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December 8, 2015 | Why I’m Hopeful at COP21

As I sit in Le Petit Palais at the UN Foundation’s “Earth to Paris” — a convergence of influential climate speakers — it doesn’t feel so petit to me. Pink lights cascade across the ornate and painted ceiling, which looms dozens of feet high. Voices of inspiration reverberate through the hall as speakers address eager ears, all talking about the importance of climate action.

For a while, I was fearful that COP21 wouldn’t bring about strong enough solutions, and fearful that the climate is quickly becoming too broken to fix. The news is constantly filled with horror stories of islands drowning and people’s lives being ruined by climate change, but it seems that no amount of destruction has caused big enough political change.

In Paris, I don’t feel so much desperation and uncertainty. The world has rallied here, and the global passion for climate action is palpable throughout the city: in the tens of thousands of shoes arranged around the Place de la Republique in place of a massive march, in the demonstrations taking place across the city, and in the bright-eyed youth (like me) floating around the streets in excitement.

The dozens of activists and politicians and humanitarians who spoken at “Earth to Paris” have emphasized the importance of remaining optimistic about the Paris talks. Nearly everyone’s final message was that climate change requires immediate action, and that a revolution is just around the corner. It’s hard for me to unpack all those statements. I feel like, for so long, people have been telling me that the time for action is now, that voices are being heard, and that politicians will finally get on board this week with a strong climate agreement. Yet still, when Secretary of State John Kerry took the stage, I didn’t feel that he reverberated the hope I’d been feeling at this event. Perhaps it was just his straight-laced nature, or his obligation to be bipartisan, but something about seeing him on stage, stammering through questions trying to come up with a diplomatic answer, didn’t give me hope. I’ve come to realize that I have little faith in the U.S. government to contribute to climate solutions. (And for good reason, since we’ve so often been a barrier to progress at past negotiations.) So if my own government didn’t inspire me today, what did?

What did give me hope was the dozens of people talking about the incredible work they’ve done — from climate education to encapsulating solar systems in portable suitcases — to combat climate change and create a just future. What gave me hope was hearing from frontline communities about their resiliency. What gave me hope is knowing that I’m part of a movement that’s hundreds of thousands of people large, whose voices are all united in calling on our politicians to be accountable to us and to our futures.

In my very brief time in Paris so far, I’ve realized that even if the delegates at the COP21 negotiations don’t bring about change, we will. The people united in this city and united across the world are too powerful to let this be the twenty-first climate conference that passes with no meaningful action. To paraphrase Bill McKibben’s sentiments in a panel earlier today, the difference between COP21 and previous climate negotiations is that, now, there’s a movement to hold delegates accountable. World leaders can’t leave Paris without agreeing on strong solutions because they understand that the world won’t accept it if they do.

Dr. Sylvia Earle, founder of Mission Blue, perhaps summed up my sentiments best. Thinking we cannot solve change is “a self-fulfilling prophecy” — we need positivity, and we need lots of it. As I sit in the vast Petit Palais, listening to these impassioned speakers address thousands of listeners across the globe, her words resonate: “Reasons for hope — they’re all around.” All around my fellow Future Solar Leaders who are with me, all around this city, and all around the world. I only had to open my eyes to see them.

Christina Cilento is one of Conergy's Future Solar Leaders. Christina is a junior at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois, where she studies Learning and Organizational Change with an emphasis in environmental policy and sustainability.