College activists join in Paris climate talks

MIDDLEBURY — Though the 2015 Paris Climate Conference is some 3,500 miles away, Middlebury College and activists associated with the college are taking important steps to combat global warming both at home and in Paris.

“Well, it’s confusing as usual, but we know two things more or less for certain,” wrote Ripton resident, author and environmental activist Bill McKibben to the Addison Independent from Paris. “First, there’s going to be an agreement of some kind — that’s mostly thanks to people like the ones in Addison County who have stood up around the world in the last five years to demand action. There’s enough of a climate movement now that leaders don’t dare come home empty handed. And second, it’s going to be insufficient, leading to a world still far too hot for our societies to cope with. So we will have to build that movement bigger still in the next year or two.”

McKibben, who is also Schumann Distinguished Scholar in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College and founded the climate action nonprofit 350.org with students at the college, has been on the ground in Paris during the 12 days of talks, engaging in climate action events and keeping the world informed as the talks have progressed, tweeting live and supplying a steady stream of articles to national and international media.

The 2015 Paris Climate Conference (known officially as the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or, COP21) began Nov. 30 and will end Friday, Dec. 11. The conference has brought together world leaders from over 150 countries and an estimated 50,000 participants, including 25,000 official delegates from governmental and intergovernmental agencies, NGOs and civil society.

According to the official UN website, a central goal of the 2015 conference has been to “achieve a legally binding and universal agreement” to keep global warming “below 2 degrees centigrade” (or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). At press time on Wednesday, Nov. 9, a new draft agreement had just been announced, but had not been out long enough for commentary.

In his communication with the Independent, McKibben emphasized why the event is important to every person in Addison County.

“None of the things that make Vermont Vermont (winter, fall foliage, sugar season, the temperate summer, the hemlocks shading the mountain streams) can survive the kind of temperature increases predicted unless we take dramatic action,” wrote McKibben. “Instead of our small paradise, we’ll have something more akin to an ongoing emergency. Remember Irene? Imagine if it was a regular visitor.”

The college itself took action before the climate talks began by joining more than 200 colleges and universities across the nation in signing the White House’s American Campuses Act on Climate Pledge. The pledge was part of the White House’s efforts to demonstrate nationwide support for strong international climate action going into the Paris talks. Colleges that signed the pledge agreed to “accelerate the transition to low-carbon energy while enhancing sustainable and resilient practices across our campuses.”

Middlebury College President Laurie Patton signed the pledge on behalf of the college on Nov. 10.

Steps already taken at Middlebury College to fight climate change include: reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent since 2007; constructing a $12 million biomass heat and power system that uses renewable wood chips sourced within 75 miles; and installing solar arrays to provide 5 percent of the electricity used on campus.

The college expects to achieve carbon neutrality by the end of 2016.

But while small steps have been taken by individuals and some institutions around the world, the pace of change isn’t happening fast enough.

That concern was shared by Middlebury College students Nicole Cheng and Emma Ronai-Durning, both of whom recently returned from the climate talks in Paris.

Cheng, a junior in Environmental Studies and Studio Art at Middlebury, was at the Paris talks for five days. She was particularly interested in “artist activism, as well as gallery artist involvement in the fight against climate change.” Although Cheng’s participation in Paris was funded partly by the college, participating in the global climate summit was so important that she worked over the past year to save funds for the journey.

“I felt it was important to be present in a place where I, as a member of civil society, needed to make my voice heard,” said Cheng.

One of the things that stood out for Cheng during the talks were U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern’s “persistent rejection of the agreement to be legally binding, avoiding the 1.5 degree target, and the reluctance to help finance lesser-developed countries in this transition to a carbon-free economy.”

Cheng, a native of Singapore, encouraged the larger Addison County community to appreciate “the power civil society has in the U.S. democracy” and to “fight for climate change. Even if we all can’t be physically present in Paris, every bit of work we do on the ground is part of a much bigger picture.”

Ronai-Durning, a sophomore and geography major, attended the conference as part of the youth branch of the Sierra Club. The focus of her week in Paris was on “collaborating with other youth organizations” to amplify “the voices of youth in the climate talks.”

Ronai-Durning also noted the “foot dragging” of U.S. negotiators.

“I know it can be easy to get demoralized when looking at the stagnation and inequities that are so obvious in the UN processes,” said Ronai-Durning. “But what I am taking out of Paris is a story of resistance. The people I met from all over the world have inspired me to keep fighting for a more just world. It wasn’t the daily stalling of U.S. negotiators, nor the corporate takeover of the climate talks that overwhelmed me. What overwhelmed me was the massive display of people-power presented by the young organizers fighting tooth and nail for the best possible solution out of the talks.”

Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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