Behind the scenes at COP21

By Ahti Tolvanen

This guest post is by Ahti Tolvanen. Ahti is a UU-UNO Envoy for Lakehead Unitarian Fellowship in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Here he writes about his experience as a participant in the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) international climate change conference in Paris, which took place in December 2015. 


After the news of the deadly November terrorist attacks in Paris, I was about to cancel my travel plans. This was despite two invitations: one to join Al Gore’s Climate Reality Leadership Corps at the Climate Summit, the other from a relative who lived in the French capital. She was troubled about how to explain what had happened to her two pre-teen children. I suddenly saw myself as the awkward visitor.

The manhunt was still on for the terrorists involved and public rallies were cancelled by the authorities. The possibilities for networking with other NGOs there seemed diminished and I heard that many people were cancelling their trips.

Then came the message from Stuart Scott, director of United Planet: Faith and Science Initiative. They needed me to research and write media releases for prominent scientists and faith leaders speaking at the Summit. I decided to accept. My years as a journalist put this right up my alley. To refuse, it seemed to me, would be to give in to the terrorists – to open the gates of civilization to barbarians – at a time when it was critical to humanity to have a successful outcome in Paris.

I reconfirmed meetings I had tentatively set up with other contacts including the UUA delegation and friends at the Paris Fellowship, one of the few UUA member groups outside of North America.

Ahti Tolvanen stands in front of pillars displaying the flags of many countries at COP21 climate conference

Ahti Tolvanen at the le Bourget venue for the COP21 conference.

At the end of the first week of COP21, I flew into Charles de Gaulle airport and once through customs, noticed signs directing me to the trains to the le Bourget conference site. The conference venue was a set of large, prefabricated wooden buildings and an adjoining old airfield hangar. The prefab venue had a temporary appearance about it – like a large circus encampment. I hoped we'd be spared a severe cold spell or windstorm, lest the COP21 be the latest casualty of the climate crisis it was trying to address.

Policemen with automatic weapons were everywhere but somehow they did not look threatening; quite unlike the grim law enforcers who studied me suspiciously and frisked my friends in NYC after 9/11. Fresh-faced young women in yellow vests were everywhere ready to answer even my most idle query. Undoubtedly, many of them knew of friends or neighbors who had died in the indiscriminate attacks at the Stade de France and the cafes. Making visitors feel welcome surely required significant mental effort for many of our hosts – and they succeeded. Everywhere exuded Parisian hospitality at its best.

Next day my contact for United Planet told me the 52 pages of text which had been passed down from the preparatory meeting had been cut to 29, mainly due to the energetic diplomatic brokering of the French, with the aim of removing redundancies. This made some kind of successful outcome seem immediately more plausible. Some small island and low lying states like the Marshall Islands wanted a cap of 1.5 degrees rather than two. Oil states like the Saudis were adamantly opposed and there still seemed every chance of failure.

Small low-lying states were already going under seawater, even at the current 0.8 degrees, and they were understandably vehement about a higher ambition in lowering the ceiling. Other countries, like the US, were backing 2 degrees and they had a lot of clout with their 260 delegates. Some smaller states like the Marshall Islands were having trouble financing delegates’ costs, and an NGO had been raising money to cover their costs. Apparently their voice made the difference, as 1.5 degrees as a recommended ceiling was inserted in the negotiating document, although 2 degrees remained the agreed limit. Canada’s announcement that it was backing 1.5 degrees, probably clinched it.

COP21 UU-UNO panel

UUA Panelists (Peggy Clarke and Jan Dash) are among those who spoke at a COP21 event on considering ethics in nationally determined contributions to mitigation of climate change.

The UUA sent six observers to COP21 who were involved in two panels. One was on equity and justice in climate policy, where Rev. Peggy Clarke and Jan Dash served as panelists. The other, at which Rev. Clarke also spoke, was faith, race and climate, moderated by Karenna Gore.

Lynn Dash, Doris Marlin, and David Tucker wore themselves out lobbying and attending side events. Bill McPherson worked hard gathering material for a book on the Summit, "Sabotaging the Planet," which was published a month later. The Paris UU Fellowship hosted two events for us as well. I was the only Canadian Unitarian present at the events and felt simultaneously honored and overwhelmed by the responsibility.


David Tucker, Doris Marlin, and Bill McPherson hard at work at COP21 conference.

Following the interfaith talks, I realized that most people don't change their lifestyle because of scientific reports but instead look to peer groups like religious organizations and their leaders for guidance. I was impressed to learn that prominent world leaders of all the great religions were taking the climate crisis seriously and making it a priority in the work of their organizations.

This was confirmed for me at a meeting Wednesday where France’s environment minister Ségolène Royale gave the keynote, commending progress made by cities particularly in OECD in beginning to transition to alternative energy. The US delegate there was particularly complimentary about the role of faith groups like Interfaith Power and Light in the US Midwest. Interfaith had moved in a big way, beyond advocating lifestyle changes, to actually going into the alternative electrical generating business.

At COP21 next day China and Saudi Arabia were being dissuaded from objecting further, regarding scientific methodology for measurement of national emissions, with language added to the text to assuage their concerns about national sovereignty.

At the NGO centre side event, Naomi Klein spoke critically of the entire COP process and reiterated the message of her well-known book, "This Changes Everything," that climate change could not really be stopped without ending capitalism and its relentless and mad pursuit of growth, resource exploitation to the point of depletion, and the accumulation of massive wealth by an ever smaller number of super-rich people.

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An Eiffel Tower made of bistro chairs at COP21, covered in messages related to climate change.

Mr. Laurent Fabius, France´s socialist foreign minister and president of COP21 had also written books about changing capitalism, including "Le Coeur du Futur" in 1985. President Hollande also had publications on this theme among his credits. Unlike Naomi Klein, they also had a record of decades of building social democracy; a tradition that in France went back at least to the Revolution. Many of the things Naomi Klein was advocating in North America, had also been advocated in Europe for over a century, and nowhere more persistently than in France. The current Republic is in many ways the state-of-the-art case of what has been achieved in a long hard campaign to win over minds to progressive social ideas, winning and losing elections time and again to put a human face on capitalism. The names of Rousseau, Saint Simon, Sartre and Marcuse still inspire that struggle globally.

And now the French Socialist government of Hollande and Fabius was hosting the international conference to address mankind´s greatest challenge, The Climate Crisis, which had begun with the rise of industrial capitalism in the eighteenth century. At the same time, the French Socialists were fighting to retain hold of the regions, in an election campaign where Madame Le Pen’s Front National was breathing heavily down their necks, particularly in the migrant dense centres in the North and South, like Lille and Marseilles.

In the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks, COP21 was being displaced from the headlines in the evening papers by the terrorist threat and the strident criticism by the Front National, of the government’s ineffective immigration policies, which were failing to keep out the dangerous foreigners.

On my last evening in Paris I walked from my hotel with a local buddy past the wreath-decked monument in the Place de la République. Before I could ask why the flowers were there, we came to the boarded-up café where a dozen innocent young people had died only a few weeks before. More flowers and wreaths bedecked the sidewalk. We did not talk about the conference at all, for the rest of the evening. After dinner we watched a stand-up comedy show put on by expats in the Pan Ame basement. I can only remember a couple of lines by a female comic. She was trying to find a boyfriend with a job, but they kept leaving her for other women. This was a problem because she was pregnant and it was getting visible. Time was running out, and she had decided “not to have it.”

There was scattered applause from the sparse crowd present. Many people were passing up the laughs for now.

Paris had prepared for months to host a conference to give birth to a new era for mankind. Then the terrorists had attacked. The big Paris Climate March, just before the Conference, was cancelled for security reasons.

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An activist making a statement at COP21. Their sign reads "A Stable Home is a Human Right."

When I left the conference site on Thursday the delegates in the know were saying there would be an agreement. There was a lot of skepticism and dissatisfaction among NGO representatives. NGO delegates from Brazil and the Philippines lambasted Fabius and the politicians for approving an agreement that was mainly unbinding on the main points. Even as the COP21 drew to a close, Fabius sat at the podium, obviously near exhaustion, listening while the NGOs vituperated the outcome of his conference, which had “betrayed the people,” into the small hours of the morning. The NGOs, however, did not have a vote. In any case, the hall was almost empty now, and Fabius had used his gavel to announce the acceptance of a final text, hours before.

Fabius may have had the same tired look, years earlier in 1985 when as prime minister, he faced the press at a conference on the investigation into the sinking of Greenpeace’s “Rainbow Warrior” in New Zealand. After months of “no comment,” he was confessing that there had indeed been a “betrayal” of the public trust. The French Secret Service had indeed planted the bomb that sank the Greenpeace vessel.

One of the last to speak in Paris at COP21 that night was the Palestinian observer. He made no comment on the content of the climate agreement, but instead affirmed that his country was in support of it, vowing that it was willing to take its place as a responsible member among the club of nations. This was the message of the representative of the cause celebre of many terrorist groups – often the one and only cause they agreed on.

It was a reminder that despite the passionate participation of the NGOs, there could be no agreement at all without the UN and the state parties. There might be protests, demonstrations and even acts of terrorism. In the end, for anything constructive to happen in the prevailing world system, there would at last have to be a global agreement of states. Even if that agreement seemed to be a “betrayal of the people,” it would be better than a collapse. We had come as close as we wanted to that, in Copenhagen, and there was an implicit desire to not repeat the past.

Then came the fireworks and celebrating. It was over and felt something like New Year’s. If you didn’t have a good year you celebrated hopefully for something better to come. A new beginning. Those that drank the champagne woke up the next morning with a headache. Time to go home. We Unitarians went on line to pledge our support for the aims of the agreement on Despite two weeks of stressful conferencing we realized the work had hardly begun. That weekend the news was not about the conference in France. It was about the outcome of the elections. The people had voted to keep out the xenophobes after all. A small victory for human solidarity.

A first faint sign of hope as we try to make the “aspirations” of the Paris Agreement come true. Before it’s too late.

Ahti with UUs in Paris

Ahti Tolvanen (third from left) with Paris UUs and other Unitarians in the city for COP21.

About the Author

Ahti Tolvanen

Ahti Tolvanen attended COP 25 in Madrid as a registered observer for the UU-UNO and Canadian Unitarians for Social Justice. He has attended the UN Climate conferences yearly since the 2015 Paris Summit. Prior to his retirement he worked for many years as a manager in the investment industry in...


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