climate policy at the national level that puts a price on carbon
2) Create an international framework that incentivizes all countries (including rapidly developing countries like China and India) to pursue ambitious reductions in greenhouse gas emissions

I spent a lot of time over the past several years to trying to figure out exactly what we should do about climate change, asking questions like “What is the science of the problem?  What are the major sources of carbon emissions?  What technologies are available for low-carbon energy?  And what policies can we put in place to transition to these low-carbon technologies?”  But my big realization earlier this year was that the details of how national policy or an international framework can possibly work won’t matter unless climate change starts to matter politically.  Even if we present brilliant climate policy proposals, and even if we craft a deeply compelling narrative around the need to act on climate, we will not see any real world impact without increased political will.

While I have been a climate activist for nearly five years, in June I chose to dive into electoral organizing.  In my experience the thing politicians care about most about winning votes; they will finally take climate change seriously when we prove that it has real consequences in elections.  My most recent electoral campaign, Virginia Climate Voters, we demonstrated that climate does have electoral consequences by turning out young people to vote against climate denier Ken Cuccinelli.  And the lessons we learned through the Virginia election will be used in campaigns in 2014 and 2016 to further increase political pressure and accountability on climate change.  (For an example of our campaign, see the video with climate scientist Michael Mann below):

We also need to increase the political will to act on climate at the international level.  Since the UN does not have elections, a lot of the work to influence negotiators’ and their governments must happen domestically outside of the official COP climate talks.  However, there are concrete steps young people can take while at the UN to highlight the urgency for climate action.  We can shame countries blocking progress (such as through the “Fossil of the Day” award).  We can generate media attention that puts public pressure on decision makers within the UN. And we can serve as a constant moral reminder of what is at stake in this process: our future and the well-being of all generations that come after us.

It’s going to be a crazy next two weeks while at COP19.  My delegation and I will be working long days (we started at 8 am, and I finished this post at 3:30 am), coordinating demonstrations, generating media content, and doing our best to give this round of UN climate talks real urgency.  You can follow SustainUS’s activities at COP19 on twitter via @SustainUSAgents and read our blog at sustainus.org/agents-of-change-blog.  Stay tuned for more from Warsaw!


  1. Very well written, Adam! I'm really excited to see how things will turn out over there. Can't wait to hear more! Best of luck in Warsaw!