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January 12, 2016 | After COP21, America Needs a Reality Check

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 think of the agreement that came out of the conference. I’ve struggled to convey my feelings to them, unsure of how to put into words the mixed feelings I have about COP21. This article is my way of articulating what I couldn’t quite convey to all my relatives.

While I was in Paris, I saw the incredible sights of the city and did all sorts of touristy things. As I bee-bopped around the city with other Future Solar Leaders, we laughed and took selfies and shared stories and ate and drank, and of course got less-than-amused stares and comments from French passersby and waiters.

But in Paris, I wasn’t just embarrassed by my group talking loudly on the metro or laughing a bit too hysterically at cafes. I was quite literally ashamed to be American.

At first I thought it was extreme of me to say that, but now I strongly believe that it’s not extremist — it’s realist. Coming to COP21 was a wakeup call for me, and I think many Americans need one, too. Here’s me attempting to deliver it.

I traveled to Paris full of hope, confident that I would be present in the city for a monumental moment, that I would be able to witness international cooperation and diplomacy on a scale never before demonstrated. And, even if — for some unthinkable reason — politicians couldn’t come to an agreement, I had hope in the power of the people to start a climate revolution and push our leaders where they need to be to make change happen.

After spending a week there, I feel entirely jaded about my country’s political system. I saw negotiations that were dominated not by the voices of those affected worst by climate change but by the voices of fossil fuel companies and the corporations that own American politics. U.S. politicians are very much controlled by corporate interests, particularly those of fossil fuel companies. Look at the $144,941,531 oil and gas companies spent on lobbying in 2014 for proof. This means that American diplomats are often swayed by corporate lobbyists — and not the people who are on the frontlines of the climate crisis.

The power of corporate interest was palpable at COP21. The U.S. entered the negotiations with a list of things we could not commit to — because a Republican-dominated Senate fueled by corporate dollars would refuse to pass any agreement that required real action from us. Right off the bat, then, COP21 was doomed to result in empty statements instead of strong commitments. The U.S. explicitly warned that whatever agreement came out of this conference could not include legally binding emissions reductions goals or finance obligations. We further stalled progress by refusing to discuss the possibility of loss and damage payments to vulnerable nations, and we ensured that we weren’t held accountable for our actions by blocking language in the agreement that “would expose the US to liability and compensation claims for causing climate change,” according to The Guardian.

The COP21 agreement was not nearly as ambitious as it needed to be, in large part because the U.S. ensured it wasn’t. And although U.S. leaders like President Obama have touted “American leadership” at the conference, it’s clear that we are far from being a leader in climate change. We’ve been playing the same cards for nearly 20 years. Just looking at past negotiations shows how little we’ve progressed.

In 1997 in Kyoto, Japan, nearly 200 nations adopted the Kyoto Protocol, which set binding targets for emissions reductions. Although the U.S. signed the protocol, Senate refused to ratify it, making us one of the only countries not to do so, and rendering the protocol a big flop. To avoid the same situation this time, the U.S. stipulated that COP21 should create an agreement that wouldn’t need to be ratified by Congress, resulting in the watered-down text that came out of Paris.

Then in 2009 in Copenhagen, at what many labeled as the conference that would get the job done, American and Chinese stubbornness to create a global agreement and provide support to developing nations left the conference in a meaningless document that, according to The Guardian, “’recognizes’ the scientific case for keeping temperature rises to no more than 2C but does not contain commitments to emissions reductions to achieve that goal.” 

And now, COP21. The big “this is it” moment. The “America’s finally got their act together” moment. After a successful year of President Obama saying “no” to the Keystone XL pipeline and passing the Clean Power Plan, it looked like the U.S. was in line with the rest of the world and could finally commit to steps to stop climate change. But — surprise! — we proved to be a holdout again.

The result of COP21 is an international “agreement” that is nothing more than a sympathetic suggestion. Of course, it sets forth a warming target of less than 2 degrees Celsius, with a goal of 1.5 degrees, but what good is that “goal” if it’s not enforced? It’s like when teachers assign homework in class and say, “It would be really good for your learning if you all did this, but it’s optional!” (Read: We’re not going to do it.)

There is no bigger slap in the face to vulnerable and developing countries than to pass an empty agreement and label it “historic.” There’s no bigger death sentence than to believe that what happened at COP21 will save lives, because it won’t. The only thing that can truly stop the path of climate change is a legally binding, aggressive agreement that all countries sign onto. Anything other that is quite literally suicidal.

Because while politicians prattle in Congress, citizens of low-lying nations drown. While we debate the reality of climate change, increasingly severe storms rip through the developing world at higher frequency. While the rest of the world marches forward, America tries to hold them back.

I am not hopeful after COP21; in fact, I feel quite jaded and angered. I placed too much faith in my own government and had somewhat naïve notions that this time would be different. I now realize that things aren’t going to become “different” on their own. I’m not optimistic, but I am determined. I am determined to channel my frustration into returning power to the people and into making my country something I can be proud of. America needs to get its act together, and the American people need to mobilize to make that happen.

So, here’s looking at you, COP22.

 

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.