Saturday, January 30, 2016

Harvard Students Can Make a Difference: Reflections from COP-21 in Paris

By Teresa D'Onfro

Finding my way to the COP21 Le Bourget site was definitely an adventure, and while waiting in the queue for accreditation I felt a bit unnerved when I recalled that our team had been reduced to just me; nonetheless the show must go on. As I continued to wait, I became filled with feelings that were both terrifying and empowering. Finally, with accreditation on hand, I head in through security with no real plan in mind but to walk around I enter Hall 3 which is just one of many in the 25-acre indoor Parc des Expositions Paris le Bourget. The enormous Hall is subdivided into conference rooms for each country’s committees. Judging by the size of the room, the USA was to be most noticeably present in Paris COP. “I heard they’re bringing about 200 mitigators. That is why they rule the world, you know,” an Oxford friend mentioned to me later. 

The entire situation was a bit odd for me grasp. You see, I was there with neither country which I have called home, instead I was there representing Fundación Pensar, Planeta, Política, Persona which is the brainchild of my dear friend Martha Delgado hailing from Mexico City. The Fundación has an amazing degree of influence that comes from Martha’s intrinsic desire to serve humanity interwoven with a network of professionals that have been fortunate enough to cross her path. Almost overnight, I had a role to play in the Water and Megacities Forum at the conference Water, Megacities and Global Change in UNESCO HQ, the Climate Summit for Local Leaders at Paris City Hall, and COP21 access as an observer. 

I have done some cool things here and there but Fundación Pensar’s post was definitely not something I could have prepared for in any way. UNESCO’s meeting was the highlight of my experience, working to establish global indices and measurable indicators that ensure clean water availability is of the utmost importance. Though my part in that work was small, I will always be proud that I took part in it. I will always remember that global leaders do care. Some seem apathetic, sure, but many speak passionately of the importance of ethics in global water consumption and care deeply enough to step-up to spearhead efforts to develop an ethical framework for the global community. This was a pleasant surprise to me because I come from the world of industrial sustainability where some days you give yourself a pat on the back if you win the battle of doing what is environmentally right vs. doing what is legally allowable.

COP21 was paralyzing and marvelous in its own way. The entire world was represented in Hall 2 and it seemed countries, regions, and technologies were all present. Everyone had their own approach to solving the climate change ordeal; some looking for human connections, some looking for financial ones, but all looking to make something positive take shape. In the Climate Generations Area, the hall where the non-governmental organizations had been placed, the atmosphere was much more relaxed. Instead of extensive security checks and police presence, there were only limited ones, and public access was granted. 

Walking around, I found a band playing instruments powered by solar and human energy located in one of the common areas –where energetic people pedaled away. I say ‘pedaled away’ because these instruments were essentially, bikes fitted to harness the power created through pedaling. In fact these ‘bike-stations’ are everywhere for visitors to self-power electronic devices which oddly adds an emphasis on the self portion of the self-power stations.

Because my accreditation was associated with representing the civil sector I was an observer and did not have the ability to take part on negotiations. There are virtually hundreds of opportunities to attend conferences, announcements, or working-group’s exposés relating to everything from years worth of data-findings to development of financial schemes. Negotiations inside the “Country Pavilion” seemed long and not very fruitful, and, it remained an exercise of longsuffering mixed with hopeful wonder during the first week of Paris COP21. Though I carried this feeling of awe with me, not everyone there was styling the same sparkle of wonder in their eyes. There were those who had come just to make their presence known from all corners of the earth carrying a message which does not require French or English fluency. With their faces painted and full traditional clothing one could see them trying to make the world aware of their existence. Their presence sent the message that they were there to shatter the invisibility comfortably assigned to them. They were inside the COP21 site so no claim could be made that they were unwelcomed. 

Digging into the surface of granted visibility, a story of silencing and oppression emerges as Rochelle Diver voices out her concerns about the Indigenous People. She was fighting for them to have the right to speak for themselves in a world that has not given them a voice during negotiations, leaving them helpless against the decisions made. They refuse to be made a token of humanity through an honorable mention within the pre-amble agreement. Instead they fight to be contributors of solutions as global actors through their inclusion in the operating portion of the agreement.  (, Indigenous activists speak out at COP21)

Even more troubling, I hear of conspiracies to first ‘bracket’ and then to omit any language in the agreement which includes indigenous communities. For example Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim expresses his deep disappointment regarding the move to omit indigenous nations “We do not understand why a country like Norway, who is supporting Indigenous Peoples’ preparation and participation to the COP21, reacted as that. The U.S. as well.” (Indian County Today, Indigenous Peoples’ Caucus Focuses on Setbacks at COP21 as Agreement Moves to Final Negotiations). Eventually it all catches up with me and it comes to a point where a tremendous influx of information rushes through my mind. My thought process is forced to quickly filter feelings and distill knowledge. 

In that mind-moment it feels as though, all at once, Chris Robichaud’s philosophical soliloquy on Charles Mills’ White Ignorance was unveiled before my eyes as Tim Weiskel’s stern voice expounded on environmental ethics and the irony of living in a society where civilizations built by our own hands might very well die from our own doing. Having been exposed to two of the greatest ethicists of our time is not always easy, but it helps, especially on occasions when starry-eyed-you gets a glimpse behind the curtain. Even so, I still feel that I was just me witnessing the fact that on one side of the curtain there were millions of dollars being neatly distributed, allocated, and assigned to something from somewhere. While on the other side of the same curtain there were people representing cultures and their entire civilizations which have existed since time immemorial rendered silent. 

To further aggravate my internal struggle, I noticed there was no one representing Ecuador in the Latin American forum yet the Ecuadorian Indigenous representatives sit in the audience. They had been promised a chance to speak but in reality they did not even get an honorable mention never mind an invitation to take part of the forum --Yes, the world witnessed all this along with me. I know this is the case because multiple cameras were set-off to capture the moment the forum adjourned without Ecuador’s Amerindian attendees being heard –What can I realistically do? You ask yourself and the answer comes from a lonely consensus of one voice. You might consider the same question at one point or another. If you do at that point in your life consider this, there is an unusual type of strength to us Harvard Extension students. I think we are of a different caliber of people belonging in eras past not this one which presently surrounds us. We will do well relating to “the typical Harvard men” of Kirkland’s Presidency that Samuel Eliot Morison describes in Three Centuries of Harvard. Morison himself proudly boasts of his own grandfather and great-uncles working their way through “Exeter and Harvard to useful careers…Boys of that stamp are more likely to feel lonely and lost in our bloated colleges of today than their fellows in the small Harvard classes of the Augustan age.” 

This precious hall of Harvardians to which we belong offers us a strength and a humbleness which empowers us to act on behalf of any causes which seek to enrich humanity’s depth with a consciousness which might otherwise be overlooked. You might say to yourself ‘but, I am just me’. It doesn’t matter where, who, or what you are if you are reading this blog chances are: You are just like me. You are “the typical Harvard” student of our own golden era. All that matters is that we have earned our spot to make a positive impact in the world we have built and in the planet we inhabit. Let us exercise our environmentally minded muscles in local forums and global platforms alike.

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