Greetings from Paris, where history (we hope) is being made. Maybe a better way of putting it is that here, over the course of two weeks, our planet's future is coalescing from a thousand whirling strands of conscience, concern, passion, resolution, and hope.
Never before have more heads of state gathered under one roof. Officially, the goal of the UN's 21st Conference of the Parties is to produce a new international climate agreement. With nine days remaining in the negotiations, it's impossible to know exactly how that agreement will turn out, although no one expects a definitive "solution" to the problem of climate change. Then again, one thing that's become clear this week is that there will never be a single solution to reducing global carbon emissions -- the solutions will be as diverse as the thousands of people from all over the world who have come to this conference.
Much of the outside attention leading up to the conference has been focused on the two worst carbon polluters (the U.S. and China), as well as other major developed and developing economies like the E.U, Russia, and India. Yet the most powerful voices in the first days here have come from elsewhere -- from artists, from activists, from young people, from indigenous peoples, and most notably from small nations that have contributed very little to the problem yet have everything to lose.
The Climate Vulnerable Forum represents 20 least-developed nations that are already dealing with the consequences of climate change. Some, like the Marshall Islands, could be inundated out of existence. My friend Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace said it perfectly: These poorer nations have "put richer countries to shame." Amid the fuss over whether current climate commitments will keep us on track to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius, these countries have correctly pointed out that a 2-degree goal is not even ambitious enough, and that the real objective should be to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and to achieve 100 percent clean, renewable power by 2050.
That's why the final outcome here in Paris should be judged both by how much it does to accelerate the global transition from dirty fuels to clean ones. How quickly we do that will be determined, in part, by whether developed nations shoulder responsibility for how the climate change they have caused is harming the rest of the world.
Certainly, some of the momentum for boosting clean energy will come from national commitments and initiatives like the United States' Clean Power Plan and a new international solar alliance that includes more than 120 countries. "Solar technology is evolving, costs are coming down, and grid connectivity is improving," stated Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi when announcing the alliance. "The dream of universal access to clean energy is becoming more real. This will be the foundation of the new economy of the new century."
Just as important, though, and absolutely essential, is how quickly the global economy can realign itself through the complementary forces of investment and divestment. While it's great that Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg and more than a dozen other billionaires have formed a coalition to promote investing in "zero-emission energy innovation," it's downright astounding that fossil fuel divestment commitments come from institutions with assets totaling $3.4 trillion.
Some people, including President Obama, have said this meeting signifies a "turnaround" on addressing the problem of climate change. I prefer to hope that it represents an enlightenment regarding solutions to climate change. That such a global enlightenment would begin here in "The City of Light" is both appropriate and a little ironic. Paris was central to the great intellectual enlightenment of the18th century. But her nickname may actually have more to do with the tens of thousands of coal-gas lanterns that once illuminated her grand boulevards.
The coal gas, thank goodness, is long gone from the Parisian streetlights. Our challenge now is to lose the rest of the fossil fuels while keeping the light.