Reflecting On Georgetown At COP21

PARIS – Le Bourget, the location of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, was surprisingly far from the center of Paris. Conference-goers got off in the periphery of the metro at Fort d’Aubervilliers before taking a shuttle ride that offered views of the fairly drab suburb of Le Bourget, filled with plain storefronts and often-dilapidated apartment buildings. It did not seem like the kind of place the entire world would be watching.

I chose the second week of negotiations to visit the conference to attend an event hosted by Georgetown, a panel discussion titled “The Subnational (State and Provincial) Foundation for Action.” The other three events hosted by Georgetown officials were titled “Challenges and Opportunities in China-U.S. Cooperation on Energy and Climate Change,” “Subnational Cooperation on Clean, Resilient Transportation” and “U.S. State Actions to Achieve Significant GHG Reduction.”

By the time I attended the conference, the overwhelming security-presence brouhaha that surrounded the arrival of 150 heads of state in France had subsided, and entering the Climate Generations space, located behind the main negotiations area, involved nothing more than a straightforward security check. The space, intended for civil society and open to the public, aimed to drive dialogue about climate change between ordinary citizens, nongovernmental organizations and policymakers.

Three sections of the giant tent were designated for stalls operated by NGOs and cities to inform the public on particular initiatives, including everything from the basics of recycling to the intersection of poverty and the environment. Ten conference rooms in another section hosted panel discussions throughout the day, while a projection room screened environmental documentaries.

The panel I attended was a dialogue on subnational efforts by American states and Canadian provinces to combat climate change. It featured Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, Manitoba Premier Gregory Selinger and senior officials from Quebec, California and Washington state.

Georgetown Climate Center Executive Director Vicki Arroyo moderated the event. The Climate Center is an affiliate of the Georgetown Law Center that collaborates with the federal government to coordinate state policies around the country.

As the Climate Center works closely with state and provincial governments, Arroyo highlighted the outsized impact of subnational actors on the fight against climate change.

“They’re not subnational, they’re super-national,” Arroyo said at the panel.

Shumlin credited the Climate Center with bringing these various actors together.

“We were all working too hard to think about working together,” Shumlin said. “We would not be working together without Vicki and her team at Georgetown.”

Establishing a theme that other panelists would also emphasize, Shumlin pointed to transportation as a primary area of action, noting the importance of the Climate Center’s Transportation and Climate Initiative in designing improvements to electric vehicle infrastructure.

Selinger expanded on Shumlin’s remarks, explaining the importance of state-level focus.

“Every jurisdiction has its own challenges,” Selinger said.

Yet the panelists also acknowledged the interconnectedness of issues across borders. Quebec Environmental Minister David Heurtel said that his province had just established a sub-national $25.5 million Solidarity Fund to invest in developing countries, the first of its kind.

“We have a responsibility worldwide as well,” Heurtel said.

Quebec and California have also teamed up to implement a cooperative cap-and-trade system, a partnership which California Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Matt Rodriquez said developed naturally.

“I thought I’d just be focused on California throughout my time as secretary, but a number of other governments around the world were interested in what we were doing,” Rodriquez said.

Sarah Rees, special assistant to the director for climate policy at the Washington State Department of Ecology, underlined the urgency of action now and presented worrying signs of advancing climate change in Washington.

“We need to go a bit further,” Rees said. “With people seeing these effects firsthand, I’m hopeful we can change the political dynamic.”

However, protestors constantly interrupted the discussion. During Shumlin’s remarks, a man stood up and began singing, while two women held up a sign reading “Fracked Gas = Climate Change.” Rees and Rodriquez were interrupted as well, with protestors reading statements greeted with loud applause from other protestors and quiet exasperation from audience members.

As the question-and-answer portion of the event concluded, Arroyo made a final plea.

“I care deeply about these issues, and I’ve devoted my life to working on them. When I was your age, I protested too, but I was respectful when I did it,” Arroyo said. “You’re protesting the wrong people.”

However, the loud activism during the panel contrasted with the rest of the civil-society space. As I strolled through the center, I repeatedly heard “I don’t know,” and “This is incredibly complicated,” but I also heard, “This might help.” These phrases seem to encapsulate the tension at the heart of the conference. The negotiations were undoubtedly complicated; countries around the world are divided, primarily between developed and developing nations. But they are also searching for some way to address a crucial issue, one that, according to President Barack Obama, “affects all trends.”

The vibrancy of the civil-society space seemed to draw energy from the focus on that central issue. Even despite the contentiousness of the panel I attended, one moment during Selinger’s speech highlighted this common unity against climate change.

“This is one of the defining issues of our time,” Selinger said. “It inspires us. It inspires the protestors, as well. We may come at it from different angles, but we all are working to figure out a way to ensure sustainable development and to save the environment.”

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