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University of Minnesota goes to Paris for COP21

From Observation to Action – December 10, 2015

By Beth Mercer-Taylor @bethminn

Last week in Paris at the Paris 2015 Climate Conference, I learned about United Nations acronyms, badge colors for those allowed inside the negotiating “blue zone,” the patience of French diplomats, and many nuanced ways diplomats argue over a fundamental question of who will pay for the harm of the greenhouse gases already in the earth’s atmosphere.

In short, I played the role of an observer and, at times, of an educator and ambassador sharing ways that Minnesota and my city, students and academic community lead, in the US, in responding to climate change. While we clearly need to pick up our pace, I am proud that so many of us already #ActonClimate. Today’s focus in Paris was on human rights, which connected the work of grassroots community organizers, including #blacklivesmatter, who stand against the violence of police brutality, with the global human rights impacts from climate change, including increases in respiratory illness, mosquito borne diseases, refugee movement and many other impacts.

On Tuesday, I jumped at the opportunity to join with 350 U.S. State and local elected leaders (we are “subnationals” in UN-speak), and as a Falcon Heights City Councilmember, I signed on to an ambitious letter of support for clean energy.  A schedule complication for the President Pro-tem of Kevin De Leon of California gave me the chance to participate in a press briefing. The press release that followed sums it up well:

Councilmember leads national effort to increase clean energy at Paris Climate Conference

Paris – 350 U.S. state and local elected officials from 46 states state launched a calling for 50 percent clean energy by 2030 and 100 percent clean energy by 2050 at the Paris Climate Conference.

Falcon Heights Minnesota Councilmember Beth Mercer-Taylor joined the launch of the initiative, which was announced at the Paris Climate Conference. The announcement focused on the success state and local governments are achieving in clean energy innovation and implementation.

“I could not be more proud that the City of Falcon Heights has already committed to becoming a sustainable through commitment to and active participation in the State of Minnesota’s “GreenStep Cities” best practices and recognition program for small cities, said Mercer-Taylor. “I am honored to sign on to support 50% Clean Energy by 2050.”

Shortly after Mercer-Taylor’s election in 2007, the City of Falcon Heights signed on to the U.S. Mayor Climate Protection Agreement, and this motivated us to start a project to work with Sustainability Studies and other students from the University of Minnesota and from other colleges and universities in our area to help us assess our carbon footprint, to plan for action and to pilot new initiatives to respond to sustainability needs.

Most recently, the community has been working on adaptation and resiliency planning, so that our infrastructure systems, city planning, parks, budgeting and most importantly our people are prepared to respond together to a changing climate.

A number of current and former elected officials are organizing the initiative including  former Maine State Representative Alex Cornell du Houx, former Caroline New York Councilmember and Deputy Town Supervisor Dominic Frongillo, and California East Bay Municipal Utility District Director Andy Katz.

“We organized this initiative to highlight the important work state and local governments are doing to promote clean energy and reduce carbon pollution, despite many in Congress’ complete lack of leadership to protect our families and communities,” said Cornell du Houx. “We need to protect our nation and the world from the real threats caused by climate change. A recent Pew study found ISIL or Daesh and climate change are seen as the top two global threats and the two are interlinked. As a former Marine and now naval officer, I have seen this link firsthand. Instability caused by extreme weather helps terrorists like Daesh recruit fighters – Syria suffered an unusually severe drought that helped trigger the conflict.”

Former Maine State Representative Alex Cornell du Houx, Des Moines, Iowa Mayor Frank Cownie, Falcon Heights Minnesota Councilmember Beth Mercer-Taylor, Former Minnesota State Representative Kate Knuth, and Former Caroline, New York Councilmember and Deputy Town Supervisor Dominic Frongillo speak at an international press conference promoting 50 percent clean energy by 2030 and 100 percent clean energy by 2050 at the Paris Climate Conference.

“The political will to act on climate change exists in every state and community. But it’s been drowned out by the millions of dollars dirty energy companies spend to sow doubt and denial,” said Frongillo. “The decades of deception are over: science is clear on the necessity to move off fossil fuels, and Exxon-Mobil is under investigation for misleading shareholders and the American people. We need elected officials to lead a fair and swift transition to 100% clean energy. The transition to renewables can create jobs and prosperous opportunities across the United States and the world. Now it’s time to lead.”

This year, the United States has hit many clean energy milestones. America has added more clean power than natural gas, with clean energy generation up 11 percent while natural gas generation declined. Demonstrating the opportunity, solar jobs grew 20 times faster than the rest of the economy.

“We want the rest of the world to know that the climate-denying, anti-science voices in Congress do not represent America,” said Nick Rathod, Executive Director of the State Innovation Exchange, who works with lawmakers across the nation. Innovations at the state level often drive our national policy forward and that is exactly what is happening in the fight against climate change. States are leading the way.”

The investment of New England Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) estimates a return of more than $2.9 billion in lifetime energy bill savings to more than 3.7 million participating households and 17,800 businesses. In California, a similar program generated $969 million in revenue for the state through the end of 2014, and is expected to generate $2 billion a year or more in the future.

The RGGI states have experienced over a 40 percent reduction in power sector carbon pollution since 2005, while the regional economy has grown eight percent.  “This proves that we can reduce pollution that’s putting our communities’ health at risk while growing jobs and prosperity. From East Coast to West Coast – states and local communities are leading the way,” said Katz.

The initiative also supports the implementation of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, as it will bring the U.S. within seven percent of the stated goal. “We appreciate the administration’s leadership and commitment to working with state and local government,” said Cornell du Houx. “The launch of this letter is only the beginning. We will be working with state and local elected officials across America to ensure a healthier and safer future for our children. As leaders responsible for America’s present and future prosperity, we must take action now.”

Finally, here’s some coverage of the same event, from the California Senate.

COP21 Climate Talks: Paris Impressions – December 9, 2015

Read Energy Transition Lab Executive Director Ellen Anderson’s reflections here.

Success in the Paris Climate Negotiations in Broader Context – December 8, 2015

By Hari Osofsky

This blog post written by Energy Transition Lab Faculty Director Hari Osofsky was published on December 8th in Opinio Juris Blog Archive

I appreciate the opportunity to guest blog with Opinio Juris while at the Paris climate change negotiations this week. I will aim in my blogs to complement Dan Bodansky’s excellent assessment of the negotiations among state parties by examining the broader context of what would be required to address climate change adequately and the activities by other key stakeholders.

From my observation of the first Comité de Paris and hallway conversations on Monday, December 7, the parties still seem on track to reach some sort of agreement in Paris, though perhaps not by the Friday deadline. While there are certainly some differences yet to be resolved, the tone appears to be unusually cooperative at this stage according to those who have attended many of these negotiations.  Read more…

University of Minnesota PhD student, IonE Boreas Environmental Leadership Program Director and former Minnesota State Legislator, Kate Knuth, shares her thoughts on pension investments and their link to the climate talks from Paris in this Star Tribune commentary

Bringing the COP21 lessons back to Minnesota – December 4, 2015

By Beth Mercer-Taylor

I’m honored to be an eyewitness at the Paris 2015 Climate Conference, along with an observer delegation of 10 from the University of Minnesota. Collectively, we represent the diverse ways that higher education contributes towards sustainability, in research, teaching and engagement.  Our faculty research relates directly to our own communities in Minnesota and to global projects undertaken in close collaboration with colleagues from around the world.  Our delegation head, Institute on the Environment (IonE) Director Jessica Hellmann, works on climate adaptation, for plants, animals and people and contributes to the Global Adaptation Index (gain.org).  Other faculty in our delegation research human migration in response to climate change, climate change legal and policy frameworks (at local to global scales), the economics of a low carbon energy future (including in Minnesota) and the future of arctic energy resources, among many topics.  Check out the twitter handles for our delegation members, listed on our IonE COP21 welcome page, and make plans to attend a post-COP21 Reflections on the Paris Climate Talks public event  we’ll be hosting on December 16th.

As the Coordinator of Sustainability Education at the University of Minnesota and as a Councilmember for the City of Falcon Heights, I come to COP21 with interests in education and in city efforts around sustainability.  I spent much of today, Friday, Dec. 4, at “Education Day,”  a new-this-year high level event attended by at least a couple hundred people and organized by the United Nations Alliance on Climate Change Education, Training and Public Awareness. Climate change education leaders from countries including Morocco, Uganda and Peru, called for active education to prepare people to take action on, as well as to understand the causes and consequences of climate change. I sat with a sustainability education staff member of a Vietnamese NGO, and shared University of Minnesota and Climate Generation resources with her.


Miguel Ángel Mancera, Mayor of Mexico City, (center-left) calling for green growth in cities

In my position at the University, I organize projects and provide guidance to student teams working with Minnesota cities that are adopting best practices and being recognized within the state’s GreenStep Citiesprogram.  Student teams have worked in numerous cities, large and small, across the state. I thought of their idealism and energy when I attended a side-event, Green Growth and Sustainable Urban Development, organized by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). There, the Mayor of Mexico City called for cities around the world to undertake urban green growth with an intentionally inclusive approach, in which new technical solutions are made available to people across income levels and cultural backgrounds.

Throughout my experience in Paris, I feel so proud to be from a state governed by someone brave and bold enough to make a clear statement that refugees are welcome. Governor Dayton said, of refugees,”these are people who have children in their arms, they’re not terrorists, they’re fleeing terrorists in their respective countries like Syria.”  Human rights and the question of current and future climate refugees are major questions at these negotiations.  The love we are able to show one another, in times when we come face to face with pain and grief, was demonstrated by Parisiens who went to social media to tell strangers, “#PorteOuverte,” meaning open door, on the night that terrorism came home to their city.

From the developing and the developed world, so many of us at this historic climate conference, want mitigation and adaptation to occur in the context of the United Nations “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDG) which point towards ending poverty, promoting prosperity and well-being for all, protecting the environment, and addressing climate change.

Head of State happenings – December 2, 2015

By Beth Mercer-Taylor @bethminn

As an observer at the Paris 2015 Climate Conference, it was very shortly after my arrival at the Le Bourget Center on Monday morning that I discovered that those of you watching on the internet at home had a better way than me to see heads of state like President Barack Obama, his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinpingor nearly 150 others make historic promises to come to agreement about restricting greenhouse gas emissions.


The overflow rooms had overflowed, the corridor monitors lacked sound and security was too tight to let 40,000 of us move anywhere. The etiquette of all of this was pretty confusing. But, people being the social creatures we are, some of us got to talking about our plans for the day. Laurie Simmonds, CEO of Toronto-based Green Living (which I saw, after looking it up, is a B corporation committed to sustainability) needed to get moving to an event. She hoped people would want to hear Prime Minister of New Zealand, John Key, and researchers from International Institute for Sustainable Development share a compelling, new policy framework. put forward by Friends of Fossil Fuel Subsidy Reform. She kindly invited me to follow along. Before the event started, a New Zealand delegate told us about the difficulty of lowering emissions for their large agricultural sector. At this talk, I was amazed to learn that that emissions would be reduced by 10% from just the removal of the direct $500 billion given to fossil energy, according to the International Energy Agency.

Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), said in accepting the Communiqué: “These subsidies contribute to the inefficient use of fossil fuels, undermine the development of energy efficient technologies, act as a drag on clean, green energy deployment and in many developing countries do little to assist the poorest of the poor in the first place. The huge sums involved globally could be better spent on schools, health care, renewable energies and building resilient societies. The current, very low oil prices are a good opportunity to really get going on this issue.”

In the blue zone at the Paris 2015 climate conference – December 1, 2015

By Beth Mercer-Taylor @bethminn

Yesterday, the largest gathering of heads of state in world history occurred a few hundred feet and a couple of plywood walls away from where I milled about with a crowd, standing together on the tarmac of a former airport in Paris, most of us failing to find our way to an overflow live cast room. While heads of state wrapped up with the taking of a “family picture,” we from around the world bonded about our confusion in figuring out where we were allowed to be during such an unprecedented event. Birds flew beneath the plastic canopy high overhead, artfully strung between steel-sided and plywood buildings and pavilions. Later, the sound of helicopters came and went (again, an airport) bringing the high level leaders to and from.

Where I am is the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, officially and obscurely titled “Conference of Parties” orCOP21, this being the 21st such gathering. I’m among 40,000 attendees, all of us with credentials checked by the United Nations well in advance and dressed nicely for a business occasion. Mostly we arrived at the conference site, north of Paris, by train and special shuttle bus that took us through neighborhoods reflecting the richest and some of the poorest in Paris. Green-vested COP21 greeters handed us transit maps and all spoke fluent English, telling me no fares required for public transportation on opening day. These diplomatic greeters were outnumbered by heavily armed military, police and security staff, many clearly on edge. Security became more subtle Inside the conference center, after badges were scanned. Anywhere near the high level negotiations, there are still watchful eyes and guns.

People are dispersed in meetings around the enormous conference center so that it feels more like being on a campus or in a city, and not like a crowded station or mass event. During the conference opening on Monday, November 30, I quickly learned to scan the color of badge in order to know who would be able to help me navigate. The countries of the world are represented by teams of delegates wearing conference badges with pink bars indicating “party.” These most important delegates are easily distinguished from people with other colors on their badges, representing various constituencies, dozens of United Nations agencies and hundreds of non-governmental entities. My own badge is yellow, for observer, the official role of 10,000 others representing research entities, businesses, youth, indigenous people and women, among others.

I am proud to be in Paris to represent the University of Minnesota, sustainability education efforts in the United States and small cities in northern states, including GreenStep Cities in Minnesota and my own hometown of Falcon Heights. Influenced by the priorities of the students I work with, I value and try to do work that strengthens connections between sustainability and work of inclusivity and equity. In looking at the activities and research at COP21, I bring a “systems thinking” approach shared by faculty and students in our Sustainability Studies courses, shared by our peer institutions that teach sustainability. This means I think broadly about human and natural systems, the many ways they intersect and how resources flow and are replenished, or not, and especially about complex problems as they exist over time. Climate change is a prime, but not the only example, of such a problem.

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