Why COP21 Makes Me Sad

Imagine a world turned upside-down, where whole countries are written off as acceptable losses. Leaders are unable to stand up for the rights of their peoples. Soldiers with guns patrol the streets of Paris.

You know what’s so sad about this picture? You don’t need to imagine it.

Almost no one expects COP21 to produce an agreement that’s ambitious, fair, or even sensible. Climate-linked violence is becoming more and more prevalent across the globe. Celebrities, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, pull in bigger audiences than experts or activists, even here in Paris. How on earth did this circus become our reality?


Photo Credit: Maria Ivanenko, Yale-NUS ’17

All over Paris – besides the soldiers – you’ll find businesses and politicians championing renewable energy as the solution to our climate problem. And they might be right – well, partially. The renewable energy technology we have available to us today is truly a marvel of human ingenuity. However, the way we’re actually using it reeks of human cruelty. The executive director of the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, Philip Bloomer, stated that the renewable energy industry was actually the second largest source of human rights violations. The first – of course – was fossil fuels. This isn’t because the technology of renewables is inherently unjust. Rather, it’s because governments are implementing it by unfairly appropriating land from the poor.


Schwarzenegger – who gave a talk at Science Po – is one of the individuals championing renewables. Unlike the others though, he also contends that an effective response to climate change means moving past divisions of “poor” and “rich”. That’s a great platitude – but not much else. These aren’t arbitrary divisions. As their titles suggest, the “poor” don’t have money; the “rich” do. And when we all need to move past fossil, it’s only sensible that the rich help the poor do so. At the very least, we ought to expect the leaders of the rich world to transition their own economies without repeating historical injustices or unjustly appropriating land or signing poor countries off as acceptable losses.

As the hundreds of young climate activists gathered at Le Bourget put it, “we need systems change, not climate change!” Paris might mark the beginning of a drastic reduction in worldwide GHG emissions. Renewables could completely transform our impact on the planet. Even so, things sure still look like business as usual.