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It’s been a few weeks since the announcement of the “historic” COP21 agreement, wherein a majority of the world settled on goals for mitigating and adapting to climate change. Since then, I’ve been asked by countless family members at holiday gatherings how my experience in Paris was and what I... Read More


December 11, 2015 | Powered by 100% Renewable Inspiration

I’m a self-proclaimed optimist.

While I appreciate all the “realists” out there, I charge you to take a moment and consider how everything in life is just a matter of perspective, and in this case, framing the conversation.

Ok, sure; getting 185 people — or in this case entire countries — to agree on anything is inherently difficult. Heck, getting a handful of people to agree on what type of pizza to order is a challenge. (See what I did there? Full circle.) So the question is: How do we convince people to mobilize around the biggest existential threat humanity has ever faced?

There is a difference between sharing an inspired vision and inspiring a shared vision. Consider that every successful venture, every impactful movement, begins with a dream — and how much less compelling Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech would have been if he had framed his message “I have a nightmare." Instead, he inspired a shared vision; he was a leader who had a desire to make something happen, to change the way things were, and to create something nobody had created before. He crafted a vision in his mind’s eye of what the future he wanted looked like, and like an architect creates a blueprint, he set the stage. Where he excelled was making sure that his constituents saw it too because, as Jim Kouzes points out, “Visions seen only by leaders are insufficient to create an organized movement or a significant change in a company. A person with no constituents is not a leader, and people will not follow until they accept a vision as their own. Leaders cannot command commitment, only inspire it." Martin Luther King Jr. spoke the language of his people. He helped them to imagine a world free of racial injustice, and they made the cause their own. Let's remember that the 400,000 people at the March on Washington didn’t receive a Facebook event invitation with the time and place to meet — they showed up because he inspired the why.

Here in Paris, we are at the forefront of a revolution.

Regardless of the complexities and overly bureaucratic nature of any international negotiation, I’m confident there will be an agreement at COP21. The climate is changing — that is fact. John Oliver compares it to questioning, “Do owls exist?” or “Are there hats..?” In fact, there’s simply no more room for plausible deniability. The science is, and has been, quite compelling, and now the economics are clear as well.

After speaking with ambassadors and folks with ears in the “Blue Zone," where the official COP21 negotiations are taking place, the sentiment is echoed that keeping the warming of the planet to 2 degrees Celsius — the generally accepted upper limit needed to avoid self-perpetuating climate chaos — will most likely be the language in an agreement, with reference to 1.5 degrees as a hopeful alternative. That’s despite the fact that our own Secretary of State, John Kerry, has alluded to the fact that the “2 degree target” being more conceptual and aspirational than a realistic target to embrace because somehow he wonders whether we can come together and cooperate for the betterment of the one thing every human being shares: the planet.

Unfortunately, the advocates for the most ambitious, binding climate agreements are generally the small island nations, who have so much to lose with rising sea levels, and who traditionally don’t have as much pull as a world hegemonic power. Countries like the United States (where incredibly there is still a debate going on over the need for a bold outcome in Paris) are responsible for quieting the cry of tens of millions of people who live within a meter of the ocean, and will be directly and immediately affected by climate change. They are also probably the reason that whatever does come out of this conference won’t be legally binding — in the United States we are precluded from ratifying such a treaty without first passing it in the (currently Republican-controlled) Senate.

Even with a seemingly impassible barrier, there are ways around it, legally speaking, and this time there is also going to be a lot of peer pressure on us to cooperate. A few years ago at the Conference of Parties in Bali, 2007, the U.S. also tried to push back and reject the consensus. After weeks of negotiations and emotional and physical exhaustion plaguing the audience, this won our ambassadors a harmony of “boos” from the rest of the countries in attendance, comparable to Peyton Manning entering Lucas Oil Stadium bearing Blue and Orange for the first time since being a Colt. That’s when Kevin Conrad, a delegate from Papua New Guinea, took to the microphone saying, “If, for some reason you are not willing to lead, please – get out of the way.” The cheers reverberated off the walls of the United Nations building, happily silenced when the United States reconsidered and ultimately obliged. They agreed to what was ultimately a ratchet mechanism that consisted of more goals for the coming years through common, but differentiated responsibilities amongst individual countries. And while it’s absurd that we are essentially flipping a coin for the future of the entire species, I guess that’s politics, right?

While I won’t have an effect on the wording of any official agreement, I can have an effect on helping to mobilize our generation to inspire a shared vision of a planet that thrives in accordance with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, issued by the UN this past year. And that’s why I’m optimistic about the climate movement.

Ultimately, it began with forward thinking people like Al Gore and Bill McKibben, but you could argue they had an inspired vision that they tried to share, instead of the other way around. In 2015, however, we’ve reached a critical juncture. A tipping point, really. On one hand, if we don’t do something now, we might just be a generation remembered for not being able to see past our own headlights; but if we do, we can go down in history as a generation who was neither self-absorbed nor lazy, not helpless to the fate we saw ahead but collectively inspired to take the reigns of a world on the verge of cataclysmic struggle.

On Wednesday, just 12 miles away from the official negotiations, at the Earth to Paris satellite event, people with different convictions and varying skillsets came together in a beautiful melting pot of shared passion for the betterment of our planet. I witnessed a pair of 17-time Grammy-nominated hip hop artists with a resolve to make climate change "fresh." I learned about some inspired PhD students who began on opposite ends of the globe, one riding his bike from New Zealand, through Indonesia, southern Asia, and China to meet his friend who ran from the Arctic, and through Scandinavia, both finishing their journey in Paris for this conference after crossing the entire European continent on the way. I met a scientist who is revolutionizing the way big data is used calling it the “newest natural resource” and the “socio-economic equivalent of meteorology." I met people from the health sector who are using solar energy to help reduce the rate of infant mortality and other complications by ensuring that during childbirth, or a surgery, the lights don’t go out forcing the doctor to use cell phone light with one hand and the procedure with the other. And maybe the most encouraging— I spoke with CEOs from Silicon Valley who are absolutely convinced that business can be used as a catalyst for positive change. People like Bill Gates and Sir Richard Branson have raised hundreds of billions of dollars to invest in new clean technology, not just for political or social reasons, but because they understand that we are about to reach the point where a better product can be delivered at a better price when it is directly related to the movement of sustainability.

What goes on here in Paris is going to have a direct and immediate effect on climate change. For one of the first times in history, we all have a common goal and can work together in relatively disparate ways to achieve the same end. “Waiting," as Elon Musk points out, “is the dumbest experiment ever." We all know that at some point, based on any of the above factors, the transition to a clean energy future will be upon us, and prolonging it has zero positive implications.

Being here in Paris during this event is electric. You can feel it in the air. You might even say that optimists, like me, have become pragmatists. The best part? While delegators are working diligently to establish a framework for countries to work together, everybody is already doing it.

Finally, we have synergy.

Finally, we are mobilizing.

Because finally, we have been brought together by a shared vision. 


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.