Reflecting on the 23rd Conference of Parties

 Feb 5, 2018    by Emma Kuster

If you had told me in January of 2017 that I’d be traveling to Bonn, Germany later in the year to witness world discussions on climate action, I would not have believed you. You see, at that time, I had yet to travel outside of the United States because I was terrified of flying over the big, blue ocean! Oh I had dreams to travel abroad, but I’d never acted upon them because of my fear.

All of that changed when I accepted my new position at the South Central Climate Science Center in February 2017. One of the first questions that my new supervisor asked was, “do you have a passport?” Of course the answer was, “no, but I will get one!”

This is the big negotiations room where the opening ceremony took place, as well as many of the larger discussions. Observers were welcome to sit in the balcony, as the floor was reserved for the party (or nation) delegates. Some sessions, however, required a ticket to enter.

My first trip out of the country was to Glasgow, Scotland for the European Climate Change Adaptation (ECCA) Conference in June 2017. It was a relatively “easy” first trip out of the country. There wasn’t really a language barrier, and the food was incredible! I survived the flight, but found it very difficult to sleep in such a tight space. During the trip, it was encouraging to see and hear what European nations were doing to address climate change. I haven’t personally been to the National Adaptation Forum, but I hear that the ECCA Conference is somewhat similar. People from across Europe came to talk about the efforts being done in their home countries, and discussed ways that countries could work together to address the challenges brought on by climate change. I was honored to be presenting about our Climate Science Center network at this conference.

Because of that trip, I was excited at the prospect that I could travel to other places—and survive! Shortly after returning home, I dreamed of visiting Italy and Ireland and returning to Scotland. I did not, however, dream of visiting Germany.

Countries would showcase the efforts they are taking to address climate change in the official Country Pavilion space. Photo: E. Kuster.

Life, though, has a funny way of changing your dreams. Soon after returning home from Scotland, I was introduced to the idea that I could be a delegate for a professional society, and attend the 23rd Conference of Parties (COP23) in Bonn, Germany. For those of you who may not know what the Conference of Parties is, I would describe it as a meeting in which representatives from every country come together to discuss how the world must address climate change. For transparency, citizens are welcome to attend the conference as observers (but you have to apply). At the 21st Conference of Parties in Paris, France, the nations of the world came together and developed the Paris Agreement. The Agreement serves as a non-binding deal to limit the global temperature rise to “well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.” At the time, all but two countries signed the Agreement. Today, every country is a part of the Agreement (the U.S. can not officially leave Agreement until November 2020).

COP23 was held in Germany, but was led by Fiji. It was the first time in the Conference’s history that the leading nation did not host the event. I attended COP23 as an observer and served as a Delegate of the American Meteorological Society. That might sound fancy, but there were only two of us.

At any given moment during the event, there were numerous discussions happening simultaneously. (For those that have been to the American Geophysical Union annual meeting, think even bigger than that!) I found it a bit overwhelming at first. For some of the discussions you had to have a ticket to attend because of space limitations. I mostly followed the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement (APA) discussions since this group was tasked with providing guidance on the implementation and compliance of the Paris Agreement. The discussions moved slowly, but I suppose that is not surprising given how many voices were at the table. Disagreements commonly arose. The goal of COP23 was to develop a draft of the implementation guidelines (or “rulebook”) that would be finalized at COP 24 in Poland next year.

As a United States citizen, I found the Conference encouraging. Despite the news about the U.S. withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, I heard nothing about giving up. Rather, I heard an overwhelming plea from the world that we needed to continue working to address climate change. In fact, I was in the room when Syria made its official announcement to join onto the Paris Agreement!

Many individuals attended the first session in the unofficial U.S. pavilion space. The panel highlighted just a few of the efforts addressing climate change that are currently taking place at the city to state level. Photo: E. Kuster.

The Conference lasted for two weeks, but I was only able to attend the first week. I saw the country pavilions that showcased what each nation was doing to address climate change, but I did not see an official pavilion for the U.S. This was the first time that the U.S. didn’t have an official presence in the pavilion space. Rather, U.S. businesses funded an unofficial space where mayors, academics, faith leaders, state legislators, etc. came to speak about what efforts were being made at the local level in the U.S. to address climate change. The #WeAreStillIn was quite popular!

All in all, I was honored to have had this experience. I survived my first country where I didn’t know the first language, and I ate some amazing waffles. (Pointing at things is a good way to communicate across languages!) By the end of my trip, I left COP23 encouraged because the world knows climate change is a real challenge, and we need to work together to address the issue. 

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The unofficial U.S. presence at COP23 was certainly not small! They had their own space and named it the U.S. Climate Action Center. Photo: Emma Kuster