Despite the recent Paris terrorist attacks, the leaders of more than 150 nations (including President Obama and China’s President, Xi Jinping) are gathering in France's capital this week (through Dec. 11th) to attend the United Nations Climate Conference. There, they'll discuss what our governments can do to collectively address and curb climate change -- as well as the devastating consequences that are already coming along with it.
Why is this all happening now?
The leaders attending the conference, better known as COP21 (short for “The 21st Conference of Parties”), have one goal in mind: to agree on a universal, legally binding climate agreement, aimed at curbing global greenhouse gas emissions and keeping global warming below 2 degrees celsius (or 3.6 degrees fahrenheit) -- i.e., the number scientists agree is the maximum amount we can heat the planet before complete planetary collapse. (Seriously.)
To put it bluntly, if humans don’t take immediate and massive action to curb pollution and keep temperatures from rising, disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the drought-fueled refugee crisis in Syria will be just the tip of the (melting) iceberg...
A timelapse of Louisiana before and after Hurricane Katrina.
What are the main ways leaders hope to stop climate change?
Since we now know that burning fossil fuels (like oil, gas and coal) is one of the main culprits behind climate change, one way leaders plan to tackle the issue is by attempting to phase out our reliance on these fuels and transition to cleaner renewable energies (like solar, wind and hydroelectric power), which do not contribute to climate change.
Greetings from a fossil fuel-fired steel mill in China... Plan your vacation here now! (Just kidding.)
China is paving the way as one of the biggest producers of renewable solar energy -- which is especially great considering it is most polluting country in the world, with the U.S. and Australia ranking close behind. Because the price for producing and installing renewable energy like solar has never been lower, the hope is that all countries, even developing ones, will be able to affordably convert to renewable energy without going under (literally and figuratively).
Costa Rica has used 100% renewable energy (like these solar panels) for three months straight.
Beyond fossil fuels, another climate change culprit is the meat, dairy and livestock industries; raising animals for food contributes between 14 to 22% of global greenhouse gas production. According to the United Nations, raising cattle for all those delicious burgers we dream about (or have nightmares about, depending on who you ask), is an especially big contributor to climate change, due to the deforestation it takes clear land for raising cattle and the crops the animals consume, as well as the greenhouse gas-filled burps and farts cows emit every day (an issue scientists are actually trying to address -- which means that, yes, regulating cow farts is someone's job).
Despite meat's contribution to climate change, the question of whether leaders will make serious reforms on the meat industry (such as removing the millions of dollars in subsidies the meat industry receives every year through our tax dollars) or ask citizens to voluntarily consume less meat still remains unclear.
Can the COP21 succeed if every other climate conference in the past has failed?
Yes! What’s unique about this year’s conference is that it is taking place during the first time in history when both leaders and popular opinion accept the fact that climate change is man-made (despite efforts of Exxon of the climate change denial movement to tell us otherwise), and that if we don’t do something to stop climate change from continuing, we will see and feel environmental and human rights catastrophes on a massive scale.
The fact that billionaires like Bill Gates want to help out means it is not just environmental activists having to make the call for action — now there is big money behind the movement as well...
If I'm not a political leader or bespectacled tech billionaire, can I still get involved?
Oui, oui, you can! This past weekend, over 750,000 people (you read that right) took part in demonstrations around the world to let leaders know they are watching and holding them to their climate action promises. There will be more demonstrations coming up; click here to find events in your area.
Londoners participate in a Climate March in preparation for COP21, DJed by Radiohead's Thom Yorke (do you see him?).
In addition to demonstrating, you can take immediate steps like switching your energy bill to run on clean energy; asking your families, schools or business to divest from fossil fuels; and taking the pledge to eat less meat (even cutting out meat one day a week makes a huge difference on curbing our personal levels of greenhouse gas emissions, among a host of other benefits).
Whether leaders take action this week or not, we all have the power to do something, and all our actions add up. In the meantime, we will be watching what happens this week in Paris and hoping our leaders choose to be on the right side of history, and protect the one thing we all share in common: our fragile and incredible home, Earth.
P.S. Speaking of Earth, this week also marks the 20 year anniversary of the release of Michael Jackson's music video for "Earth Song," which is eerily perfect timing for this week's occasion, don't you think?