COP21 Will Change the Course of History

COP21 in Paris offers humanity an opportunity to turn back from the brink

On November 30th, the world will come together in Paris for the start of the most important climate talks ever. After more than two decades of negotiations, the expectations are high and global leaders appear to be ready to sign a comprehensive climate deal that will spur unprecedented emissions reductions.

If all goes as planned, the 21st annual session of the Conference of the Parties (COP21) of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will be remembered as a seminal moment that reversed our perilous trajectory and changed the course of history.

Representatives from more than 190 nations will gather for this historic conference where they will try to hammer out the details of a new global agreement on climate change.

Undeterred by terror

COP21 convenes a mere matter of days after the Paris terror attacks that killed 129 people. Despite the recent carnage, the prevailing mood of most world leaders can best be described as defiant.

This includes President Obama who said he will be attending COP21 to show the world that, “we are not afraid of extremists…we do not succumb to fear. That’s the primary power these terrorists have over us.”

In addition to Obama, at least 80 heads of state, including those from the world’s largest emitting countries, will be in Paris. This includes the leaders of the planet’s most populace states, China’s Xi Jinping and India’s Narendra Modi.

The world is coming together to forge a comprehensive collaborative agreement in the face of these savage attacks and this strikes at the very heart of what the terrorists hope to achieve.

The facts

Those in attendance at COP21 cannot ignore the abundance of peer reviewed science that supports anthropogenic warming. Recent studies corroborate a wealth of existing research. Together, they comprise an irrefutable body of evidence demonstrating that growing levels of GHGs are the leading cause of planetary warming.

We have already picked up 1 degree Celsius; that puts us halfway to the 2 degree Celsius upper threshold limit. The most alarming finding is that the warming is accelerating, adding urgency to the negotiations in Paris.

We know that we have to shift away from fossil fuels and massively invest in renewables and efficiency. We are already seeing hopeful signs including the collapse of coal demand and rapid growth in renewable energy. This trend will continue as the costs of solar and wind are approaching parity with traditional energy in some markets.

What is at stake

Of course, everyone is threatened by climate change, but it mostly threatens those who have done the least to cause it. Western industrialized nations have effectively put entire civilizations at risk of disappearing. This view was the central theme of an October summit of Pacific island nations in Fiji.

“We in the Pacific are innocent bystanders in the greatest act of folly of any age,” said Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama. “Unless the world acts decisively in the coming weeks to begin addressing the greatest challenge of our age, then the Pacific, as we know it, is doomed…The industrialised nations putting the welfare of the entire planet at risk so that their economic growth is assured and their citizens can continue to enjoy lives of comparative ease. All at the expense of those of us in low-lying areas of the Pacific and the rest of the world.”

The implications of runaway climate change for the globe are nothing short of catastrophic. Sea level rise, ocean acidification, extreme weather, and the extinction of more than half of the species on earth are part of what we will face if we fail to radically reduce our emissions.


After years of wrangling, there is reason to believe that we have finally achieved a critical mass of political will to make a positive outcome possible.  The removal of Stephen Harper in Canada and Tony Abbott in Australia gives us reason to hope as both men have thwarted progress at previous COP meetings.

The seriousness of the effort is in evidence in the INDC submissions of the vast majority of countries on earth. Negotiators have learned from past failures and they know what needs to be done to secure a deal.

More than ever, politicians at COP21 are earnestly working together to manage the systemic threat of climate change. The emissions reduction efforts of the world’s largest polluters are helping to create momentum that will be carried into COP21.

“There’s no stronger sign of leadership,” President Obama said in an address to the U.N. General Assembly, “than putting future generations first…The United States will work with every nation that is willing to do its part…so that we can come together in Paris to decisively confront this challenge.”

INDC pledges are inadequate

After meeting with 70 nations at the so called Pre-COP, French representatives stated that countries will live up to their INDC pledges. While acknowledging that the current emissions reduction promises are inadequate, French officials indicated that many parties are prepared to do more to reduce their emissions. This could include reviewing INDCs every 5 years. As stated in the recent UN report titled, The Emissions Gap, “Increased participation and cooperation show there are opportunities to increase ambition in future.”


French representatives joined a number of others in saying that they are optimistic about a positive outcome.

“I have every expectation that negotiators will agree on an international climate pact in Paris,” says Jennifer Morgan, Climate Program Global Director for the World Resources Institute, a sustainability-oriented non-profit think tank. UN Climate chief Christiana Figueres has seen it all in the last five years, yet she expresses reasons to be hopeful:

“I am optimistic for Paris. We have so much momentum going into this conference from the past 5 years of progress in the negotiations and from the businesses, investors, cities and regions that are already engaged in climate action.”

A working draft should be completed as soon as Saturday December 5 and a final draft should be ready by December 11. However with 55 pages of text and some 1,500 specific points of contention, a lot of work remains to be done.

UN Climate officials and the president of the summit, Laurent Fabius, said that success is an “absolute necessity.”  There is simply too much at stake to consider failure.  “I’m optimistic that we can get an outcome that we’re all proud of, because we understand what’s at stake,” President Obama told an Asia-Pacific summit in the Philippines.

However, we must act and we must act now. As explained by Johan Rockström, executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Center in Sweden, “the window is still open, barely open, to transition back into a safe operating space.”

We are at a crossroads and it is decision time. We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to seize the moment and protect our world for future generations.

We have reason to hope that we will soon be witness to a remarkable moment of transformation that represents a turning point in human history.

Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.

Image credit: Ron Mader, courtesy flickr

Thomas Schueneman
Thomas Schueneman
Tom is the founder and managing editor of and the PlanetWatch Group. His work appears in Triple Pundit, Slate, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, Earth911, and several other sustainability-focused publications. Tom is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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