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December 8, 2015 | Climate Change and the Case for Global Unity

That unifying moment that we’ve waited for has arrived: the moment that division and fear do not guide our behavior but, rather, hope and science coalesce to ignite a societal shift toward sustainability and justice. The 21st Conference of Parties (COP21), the United Nations Climate Negotiations, can be the foundation for such a collective movement for real change. Historically, human civilization has been divided. Rulers and their subjects, the proletariat and bourgeois, the 99% and the 1% — they collectively embody a common theme of power — those who have it and those who don’t. Concurrently, we’ve collectively hoped for a future that brings us together, breaks down cultural and racial barriers, and reflects our societal capacity to engineer true freedom

“The most important thing is to learn from indigenous and forest communities on how they do sustainable development,” said Christina Coc, a Mayan leader who advocates for indigenous rights who spoke at the UN Foundation’s “Earth to Paris,” a satellite conference in Paris hosted alongside COP21.

The idea that the rights of indigenous people need to be upheld and that sustainable development and indigenous rights often go hand-in-hand has long been the rallying cry of indigenous communities facing the dangers of Western development. That is, Ms. Coc’s sentiments are not new; what’s different is who’s listening.

Tom Steyer, billionaire philanthropist, listened intently to every word Ms. Coc uttered. So did Lyndon Rive, the CEO of the world’s largest residential solar company. And so have Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and thousands of small business owners across the globe. For the first time, economic interests —those who represent the leading edge of business — are genuinely interested in the rights of those who have been powerless historically. For the first time, business leaders are looking to indigenous communities for answers to the world’s toughest questions. 

The threat of climate change is expansive, affecting the most impoverished among us, reducing the prospect of long-term corporate profit, and fueling resource scarcity in our world’s most volatile regions. Because of its broad impact, this existential threat is accomplishing what nothing before has on an international scale: It is bringing us together.

Rhea Suh, the president of the NRDC and past assistant secretary at the Department of Interior, spoke about how COP21 is a moment when bottom-up movements meet top-down power, stating, “Governments have the responsibility to set the framework for action ... but the energy and innovation really happens at the local and regional level.” She alluded to the imperative that governments utilize their power to bolster the ideas of the people, using their organization and established systems to facilitate grassroots efforts. COP21 is the culmination of this idea, for nearly 200 nations have come together to discuss ways to introduce scientific limits to our pollution while listening to the tribes, indigenous people, and impoverished nations who are too often overlooked by dominant powers.

At COP21, governments, businesses, and the world’s communities have come together to discuss how to create a more sustainable world, and the sense of a common mission is powerful. Even so, such complex problems beg the question: Can lasting change result from the sense of unity and justice that permeates the conference, or will we revert to our unsustainable, unjust selves as the excitement of the conference diminishes?

As I meandered through the buzzing halls of Earth to Paris, I sensed a collective hope for permanence. Too often, the hopes of those wanting change collide with those who reinforce the status quo and ultimately fall short or produce nothing at all. At COP21, however, we collectively understand that this is our final moment — that the decisions we make now will mean the difference between a hospitable planet and a planet wrought with inequality, sickness, and scarcity. Now is our chance to embolden humanity to uphold our most beloved virtues. Now is our chance to create lasting change.

Jake Kornack is one of Conergy's Future Solar Leaders. Jake is an environmental activist and progressive majoring in economics and history at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon.