The COP24 Experience

By Shantanu Agrawal

As climate change continues to turn our ethical fabric into our geophysical reality, I realized early on that if I cannot decrease my sphere of concern, I should increase my sphere of influence. While this continues to be my guiding demeanor, learnings from COP24 were an integral experience to my own emerging sense of climate advocacy and civic engagement.

Attending the COP for the first time was nothing but enriching, inspiring, and empowering. A host of genius academicians, climate advocates, seasoned climate diplomats, leaders from civil society, , and other “non-party stakeholders” swarmed around the venue at all times — many in business suits and with a strict mannerism. I often found myself in a sea of mixed emotions while trying to navigate the climate-related negotiations that take place year after year at these meetings.

Seasoned climate advocates have often characterized the COP environment as a complex and evolving organism. As a newbie to such an experience, I was often lost in trying to traverse the complex and diverse policy discussions, but interestingly, so were the more seasoned climate diplomats, which only underscores the complexity of climate dialogues. Unable to digest seeing about 20,000 people from literally every corner of the world engaging in dialogues in different meeting rooms at the venue, I thought to myself:

Are these really the people that gave up their individual and national differences and adopted the historic Paris Climate Agreement in 2015? The agreement that aims to “hold the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels” and if possible, to “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C”. And are these really the same people that will now come up with a rulebook here in Katowice that will govern how the Paris Agreement is put into action?

While you can probably read through what happened at COP24 in many media outlets, including the fiasco of semantics (“note” vs. “welcome”), a few things stood out to me from my experience.

Firstly, just before the official COP, there was a conference of youth (COY) that is held in the same city just a few days before the COP. The COY aimed to bring together all the young climate advocates, activists, and climate stewards from all over the world to facilitate discussions, exchange ideas, and engage in policy training and preparation for the COP diplomacy.

When I conducted my workshop on “Telling Better Climate Change Stories” at COY and the work of CCL locally in Chicago and nationally, I was overwhelmed by the positive feedback and the emotions that flowed in the session. One of the things I have learned from my time with CCL is that people can argue with facts but not with the truth. Engaging in a very open, truthful, and personal dialogue on climate change is quintessential for others to understand the feelings and emotions that are associated with climate change, and empathize.

While climate change is a global problem, its effects to-date have not been so global. There are a number of developing communities around the world that have been hit the hardest because of climate issues while many of the developed communities only know of the theoretical implications and not of the personal trauma and tribulations that climate issues entail. So many of our lives have been personally affected by climate change, and it’s essential to share those stories with others. To inspire them, to enthuse them, to give them something to act on.

At the session, hearing personal stories from people of how climate change had affected their lives in so subtle yet powerful ways was very touching. But more endearing was the fact that they decided to do something about it. They decided to take action and be climate advocates, not just for themselves but for us all.

Secondly, at COP, the unspoken rift between developed countries and developing countries was very visible in many of the plenary sessions and side events. While developing countries are right to say that the present state of “carbon affairs” wouldn’t have been there if developed countries hadn’t fueled their economic growth for the past several decades using fossil fuels, and that they are not the ones responsible for climate change, it is also important to realize that climate change has no international borders. The blame game on climate change could be played on for decades to come, but it wouldn’t solve the truly global conundrum we are facing, perhaps the greatest contemporary challenge of our time.

It is important for us to realize that all of us have a common but differentiated responsibility based on our respective capabilities to act on climate change. Developed countries must take the higher road and lead the way for significant climate action while providing the necessary climate support to developing countries, who are at least willing to act on climate change. After all, goodwill begets goodwill.

Thirdly, a variety of issues are invisibly interconnected in the complex web of climate negotiations and dialogues. Developed countries must continue and significantly increase their financial commitments to the Green Climate Fund to help developing countries in the adaptation and mitigation practices to counter climate change. And they must do this while also unshackling themselves from the chains of fossil fuel dependency and leading the transition to renewable technologies while investing in climate-smart decisions. Billions of dollars in fossil fuel subsidies must be redirected towards more support for cleaner technologies while also exponentially decreasing their “stranded assets” to become less vulnerable to the rapid, unprecedented and far-reaching changes that are required to keep the world from warming above 1.5°C.

While countries are starting to come up with their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to keep a check on climate change by voluntary reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, it is very much evident that the current overall ambition to reduce emissions is lacking. Issues of a common timeframe, emissions accounting standards, reporting mechanisms, etc. are vital problems that need to be justifiably and wisely resolved. Besides such issues, the implementation process and the associated challenges to climate adaptation and mitigation which need to be overcome have always taken a back seat at climate negotiations because the global combined ambition itself, which is the first step, is lacking. The list of concerns from these climate negotiations goes on, but I’d be wrong to say that we are not making progress. We are. We are moving forward in the right direction. But again, without grit and ambition, progress to what end?

In hindsight, besides the many takeaways from COP24, it is abundantly clear that sustained climate advocacy at local, regional, national and international levels is important now more than ever before. We cannot allow our world to be taken hostage because of the unwillingness and hesitance of a few. It is very clear to me that there is no time for climate advocates like me to be a spark. We have to be the flame itself. Because, to whom much is given, much is expected.

Shantanu Agrawal is a Resilience Intelligence Fellow for Citizens’ Climate Education and a volunteer with Citizens’ Climate Lobby’s Chicago North Chapter.