More scenes from the plan to save the planet


Kaia Rose’s remark­able web series (intro­duced ear­lier on City Atlas) lets you fol­low the process and play­ers of next week’s Paris cli­mate talks through the past sev­er­al months, lead­ing up to and through the talks them­selves. Rose’s episod­ic doc­u­men­tary is an eas­i­ly under­stood guide to the sto­ry of the cen­tu­ry. The series gives con­text to the inter­mit­tent (and excel­lent) cov­er­age from oth­ers, like Justin Gillis of the New York Times, who frames the lim­its of the talks this way:

Wrestling with a [car­bon] bud­get would, for instance, throw into stark relief the glob­al inequities at the heart of the cli­mate cri­sis. And it would under­score just how big the prob­lem real­ly is, how cost­ly the delay in tack­ling it has been and how inad­e­quate the plans being dis­cussed in Paris are for lim­it­ing the risks.

One stand-out note in the sec­ond part of Rose’s inter­view with Ang­ie Koo (below) is her dis­cov­ery of how acces­si­ble our pub­lic insti­tu­tions can be. Despite the lev­el of back­door lob­by­ing that is no doubt a dri­ver of pol­i­cy, our nation­al and glob­al insti­tu­tions them­selves remain sur­pris­ing­ly open to observers. That dis­tinc­tion may become more impor­tant as cli­mate nego­ti­a­tions and the need for very steep emis­sion cuts take over glob­al pol­i­cy. Con­verse­ly, multi­na­tion­al cor­po­ra­tions have nev­er been more pow­er­ful, but have no equiv­a­lent social norm of trans­paren­cy.

Face­book, for instance, with 1.5 bil­lion users, could wield tremen­dous day-to-day influ­ence in explain­ing the cri­sis. Face­book can see into the dai­ly lives of many of us, yet its own inter­nal deci­sion mak­ing on the sto­ry of the cen­tu­ry remains opaque. 

Google also has enor­mous reach with­out much pub­lic involve­ment in deci­sions. The effect of the­se giant cor­po­ra­tions is not nec­es­sar­i­ly neg­a­tive on a top­ic like glob­al warm­ing. But con­sid­er­ing the pace and scope of change nec­es­sary to attack the prob­lem, the puz­zle of the appro­pri­ate role of cor­po­ra­tions is height­ened by their dai­ly role in soci­ety, pow­er which may dwarf most of the nations attend­ing the Paris talks.

Kaia Rose points out that it’s up to us to hold gov­ern­ments account­able for what is achieved at Paris and after Paris. But every part of our soci­ety needs to become a real­i­ty trans­mit­ter. 


Is Paris a start­ing point, not an end point? Is it the begin­ning of what we have to do?

Exact­ly. I think when you look at it in that con­text, the UNFCCC, at least this year, the COP orga­niz­ers have been real­ly good about get­ting every­one togeth­er and real­ly try­ing to do it in a dif­fer­ent way that long-term will give us more suc­cess. But there’s a lot that will still come out in Paris I think. 

With Paris being a start­ing point, what should peo­ple be doing right now? Is there any­thing we can do our­selves?

That’s such a good ques­tion. That’s kind of what I’m try­ing to fig­ure out. I think aware­ness is huge. The more peo­ple that know Paris is hap­pen­ing and have a basic han­dle of what’s being decid­ed in Paris, and what specif­i­cal­ly their coun­try is sup­pose to be doing, then it’s real­ly up to cit­i­zens to hold gov­ern­ments account­able and ask for more after Paris. It’s real­ly impor­tant when some­thing is decid­ed in Paris, that cit­i­zens know what it is and what it means for their coun­try. Then own it and fig­ure out how to make it even bet­ter and grow. Aware­ness is huge – and talk­ing to friends.

In each kind of move­ment, there’s a water­shed moment where pub­lic con­scious­ness fits with the point, where every­one gets on the same page and things shift very quick­ly. For instance, mar­riage equal­i­ty; that hap­pened quick­ly. You got to that point where basi­cal­ly every­one thought, ”Oh, yeah. Of course, duh.” Then it got to the Supre­me Court and [the deci­sion] had to go that way. There’s a small, very vocal minor­i­ty who were fight­ing it [but] that will always hap­pen. In terms of just every­day peo­ple, every­one kind of shift­ed —where­as ten years before that, I wouldn’t have guessed it would have hap­pened that quick­ly. I real­ly wouldn’t thought that many peo­ple would have been that open to com­plete mar­riage equal­i­ty.

So, now we wait to see what hap­pens in Paris?

We want eyes on Paris. We want them to know the world is watch­ing because it is a bunch of diplo­mats. They answer to their gov­ern­ment and the gov­ern­ment is sup­posed to answer to the peo­ple. So the more it’s in the pub­lic aware­ness the bet­ter.

Even call­ing up Con­gress.

Hon­est­ly for Amer­i­cans, this next year going up to the next pres­i­den­tial elec­tion is huge, even may­be more impor­tant than Paris in terms of what you can actu­al­ly do because I feel that real­ly goes down to the lev­el of your con­gressper­son.

Call your con­gressper­son and let them know this is an issue that you care about. Build a rela­tion­ship with your con­gressper­son and con­tin­ue to say we want stricter emis­sion rules and a car­bon tax in our state. Chose some­thing more speci­fic than we want you to co-spon­sor a bill or we want you to pub­lish a pub­lic let­ter with sig­na­tures.

I some­times get car­ried away by the big pic­ture because it’s super impor­tant. But on a very local lev­el, we for­get how pow­er­ful each con­gressper­son actu­al­ly is when it comes to mak­ing deci­sions in this coun­try. Your dis­trict is pret­ty small and rep­re­sen­ta­tives real­ly care about peo­ple in their dis­trict; they lis­ten. You’re treat­ed well if you show up because that’s who vot­ed them in. So they have to answer to you, basi­cal­ly. Also on a city lev­el, cities are, espe­cial­ly like NYC, a huge place not only just for inno­va­tion and lead­er­ship, but also they tend to be where most of the emis­sions come from and are more capa­ble of doing trans­for­ma­tive ener­gy effi­cien­cy.

The thing I am try­ing fig­ure out with this series is – how do you relate the small pieces to the big pic­ture? Because that’s one thing I felt frus­trat­ed about. I’m recy­cling and I don’t own a car but I don’t feel like I’m doing that much, you know? That doesn’t feel enough. I didn’t know how that fit­ted in. Where­as if you look at the big pic­ture of how do we, as a whole glob­al econ­o­my, decar­bonize and bend the emis­sions curve, you get the­se pil­lars of ener­gy effi­cien­cy. For instance, chang­ing the pow­er grid. 

You change the way that elec­tric­i­ty is cre­at­ed over to renew­ables and clean sources and then change sources of ener­gy over to elec­tric­i­ty [for exam­ple: elec­tri­fy­ing our cars, and our build­ing heat, so every­thing in our life works off elec­tric­i­ty, and that elec­tric­i­ty is gen­er­at­ed from a zero car­bon source like wind, solar, hydropow­er or nuclear]. 

In terms of the glob­al econ­o­my, that’s what you need to do. That’s true as well on a local lev­el. So even in your build­ing you can try to get a group of peo­ple togeth­er and try to fig­ure how to make it more ener­gy effi­cient.

How do you change your pow­er to a renew­able source rather than a coal source? The more peo­ple that do, the more politi­cians will see that the peo­ple are on their side if they go for­ward with cli­mate and move all of NYC over to renew­able pow­er plants. Then if all of NYC goes toward renew­able pow­er plants, then the indus­try will see there’s an open­ing for renew­able pow­er rather than coal. 

How do you find a local move­ment that cre­ates a wave of change? Recy­cling is good, but I feel peo­ple want to do more than that. If you can fig­ure out a small thing, you see how it links to the big pic­ture and you effect change at a high­er lev­el by doing some­thing local­ly.

One episode is on car­bon pric­ing, which is some­thing again that you can lob­by at a very local lev­el and if put in place on a nation­al lev­el or even a state lev­el, would be pos­si­bly the biggest sin­gle thing. 

Get­ting involved with Citizen’s Cli­mate Lob­by, going to Wash­ing­ton and lob­by­ing, there are things like that, but each per­son is dif­fer­ent. I feel like there’s dif­fer­ent ways [to get involved]. For me, it’s link­ing what small action I can do up to the big pic­ture that can water­fall that change. What we’re try­ing to do with the series is see­ing the links and mak­ing that cohe­sive.

Economist Shiqui Zhang describes China's interests in success at Paris. (Photo: Kathy Zhang)

Econ­o­mist Shiqui Zhang at Peking Uni­ver­si­ty describes how Chi­na has joined the push for cli­mate solu­tions. (Pho­to: Kathy Zhang)

So far, what has sur­prised you the most in the process of mak­ing your web series?

All of it has been sur­pris­ing. Episode 8 is about Chi­na; that one was sur­pris­ing because up until now, over the first five or six episodes, because of the class­es I took, I knew a lit­tle bit, but now we’re start­ing to get into areas where I know less. 

I know very lit­tle about tech­nolo­gies and about finan­cial instru­ments, and with Chi­na, I didn’t know any­thing. One of our co-pro­duc­ers went to Chi­na and inter­viewed peo­ple; it was inter­est­ing to see what they were say­ing with­in Chi­na, some of which fit into what I thought, but it was much more encour­ag­ing than what I expect­ed.

Because Chi­na is tak­ing steps tech­nol­o­gy-wise and pol­i­cy-wise?

Pol­i­cy-wise, yes, and what seems like a com­mit­ment to make Paris work. I’m not sure if that com­mit­ment is com­ing from the same place as the Euro­pean com­mit­ment nec­es­sar­i­ly but it is a com­mit­ment so I don’t know if that real­ly mat­ters.

I think Bonn was sur­pris­ing to me. I just have nev­er been inside the UN before this year. The places they’ve let me in, I thought, “Real­ly?” Actu­al­ly, that’s what sur­pris­ing.

As a cit­i­zen you feel like the gov­ern­ment, Con­gress, the UN, and all the­se real­ly big insti­tu­tions are so closed off and exclu­sive, which in some ways they are. They have so much jar­gon and you need to know so much to under­stand what is going on, which is what we’re try­ing to break through. But actu­al­ly in terms of just attend­ing events and going to places with­out a big media body behind me, just as a cit­i­zen, the fact that I can get in the­se places was sur­pris­ing.

Since I’ve start­ed this project I’ve gone inside the World Bank, the IMF [Inter­na­tion­al Mon­e­tary Fund], Con­gress, the UN, and the UN in Bonn. It’s amaz­ing how much is actu­al­ly acces­si­ble to you if you are inter­est­ed and look for the right things. They mail out invi­ta­tions to go to events at the UN not because I’m mak­ing this project, but I’ve used them for this project. Any­one can go if they look around and get on the right lists. Even Con­gress, you can lit­er­al­ly just walk into the Con­gres­sion­al office build­ing with­out any appoint­ments. They scan you and there’s secu­ri­ty but you don’t have to prove you have a rea­son for being there. Any­one can just go in and hang out in the Con­gres­sion­al office build­ing if they want­ed to.

Were there peo­ple there or was it fair­ly emp­ty?

There were some tour groups. I was there for a big lob­by day so there were a lot of peo­ple lob­by­ing around. I just thought because we had an appoint­ment signed up, that I had to show I had an appoint­ment. The next time in DC if I just want­ed to go and have lunch in the Con­gres­sion­al office cafe­te­ria, I could. That’s been very sur­pris­ing, just how acces­si­ble places are actu­al­ly to a cit­i­zen if you feel empow­ered and feel like you want to. 

I didn’t know that you could just walk in.

Sur­pris­ing, I know! With the World Bank and the IMF, there are spring meet­ings and they always have a civil soci­ety aspect to that. You just sign up and go and there’s all the­se great talks. You get to wan­der the World Bank; you just flash your pass and you can wan­der any­where and it’s extra­or­di­nary.

Have you become more opti­mistic about cli­mate change and what human action can do to stop it? 

Yes, I have. Part­ly because of the peo­ple that I’m meet­ing. I’m usu­al­ly talk­ing to peo­ple who are work­ing real­ly hard to enact change in some way. There are a lot of real­ly smart peo­ple work­ing on this. I’m find­ing out that plen­ty of peo­ple have good plans about how we can do this. We just need more pub­lic aware­ness.

That’s great because, there’s usu­al­ly a gloomy aspect about cli­mate change.

Which I com­plete­ly under­stand. But I think I’ve also pro­tect­ed myself from that in a way because it doesn’t do me any good to say, “Oh well, it’s too late.” Because where does that put me? I can’t do any­thing with that. On the oth­er hand, I can think, “Okay, the Paris agree­ment will get us through 3 degree warm­ing so we’re going to have to fig­ure out how make it bet­ter.” It’s com­plete­ly dis­em­pow­er­ing to feel depressed. I got to a point where I don’t see the point of falling into that trap because the only thing it’ll make me do is just feel bad and feel like I need to hide away. I guess that’s an option, but I don’t real­ly want to just pre­tend. I think when you get to that point, you just ignore it. You either pre­tend it’s not hap­pen­ing, which some peo­ple are doing, or you just decide you can’t do any­thing about it and just ignore it and that’s not help­ful.

The only way to be help­ful is not be naive but just to be real­is­tic. Here we are in a cri­sis and the world is bad and it will get worse. We as the human race are fair­ly inno­v­a­tive and we have a lot of inge­nu­ity. We’re very capa­ble, so capa­ble that we’ve almost destroyed the envi­ron­ment that we live in. We can enact change very quick­ly and we can trans­form economies very quick­ly. We can come up with new tech­nolo­gies that are trans­for­ma­tive, so we’re capa­ble. It’s just are we going to do it in time? 

I real­ly hope that we will. I feel like I need to believe that we can because oth­er­wise I won’t want to… it would be too sad. But I actu­al­ly think that we can as well. There’s a momen­tum build­ing, and that’s one thing with Paris, I feel like there are peo­ple argu­ing that you can say Paris is already a suc­cess. There is so much momen­tum built just by [COP21] hap­pen­ing and by being built up into this thing that’s a ‘last chance’ type of thing. All the IND­Cs, all the com­mit­ments with busi­ness­es that we have, and Obama’s Cli­mate Action Plan—I don’t know if he would have done that if it wasn’t for Paris hap­pen­ing, and with Chi­na, I don’t know if they would have done that if it weren’t for Paris…

So you can say it’s already been a suc­cess and what we get in Paris will be what it is. We need to take off and make it bet­ter and more suc­cess­ful.

Will you con­tin­ue your series after Paris?

I think so, yes. We called it “Cli­mate Count­down” so that it wasn’t a count­down to Paris. We do have a count­down hap­pen­ing, but no one real­ly knows exact­ly when that ends. Right now we’re count­ing down to Paris because that’s the next big event and it’s impor­tant. But Paris is cer­tain­ly not the end; it’s the begin­ning and I think it’s impor­tant to keep going. We might not release episodes as quick­ly after Paris because right now we’re in this time crunch, but I want to keep going. I think it’s impor­tant for cit­i­zens to know what comes out of Paris and to fig­ure out how it’s being reg­i­ment­ed and if coun­tries are car­ry­ing through, because if there’s no sys­tem of legal­ly bind­ing action, which is real­ly hard for the UN to enact, then it real­ly is going to be a name-and-shame game, you know? 

You have to make sure the coun­tries don’t want to be the one that isn’t ful­fill­ing it, so that means a lot of civil soci­ety action in terms of hold­ing them account­able and cit­i­zens hold­ing them account­able. So then I think in some ways cit­i­zens are even more impor­tant after Paris.

Addi­tion­al resources: A very con­cise Justin Gillis/NYT explain­er: “Short Answers to Hard Ques­tions about Cli­mate Change” (Best if shared with fifty of your friends)

James Hansen’s cri­tique of the US posi­tion enter­ing Paris; Hansen sup­ports a car­bon fee and div­i­dend pol­i­cy to put a price on car­bon; sim­i­lar con­cept here

Cli­mate Central’s inter­ac­tive quiz: can you solve the aims of the Paris nego­ti­a­tions in the­se eight quick steps?

Chief eco­nom­ic colum­nist Mar­t­in Wolf describes his hopes for the Paris talks in the Finan­cial Times