More scenes from the plan to save the planet

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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.

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

Photo: Economist Shiqui Zhang at Peking University describes how China has joined the push for climate solutions, taken by Kathy Zhang