The Promise of Paris: An Interview with Wisconsin Leadership at COP21 |
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Climate and Energy Blog


The Promise of Paris: An Interview with Wisconsin Leadership at COP21

Tue, 12/08/2015 - 6:39pm -- Meredith Keller

Last summer, when Wisconsin Academy Executive Director Jane Elder and I began planning programs and publications around the United Nations 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21), I promised myself I would not get stuck in the weeds of international law. Rather, I vowed to focus on the urgency of climate change, the promise of the Paris conference, and the Wisconsin leadership playing a central role in COP21.

As you will see in this blog post, as well as our peice in Wisconsin People & Ideas Magazine this April, I failed at my first objective; the international environmental law surrounding the COP conferences is painfully complex. Indeed, you are about to encounter a slew of acronyms and a trail of legal breadcrumbs, all of which is vital to understanding this process...

That said, I found it easy to succeed at the second goal—highlighting Wisconsin leadership at COP21. Such is the focus of this post and the recent event “Live from Paris: Connecting Wisconsin & the U.N. Climate Talks” (video now available). Last Thursday, December 3rd, the Wisconsin Academy partnered with the UW Global Health Institute (GHI) to connect Wisconsin with COP21 via a live web broadcast featuring a panel of Wisconsin leaders contributing to the talks. We worked with GHI to corral them into a small telepresence conference room in Paris where they could engage with over a thousand online viewers, as well as the 150 of us watching UW Nelson Institute’s Paul Robbins moderate the event from a large venue in Madison.

The panel at the "Live from Paris" Event: (left to right) Jeff Thompson of Gundersen Health System, Clay Nesler of Johnson Controls, Johnathan Patz of UW GHI, Nathan Schulfer of UW Nelson Institute, and Sumudu Atapattu of UW Law School.

In the run up to COP21, I sat down to discuss the Paris climate talks with three of the five participating panelists: Dr. Jonathan Patz, Director of GHI; Clay Nesler, Vice President of Global Energy & Sustainability at Johnson Controls; and Sumudu Atapattu, Director of UW Law School Research Centers and a leader at the Centre for International Sustainable Development Law. I also interviewed Tia Nelson of the Outrider Foundation, who will be featured in the second post in this series in February, as well as the magazine peice. As our interviewees elucidate, climate change is not just an environmental issue but a public health, human rights, and economics issue.

Below are their answers to two critical questions:

  1. Do you see renewed momentum and hope around COP21 in Paris? If so, why?
  2. What, in your mind, will make this a successful COP conference?

Clay Nesler, a Vice President at Johnson Controls, notes the challenges to finding an agreement that is fair to all the countries involved, both established and developing—and covers some of those legal breadcrumbs from past COP Conferences (note: the hyperlinks are my own):

Do you see renewed momentum and hope around COP21 in Paris? If so, why?

COP15 in Copenhagen was very much a “top down” approach to defining a common legally binding agreement, which ultimately failed over strong differences on the application of the Common But Differentiated Responsibilities Principle. COP21 is a “bottoms up” approach where each country submits a summary of their Indicated Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs)

At this point, there is some doubt that the individual country contributions won’t immediately add up to the required reductions to stabilize global temperatures to the 2-degree Celsius goal. There is discussion in the draft text of an element of the agreement, which would ask countries to periodically update their INDCs to increase ambition over time and close the emissions reduction gap.

The bi-lateral commitments of the U.S. and China, the world’s largest emitting economies, have also increased confidence in a Paris agreement. Some of the remaining sticking points include commitments for financing mitigation and adaptation actions in developing countries and the legal form of the agreement.

What, in your mind, will make this a successful conference?

I would consider this a successful conference once we reach an agreement that: 1) establishes reduction goals and actions for all countries, 2) sets a framework for periodically updating commitments, and 3) increases ambition and market-based mechanisms for leveraging innovation, finance, and clean energy solutions.


Jonathan Patz, director of the UW Global Health Institute, sees climate change as one of the leading threats to public health and infrastructure today. With land ice melting and spilling into the ocean at an unprecedented rate of 287 billion tons per year, coastal cities like Amsterdam, Alexandria, New York City, and Miami (actually, the entire coast of Florida) are at serious risk of mass flooding, or disappearing entirely. Heat waves and air pollution also put lives at risk. Indeed about 7 million people die prematurely every year from air pollution alone. As a result, the public health and infrastructure benefits of combatting climate change might outweigh the costs. Patz notes that we are at a critical juncture in human history, placing COP21 in a unique position:

Do you see renewed momentum and hope around COP21 in Paris? If so, why?

People are beginning to see the erratic climate, the climate is getting more variable including the disintegration of the arctic and the jet stream.

At the same time, our energy economics are changing. Wind power is now competitive, renewables are competitive. Industry is seeing how much waste and money they are losing through unsustainable practices. I think there is some simple logic and market forces.

And, the IPCC findings get more and more certain with every report—the certainty that this is human-induced and not just natural climatic variability, and that the call to action is there. The science is pretty much resolved, and, so, now the question is how serious is this and what should we do about it. Climate scientists are saying this is very serious; if we can’t cut our emissions by 50 to 70 percent quickly, within a few decades, we are going to see warming that could get above this 2-degree Celsius mark that ecologists and climate scientists have said could be catastrophic.

And, also, that the Kyoto Protocol is expiring…we have to renew it at this point in time with the certainty and the science and the projections for severe consequences. It is time for countries to get serious about climate change and find a binding resolution.

What, in your mind, will make this a successful conference?

The Lima COP [of 2014] required INDCs, which required countries before Paris to actually submit their [carbon reduction] numbers. The U.S. committed to about a 28 percent reduction, although Obama upped it to a 32 percent reduction below 2005 levels by the year 2030. The E.U. proposed 40 percent cuts…Ethiopia proposed 64 percent cuts...These are major cuts, and what would be successful, of course, is if these countries would live up to these commitments.

Now, this is where I would like to come in with a very strong voice and say if you look at the public health implications, combating climate change could be free, if not a net gain. Just look at air pollution: 7 million people die prematurely every year because of air pollution. Half of that is indoor air pollution, half is urban air pollution… If you take a ton of CO2 out of the air, at the same time, you take out all the nasty, dirty air pollutants, the particulate air pollution… you reduce all of the air pollutants that kill people today. So you have an immediate side benefit—we call these health co-benefits. These large benefits to public health and many lives saved from a clean energy economy need far more attention in the climate change discussions, and was my message in Paris


In our interview, Sumudu Atapattu, a lawyer and scholar from UW Law School Research Centers and Centre for International Sustainable Development Law, urges the international community at COP21 to view climate change as a human rights issue. The rise in sea levels is forcing entire island nations like the Maldives to choose between finding a new homeland or becoming submerged. With 44 percent of the world’s population living in coastal areas, billions of people face displacement. But it is up to all carbon-emitting nations—developed and developing—to take part in combatting climate change.

Do you see renewed momentum and hope around COP21 in Paris? If so, why?

On the one hand, [the Conference of the Parties—COP] have been meeting every year. On the other hand, [the countries emitting the most carbon] did make the promise that they would revisit the post-Kyoto legal framework—binding or not—by 2015. So, they made the promise to the international community, and, frankly, I think this is their last chance to redeem themselves…And I think the U.S. in particular needs to set the stage because major emerging economies like India and China have been saying that if the U.S. is not going to be part of the legal framework, they would not be, either. So, it is very important—even symbolically—to get the U.S. on board.

What, in your mind, will make this a successful conference?

I think [participating nations] will have to come up with emission reduction or mitigation [strategies] for all major emittors, because right now they are divided along developed and developing [countries] because of the Common But Differentiated Responsibilities Principle, which made sense in 1992, when the contributions of developing countries was pretty minimal, but now China has over taken the U.S. [in emissions], and the emissions from emerging economies are increasing and will overtake developed countries pretty soon. So, I think it is important to recognize that developing countries are making a significant contribution to greenhouse gas [emissions], and design the legal framework [of an international agreement] accordingly. Of course, developing countries cannot make the emissions cuts the way developed countries can, because they need to develop to give a decent standard of living to their population; as such, they will need help to transition to a low-carbon economy, so funding and technology transfer [between developed and developing countries] will be very, very important, as well.

And [the international community] should look at issues like climate refugees, small island states, and the human rights impact [of climate change], and recognize that there are actually victims, make it more human-focused…And have a target date in mind, because then people can put in proposals and start working towards that. In the diplomatic world five years is a short period of time, so I think we need to start looking at that now before it’s too late.

For more on Wisconsin leadership at the historic 21st Conference of the Parties in Paris (COP21), check out our Winter and Spring Issues of Wisconsin People & Ideas (released in February and April, respectively).

And join us on February 9th in Madison for part two in our event series with the UW Global Health Institute: “Connecting Wisconsin & the U.N. Climate Talks.” Registration will open after the New Year!


Meredith Keller was the Initiatives director at the Wisconsin Academy from 2014 to 2016, where she led both the Waters of Wisconsin and Climate & Energy Initiatives, and launched the statewide, annual Local Government Summit on Energy & Resilience.

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