Institute of the Environment Booth at COP21
Institute of the Environment 2017

From Tucson to Paris for Global Well-being

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

by Maya Kapoor, Institute of the Environment

The stakes were high, the world was watching, and University of Arizona researchers were there.

In early December 2015, just weeks after coordinated terror attacks rocked Paris, representatives of governments, companies, and charities convened in France’s capital for COP21, the 21st annual climate meeting under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. More than 50,000 people, including leaders of almost 200 countries, attended, President Barack Obama among them. Their ambition? To set goals and agreements—for countries and for the planet—that reduce the risks of  climate change.

Diana Liverman, co-director of the UA Institute of the Environment and a veteran of previous COPs, attended the convention. COP21, she said, was especially significant.

“We knew the risks of climate change as far back as the 1970s, yet 40 years later we were still at a point where we didn’t have a serious agreement on climate and on development,” Liverman said. “We hoped that Paris would be successful.”

The level of commitment to emission reductions was greater than ever before. This, along with the public impact of recent high profile news such as Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline, created cautious optimism among climate negotiators and activists, who also traveled to Paris last winter.

During two weeks of intense negotiation, COP21 participants hashed out the details of how their 195 countries would address climate change.

The resulting Paris Agreement, a historic global pledge to limit greenhouse gas emissions, includes many elements designed to help the world reduce emissions and help the vulnerable adapt to climate change. It also sets an important threshold. The world’s nations agreed to keep the global average temperature increase to less than 2 degrees Celsius (3.5 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, with a long-term goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C.

Safeguarding the Future

Actually being present at COP21 when the Paris Agreement was adopted by all 195 countries present was lifechanging, said Don Falk, an associate professor in the UA School of Natural Resources and the Environment who attended the talks. “To have been there at the moment was really quite extraordinary,” Falk said. “People were screaming, weeping, hugging complete strangers. The sense of accomplishment was quite real. This agreement, if fully implemented, could get us started toward the 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius limit in global temperature increase we need.”

Falk described that temperature limit as “a guardrail, not a target. You want to stay away from it. You certainly don’t want to drive into it.”

Studying Climate Change Ecology and Justice

Liverman, a Regents’ Professor of Geography and Development and expert on climate change policy, led the UA delegation to Paris, which included a mix of natural and social scientists: faculty members Falk and Valerie Trouet and graduate students Sonya Ziaja, America Lutz-Ley and Miriam Gay-Antaki.

The group represented the UA’s Climate Justice Initiative, which works to build campus collaborations and expertise at the UA and beyond for environmental challenges. With funding from the UA’s Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environmental and Social Justice, the delegation attended a variety of meetings at COP21, interviewed global leaders on climate policy, networked, and shared the UA’s climate research with other attendees by hosting a booth in the conference venue.

Several members attended COP21 with an eye on how conversations would proceed around natural resources, including conservation and water security. Falk attended the COP21 to understand how ecosystems—and forests in particular—were fitting into international climate negotiations. "As an ecologist, I was very aware of the likely adverse impacts of global change on the ecosystems we all depend on and treasure,” he said. “The Paris summit looked like our best chance to start creating conditions that will give both terrestrial and marine ecosystems a chance to survive the next century.”

America Lutz-Ley, a PhD candidate in arid land resource sciences at the UA, attended COP21 interested in how conversations about water scarcity could be made part of climate negotiations. Changes in water levels are the first thing people noticed about a changing climate, Lutz-Ley said, yet they are not part of climate discussions. “Water is the core of the conflicts today and will be in the future if we don’t find a way to deal with it,” she added.  

Other members of the UA delegation viewed the Paris talks—and their likelihood of leading to successful, fair outcomes—through the lens of social sciences and the arts. Liverman contributed to a workshop on climate and the art-cultural sector and participated in a high-level panel on climate and migration.

Miriam Gay-Antaki, a doctoral student in geography, studies how some voices are heard in climate negotiations, while others are not. At the previous year’s COP20 in Peru, Gay-Antaki joined the gender and women’s caucus and had the opportunity to interview many leaders in gender and climate change.

The caucuses “are small and informal and provide unique opportunities to not only interview but network with leaders in climate change and gender on a very personal basis,” said Gay-Antaki, who conducted interviews during COP21 to further her research on how climate policy is shaped and what role gender has in climate negotiations.