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December 8, 2015 | Climate Change: A Dismal (Yet Hopeful) Pizza Party

It’s 7:30 pm in Denver, CO, where my Iceland Air flight took off from a few hours ago. After we land, I’ll have a brief stopover in Reykjavik en route to Paris, France. Following years of unsuccessful climate change conferences and the tragic and barbaric attacks on Paris a few weeks ago that almost brought the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) to a halt before it’d even begun, the world waits with bated breath to see what will come of these ever-important climate change negotiations. For two weeks, delegates from almost 200 countries around the world — including President Barack Obama — descend upon the “quintessential” city in hopes of brokering a binding deal amongst all of humanity, regarding our greenhouse gas emissions and the impending threat of climate change.

No small feat we’ve charged ourselves with. Notice I say “we” — this is not a “you” or a “me” issue; it’s not a “he” or a “she” issue; it is entirely a “we” issue. And it’s not a binary issue that can be solved by answering some yes or no questions. Maybe that’s rhetorical, given that we are in fact at the twenty-first conference of parties and we clearly haven’t come too far in terms of uniting the world on climate change.

But let’s back up. When did we even decide a healthy environment was important? Perhaps some of you have been following the news leading up to the event, but if not, let’s get up to speed. Despite fear of speaking in platitudes, let’s think of it in terms of pizza.

 

Stockholm, 1972: Sweden calls a few friends and invites them over. After a little while, they decide they are all hungry.

(The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment is created and signed, which says we all have the right to a healthy environment.)

 

Montreal, 1987:15 years later, everybody is still hungry. Germany admits that it is allergic to mushrooms; fine, whatever we get won’t have mushrooms.

(The Montreal Protocol banned CFCs — chlorofluorocarbons —, which were used in aerosols and refrigerators and were causing the hole in the ozone layer. While it may not seem like much, it was the first time everybody came together and showed international cooperation in addressing common concern for planet earth.)

 

Rio de Janeiro, 1992 – “Pizza! Let’s get pizza. Of course, its obvious — how did we not think about this before?! What kind of pizza? We should figure that out.”

(The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is established. The countries shall meet yearly to discuss and assess climate change, especially what humans are doing to exacerbate it.)

 

Kyoto, 1997: “Wait, who is going to pay for this? If you have cash, you should pitch in.”

“Yeah, I’m down!” says the U.S.

A few minutes later…

“Agh, actually, I wish I could pitch in, but I need to spend this money elsewhere,” says the U.S.

(The Kyoto Protocol is introduced, which suggests the developed countries implement and ratify targets to cap greenhouse gas emissions, which are responsible for climate change. Thirty-seven developed countries sign on. Despite the United States — one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions — not signing on, the conference is seen as a success.)

 

Copenhagen, 2009: “MEAT LOVERS!” “No. VEGETARIAN!” “I DON’T LIKE PEPPERS.” “I DON’T LIKE PEPPERONI.” Ugh.

(Growing economic powers, like the BRIC countries, are having trouble with the idea of establishing binding requirements. They feel “slighted” by the fact that all the developed countries, like the U.S., burned significant amounts of fossil fuels to industrialize to their current first-world status while they “can’t.” The already-developed countries feel that if they are bound to lower emissions, they won’t be able to develop technology to help the emerging economies leapfrog the “dirty growth” they themselves utilized. The conference is seen as dismal, but COP remains the forum for discussion about climate change.)

 

Paris, 2015: “Guys. We are all SO hungry. We literally have not eaten in like 40 years. Can we PLEASE just order something — the place is closing in a few minutes and we really need to eat.”

(The negotiations will deliver as much as people are willing to contribute — whether that is a commitment on emissions reductions targets, green investment quotas, or whatever it takes to keep global warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius. It should apply to all signatories, and there are hopes that it will be one of the most significant agreements since the first-ever COP in Rio 21 years ago. Still, as Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org and attendee of every single COP, says, “[Paris] is a scorecard in the game of climate change.”)

 

So, here we are, finally recognizing that if we don’t do something about climate change, we’re not going to need to make the decision about what kind of pizza to order in the first place because there won’t be any pizza to order. As we think about how to frame the message, it is not enough to simply talk about avoiding a catastrophe; rather, we need to discuss proactively striving towards a sustainable future. To manage global warming, many have said, “We will need to mobilize on a level comparable to fighting a war, but in this case there are no enemies to identify and confront.” There are possible solutions, and finally there is a movement of tens of millions of people urging our leaders to take bold action.

I’ve landed in Paris. Finally, I have an opportunity to stand up.

Kyle Sundman is one of Conergy's Future Solar Leaders. Kyle is currently working towards an MBA, concentrated in Sustainability, at the University of Denver in Colorado.