Behind the scenes of the plan to save the planet

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Kaia Rose knew she didn’t know enough about what the world is doing to solve climate change, so she’s making a film (in several parts, presented on YouTube) for young people like her to watch and learn. And it’s become a record of the steps up to the pivotal meeting about the fate of the planet, which starts at the end of next month in Paris. 


Rose’s project is a fascinating tour of people and organizations coming together over the course of 2015 to hammer out an agreement that can be approved in December, and set the world on a path of hope. Angie Koo talked to Kaia to find out how she got started earlier this year, what it’s been like, and what she plans next:

What motivated you to make the series? Who did you want to target to watch it?

It’s funny when you look back because it’s like, “When did that idea pop into my head?” I moved to New York to start making films that were more politically engaged, socially engaged. I have always been very politically minded and just working in animation wasn’t fulfilling that side of me. So I took a couple MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), three courses online given by SDSN (Sustainable Development Solutions Network) and they were all on climate change.

This was just a year ago. It was interesting because I knew climate change was a big issue. I knew it was bad and I thought we were a bit doomed. Then I started taking these classes and I didn’t realize there was this big conference coming up. I didn’t know about COP (Conference of the Parties). I’d heard of the Kyoto Protocol but I didn’t know that it was part of COP. I didn’t know 2015 was being called this “Our Last Chance” kind of thing and so the way the MOOCs, especially the Climate Change Science and Negotiation, talked about this COP was “if we start now, we can really thin that curve of emissions. We can do it. We just have to do it.”

I thought, “Well, why aren’t we doing it and why don’t I know this? I’m the audience that should know about this because I’m politically minded and I care, and I just had no idea.” I listen to the news. I read the news. I may not watch cable news but I feel like I’m pretty tuned in and aware, and I just had no idea. I started talking to friends and none of us knew.

So that’s really what started it. I should do something on this; I should make something. I decided on New Years that I am going to be in Paris, doing something. I don’t know what, but that’s my decision. Then this video series developed through talking to people. It was going to be a film, but then I realized it would be more interesting and more up to date if it was building awareness as it went and updating because it was so much about this time leading up to COP21 and raising awareness about it.

So the audience is following along with you.

The main audience I had in mind were people who were in my position. I guess the millennial generation. I never really know who is in that generation but [they are] usually younger people who care about climate change, would get involved if they knew what was going on, and who are turned off by the old narrative of doom and gloom.

All of the climate change documentaries I had seen, which there were not that many actually, were about how bad it’s going to be or saying [climate change] is happening. I thought, “I know. I know that. I don’t need…”

Then you just think that you need to unplug from modern society and go live in the woods because you’re part of the problem. You start feeling guilty and horrible about things like, “Do you know how much energy your phone uses?”

You can’t go travel. You can’t really eat anything that’s not local or sustainable. You can’t drive.

Exactly! Exactly. You end up feeling really disempowered. I think traveling is important and I would just feel guilty when I travel. Then I wouldn’t feel like I could do anything and I also wouldn’t feel inspired to do anything because I felt so bad about it all. That was the narrative I was stuck getting. If you say a film about climate change, everyone thinks, “ Oh, it’s going to be depressing.” I wanted to change that and skip over the whole debate about if it’s happening or not. I wasn’t interested in that.

So I started with the fact that it’s happening. What are we doing about it? What can we do? What are we doing? What do we need to do? Why isn’t it happening? [I wanted it to be] very solutions-based and very rational. We’re in this crisis; we have the tools, technologies, and the basic ideas of how we can get out of this crisis. So how do we do that, and if we aren’t doing that, why aren’t we doing that? How do we as citizens—how do I find a way of helping make it happen?

I remember you mentioning in the video that we have the money and we have the technology; we just aren’t politically willful enough to make the changes that we need to. That’s a pessimistic thought, that we have everything we need but what’s stopping us is ourselves.

Yes. That quote helped me structure upcoming episodes because I felt that gives us three areas of focus. You need the money. So where is the money? Where do we need to be and what’s that gap? So I know there’s the gap of the Green Climate Fund – there are gaps still there. How are people working to gather the money and put it in the right places? As for the technology, where are we in all these different technologies that we need: renewables, batteries, carbon capture? I know the terms, but I don’t really know what’s scalable.

Or what’s practical?

Yes, exactly. So where are we in that? Where do we need to be and what’s the gap?

As for political will, where are we and what are people doing to build political will? I feel that this is probably the place where most citizens can make a really big difference. The population and citizenry can build political will. They can push political will in the right way.

To follow that up, do you think enough people follow climate change news? If not, why? People in my circle who follow it have studied it or were involved in environmental organizations in college. Then I have friends who are fairly well educated, keep up with the news, and know that climate change is happening, but they don’t care to do much about it, or find out more about it…

I think that’s social. I jumped into the climate world and so now, I have a completely different perspective from where I was before. I’m not an outsider but I still feel a little bit like an outsider. I definitely think [climate change is] growing in the public consciousness, but actually I think the problems are growing in the public consciousness. You say droughts in California and people think climate change. Hurricane Sandy. Climate Change. People are making the links but I feel that the solutions, practical solutions, aren’t so much in the public consciousness.

For instance, solar; people know about solar or wind. But I didn’t realize batteries, battery storage, and smart grids are just as important, if not more important right now. We can’t just have a bunch of solar panels. We still have to figure out the grid. So these areas, new ways of using money to invest, or ways of using the litigation system to do things are all really innovative solutions that people are working on that I don’t feel like are in the public consciousness.

Another thing that started us off and I think is missing is that we’re in a crisis, but we have the opportunity to become a sustainable society and that’s really exciting. There are really cool things being done and I feel like [with] our generation, it is cool to be green or sustainable.

Like a new trend.  

Yes. I feel like with all of those technologies, [it’s better] if you got people to look at climate change or climate action as an exciting possibility of how to make our society better and not just averting doom.

If you phrase it as we have to avert doom, people think, “Ugh.” Whereas if it’s about how we’re going to have electric cars or green roofs, people think, “That’s cool and awesome.” Then it follows that if we’re going to have electric cars, we need to first clean up the grid because that is what makes sense. Then what are we missing from there? Oh, batteries! Whoever invents the next type of battery is going to be a bazillionare. Kids going to university saying, “I’m going to work on batteries.” That’s exciting and different.

I feel like there’s so many exciting entry points. That’s what I’m hoping with the series, that I’m introducing all of the different facets of how we solve this problem and each person can find their own little entry point. Not just, “Oh god, I got to do something, let’s do that.” It’s more about, “That’s really interesting, I’m inspired by that. I want to work on that.” I feel like it’s such an overarching issue. It really connects everything. It underlies so much. No matter what you’re interested in, you can be working on something to solve this problem just by rearranging the way you think about it.

Okay, so what am I? Me? I’m a filmmaker, so I’m not going to invent the next battery. What can I do? Well, I can make a web-series about this. Who knows how much it’s impacted on me but I’m really enjoying it. I’m finding it inspiring and invigorating.

I’ve learned a lot from your series. I studied Kyoto. I didn’t know much about Copenhagen, and I heard about Paris this past summer, but didn’t know how it all interconnected.

Thank you. We’ve been having good feedback; it’s really nice. It’s been used in a class at University of Wisconsin. A guy’s using it for his UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) class; it’s great. It seems like it’s hitting the right tone I wanted. I was talking to my mom the other day. She was talking to one of her really good friends and said, ”Oh, have I sent you Kaia’s web-series about climate change?” The friend then said, “Oh, it’s going to be depressing, isn’t it?” My mom then said, “No, it’s not, actually.”

That’s what I was really aspiring to do, making it accessible, engaging, interesting, and not exclusive. Since I’m learning as well, I figure if I get it, the audience will be able to get it. I’m not on the inside of this and the way I like to work out problems is by thinking, “How do these pieces interlink? This needs that, and that needs that. That needs that, so that kind of goes back to this and that’s interesting.” You start to see how the puzzle starts to fit together better.

A thought just came to me. People are talking about Mars and how we can go to Mars. If we don’t change and become a sustainable society, we’re going to do the same thing to Mars when we get there.   

I know. There’s that quote people have been saying a lot, “There is no plan B, because there is no planet B.” Then the next day, we find water on Mars! Here I am thinking, “Oh no! I think we should stop saying [that quote] because there might actually be a planet B and we don’t want that. We want to try to fix planet A.

The thing is we can. We can, actually. It is definite that climate change is happening. It’s definitely having an effect. It definitely will continue to have effects. So it’s not like we can stop it from happening. There’s going to be a lot of disasters and that’s all true, but we can [fix it]. It’s just a matter of survival and not surviving. It seems like a really simple answer, you know what I mean? “Do we want to survive as a society or not? We do? Well okay, we need to actually do something, so let’s just do.”

With Kyoto and Copenhagen, everyone came together and decided there what to do. Now at Paris, the countries have to submit their INDCs (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) beforehand. So my question is, what is going to happen in Paris then? Are they going to discuss and then they haggle over their plans?

There’s definitely a lot of negotiations still going on. I think what’s interesting about Paris, from what I understand, is that it really is a different approach to the earlier COP process. People say that the COP process has been going for  21 years and they haven’t been able to solve it yet, which is true. But Copenhagen and Kyoto were top-down approaches and Paris is much more bottom-up. It’s getting countries to be more invested in the solution by having them own the solution, rather than telling them what to do.

It’s like, you tell us what you can do and we’re going to bring everyone together.

So the INDCs—actually, today is the deadline for the INDCs. So they’re going to do a report by the end of the month about where those are so we’ll know the level of ambition.

[The good news is that countries have submitted them; the bad news is that we’re still shy of the 2°C target. For an example of the process, you can see India’s recently submitted INDC document here.]

It is confusing as [the countries have] all different target years, base years, and methods, so they’re going to produce a report. The way the text is right now in Paris, there are two kinds of groups. One has a whole group of issues we don’t know where any of which should goes. Basically people want to fight for issues to get it out of that [group] to go in either an agreement or a decision.

There’s a whole Paris package that they’re still deciding what it’s going to look like. It’ll include the INDCs, a financing element, the agreement, and  some kind of climate action plan, which includes businesses, industries, and and civil society. As I understand it, the decision is pre-2020 action and the agreement is post-2020 action. But that’s all very in flux.

It all seems very vague. I’m trying to wrap my head around it.

It is pretty vague, but I think it’s pretty vague because they haven’t decided yet what each document should be, so that’s up in the air. Everyone submitted the INDCs but the big contentious issues are whether loss and damage is in the agreement and there are people that are working to try get carbon pricing in. A lot of negotiation is going to be financing, who is going to pay for what.

Do all the nations have to agree?

The thing about the UNFCCC is that they rely on consensus so that’s why things move so slowly. You have almost 200 countries coming from very different domestic agendas and capabilities. There’s this contentious issue of responsibility and capacity. Who’s most responsible for carbon emissions? Historically, they have been the developed countries. Who has the capacity to do more? These are also mainly the developed [countries], but then also China.

Who can help developing nations financially and with technology? How do we work together to get this done? Who has the most responsibility and who has the most capacity? That’s all very touchy.

[And this very issue has been holding up the last minute preparations, on the issue of climate adaptation and mitigation finance for poor countries.]

Is there a chance the nations won’t agree to it? If so…

I don’t think—I mean, I guess there’s a chance, but I think they’ll get an agreement. They’re working very hard to make sure there’s an agreement. The level of ambition, I think, is what we’re not sure on. It might be an agreement that everyone agrees on, but it’s not that ambitious. When I was in Bonn, it was interesting because it’s a really different atmosphere when you’re there and in the room with about 200 people, each representing a whole country.

I wish I could have seen footage of that.

I know, I know! We can’t film inside the room but they’re literally like group editing a text. If you can imagine even trying to do that with a group of 200 students, all agreeing how something is written is just like…

I think I get it. We have something very similar at my college where we revise our school Constitution every year and requires ⅓  of the students to be there. It’s just a word document that they’re editing and it requires can easily over an hour for one sentence to change.

Yeah. So it’s basically like that, but on a global scale and with the fate of the world. It’s kind of mind-boggling but when I walked away from Bonn, and other people are talking about this as well, but I think we have to put the UN and the UNFCCC in the right context. The power that they have is to convene. They have amazing convening power. They can bring almost all the countries of the world together to talk about how we’re going to address climate change and to agree that we need to address climate change. That’s huge. And the fact that they got so many countries to submit their INDCs—actually, that’s never happened before that you have many countries saying this is what we’re going to do to reduce our emissions. Even if it doesn’t add up to enough, that’s kind of amazing. There’s something in that I think, and people will say that’s not enough but they [the U.N.] don’t really have a lot of legal power to say you have to do this. They’re trying to construct this in a way so that countries are part of the decision making process and really want to be involved in it.

Another issue that they’ll talk about in Paris is the monitoring, the recording, how to make sure countries carry through, and also how to work in increasing the ambition level over time. There’s talk every 5 years, checking back in on the plans, reassessing, and trying to increase [the ambition]. I think the people organizing COP21 are very determined to get a good agreement and they know that it is not going to be as ambitious as it needs to be. So they’re trying to figure how do we galvanize non-governmental organizations, like business and industry, civil society, and also like sub-national leaders to help raise the ambition after Paris.

Also, how do they build into the agreement a way that the ambition increases over time? They don’t want this to be the top of what we do; this to be the bottom of what we do. This is where we start. Then we’re going to need to go on from there and get better and better.

[This is part one of a two part interview about the creation of Kaia Rose’s new web series on COP21: Climate Countdown]

Photo: Filmmaker Kaia Rose, taken by Angie Koo