A Circle on the Paris Climate Conference

December 5, 2015

Through readings, video and discussion, students learn about the Paris climate conference, underlying issues, and popular efforts to address climate change.  

Gathering

Share the following quote with students. It is believed to originate with the Cree peoples of Canada: 
 

When all the trees have been cut down, when all the animals have been hunted, when all the waters are polluted, when all the air is unsafe to breathe, only then will you discover you cannot eat money.  

 
Invite students to reflect on the quote.  What about the quote resonates with them?
 
Go round:  Send a talking piece around asking students to share their reflections on the quote and/or any connections they have with it. 
 
 




Paris Conference on Climate Change

 
Next, ask students to share what they know about the gathering of world leaders taking place in Paris, which started on Monday, November 30, 2015.  If students aren’t sure, provide them with a hint that the reason these national leaders are gathering is connected to the quote we heard. 
 
Elicit and explain that the first two weeks of December, 2015, leaders from around the world are gathering in Paris, France, for the United Nations Conference on Climate Change.   
 
According to the UN website: "The challenge of this fortnight is to achieve the adoption of a new climate agreement applicable to all countries, which will enter into force in 2020."  
 
The Conference of Parties (COP), as it is known, is the 21st annual meeting to address the growing challenge of climate change. The meetings started back in the mid-1990s to negotiate the Kyoto Protocol, which aimed to establish legally binding obligations for developed countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.  These emissions (mostly from burning fossil fuels) are trapping heat in earth’s atmosphere, leading to a rapid and unprecedented rise in global temperatures.
 
Since the first COP meeting, global warming has continued, and it has brought with it devastating floods and storms, droughts that endanger our food supply, rising oceans that are swamping coastal areas, and other threats to plant, animal, and human life. 
 
People throughout the world have been calling for the world’s nations to agree on a plan to address this urgent threat. 
 



COP21 Video


Show students this 1.5-minute video about COP21:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fjjiheLS7UA
 
Send the talking piece around asking students to share their thoughts and feelings about this clip.  What stood out for them?  Start by sharing your own reflections.
 
Who do your students think the "you" in "we’re counting on you" is at the end of the clip?  Who should we be counting on for the Paris Conference on Climate Change to be a turning point for the climate?
 
 


 

Climate activism


Explain that while much hinges on whether and what kind of agreement the world’s leaders can come to in Paris during the COP21 conference, history tells us that often what matters most is the actions of every day people who demand - and help bring about - change.
 
Everyday people across the globe are finding creative ways to address the climate challenge. College students are organizing campaigns to get their schools to divest from fossil fuels. Native American activists are mobilizing blockades to stop corporations from extracting and moving fossil fuels across their lands. Local anti-fracking campaigns are blocking newer highly toxic ways of extracting fossil fuels, preventing increased destruction already fragile ecosystems. Individuals, as well as whole communities, are changing their lifestyles to significantly shrink their carbon footprint, in part by shifting from greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels to clean energy. They're also doing things like planting more trees. Trees naturally counter greenhouse gas emissions by absorbing carbon dioxide and they can cool cities by up to 10%. 
 
People across the globe are also marching.
 
The last weekend of November 2015, in the run-up to the UN climate conference, people in 175 countries went out into the street to demand action on climate change.  Organizers estimate that about 785,000 people marched on that day, demanding a global treaty to stop the extraction of fossil fuels and funding a "just transition to 100% renewable energy by 2050."  These marches crossed racial, economic, generational and even ideological lines.  A collective consciousness urged people into the street to demand action on behalf of people and the planet that sustains us.
 
Invite students look at the photos from the rallies around the world on the following website: http://350.org/global-climate-march/  
 
Go round:  Send a talking piece around, asking students what these images - and the number of people marching - tell us about how people around the world are thinking and feeling about global warming and the Paris Conference.
 
Go round: Send a talking piece around again, asking students for their own thoughts and feelings about these images and numbers.  How do they think marching might lead to progress on climate change?  Invite students to loop back to earlier go rounds today.
 
Summarize student thoughts and feelings and consider adding that people have been marching throughout history to express their concern, shock and even pain; to have their voice heard and to demand change.
 
As Dr. Martin Luther King wrote in his letter from a Birmingham jail:  "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."  Coming together to combat injustice, to express ourselves, our anger, concern, and our pain, can create a powerful feeling of solidarity that helps to combat feelings that can overwhelm and paralyze us into isolation and inaction.
 

Peoples Climate March video

Have students watch the following clip posted on the Avaaz.org website, which shows images from of the People’s Climate March of September in 2014:

https://secure.avaaz.org/en/gcm_video_share/?cl=8947866123&v=68466
 
Send a talking piece around again, asking students whether they have anything to add to the previous go rounds. Why do they think the heading of the clip is "The video Big Oil Wouldn't Want You to Watch."  What does it imply?
 
Summarize student thoughts and feelings again. Note that in the Avaaz.org clip, we see that the voices of the protesters are being heard by decision-makers. As President Obama said:  "Our citizens keep marching.  We cannot pretend we do not hear them. We have to answer their call."   
 
 


 

A Turning Point: What Is Getting in the Way?
 

Ask students to read the article, "A Turning Point: What Is Getting in the Way?" at the end of this lesson. When students have had a chance to read it invite them in small groups of four or five to discuss some or all of the following questions: 
 

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about this reading?
  • According to the article, who is responsible for global warming and who should be responsible for implementing solutions?  
  • What is at stake?
  • The article touches on some approaches that might help us overcome the stumbling blocks.  What are they?
  • How does this article relate to some of the earlier sharing we did today?

 
Back in the full circle, send a talking piece around, asking students to share one thing that came out of their small group discussion that resonated with them. 

 



 
Closing 

Ask students to read again the quote that began the circle. Then ask students to reflect on our discussion today, and share one message they’d like to give the leaders in Paris.

 


 
Student Reading
A Turning Point: What Is Getting in the Way?


Ban Ki-Moon, the Secretary General of the United Nations, has noted:  "Climate change does not respect borders; it does not respect who you are - rich and poor, small and big.  Therefore, this is what we call ‘global challenges,’ which require global solidarity."
 
According to the dire predictions of scientists, governments must find common ground on a range of thorny issues to address climate change, or climate change will come back to bite us all.  Scientists tell us that to avoid catastrophic climate change, the nations of the world must commit to dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Not only must each nation set and keep to internal goals, but there must be agreements among the nations. 
 
And yet for years, countries have put forth very different plans for addressing climate change, based on divergent national interests. Under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, only rich industrialized countries were required to limit their carbon emissions, but now, with the majority of emissions coming from developing countries, it is clear that all countries need to contribute in some way. 
 
Of course developing countries don’t want to be handed the sole responsibility for tackling global warming when developed countries have been the principal contributors to the problem. Countries, especially the U.S., have poured enormous quantities of heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as part of their industrialization process over the past two centuries, and this industrialization has helped produce much higher per capita incomes in these countries. And yet, impoverished developing countries are at most immediate risk from the climate change the rich countries have caused, and they are least able to handle the floods, droughts and other deadly effects of climate change.
 
Developing countries want to proceed with an industrialization process of their own, and insure that everyone has basic amenities, including electricity. So these countries have argued that the richer nations should bear most of the cost of reducing the further build-up of global greenhouse gases and of making the transition to cleaner forms of energy, such as wind and solar.
 
The world’s climate scientists and climate activists, including people from developing countries, argue that any climate agreement must recognize and begin to remedy this global inequality, not add to it. This understanding is the basis for a growing global movement for "climate justice."
 
Unfortunately, climate negotiations in the past have been stuck at the level of positions, which often happens in negotiation: Each side determines its position and then fights for it, creating a stalemate.  Achieving a win-win solution among the world’s nations would mean examining the underlying interests and needs of the different parties, and of all who inhabit this world, and working to address those interests and needs.
 
It is important to realize that in the face of global climate change, we all stand to gain from reducing greenhouse gas emissions - and we all stand to lose a great deal if the nations of the world cannot arrive at a plan for reducing greenhouse gases and switching to cleaner alternatives to fossil fuels.
 
This is not a short-term, low-stakes negotiation in a static world.  Greenhouse gas reduction has to be a concerted effort over time in a world that is changing in such radical ways that we may not recognize it a few decades from now.
 
2015 is on track to be the hottest year in recorded history, and action is needed—at an individual, community, national and international level.  The climate action organization 350.org says that so far, at the Paris climate summit, "commitments from world governments just aren’t adding up." Fortunately, the growing movement for climate justice, with young people at the lead, is pressing for action in countries around the world.  As 350.org notes: "No matter what happens at the summit, this will continue to be true: Politicians don’t lead movements — people do."