On Nov 30, government officials and global citizens from around the world will come together in Paris, France, to attempt to finalize an agreement on how to address the existential threat of global warming. The goals of the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP21, are to craft an international agreement to combat climate change (keep global warming below 2 degree C) and accelerate the transition to low-carbon societies and economies.

This is the first of a series of guest-blog posts by Gary Payton of Sandpoint, Idaho, an active ICL member and the 2015 recipient of the Keith and Pat Axline Award for Environmental Activism, ICL’s highest award for activism. Gary is traveling to Paris as part of the delegation from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), a historic mainline Protestant denomination. While in Paris, Gary will regularly post reflections on this website on the progress, challenges and spirit of COP21.  

Paris lies ahead. And environmentally aware citizens from around the world will eagerly follow developments of COP21. Heads of state; national negotiators; leaders of global faith communities, environmental organizations, and businesses-all come together from Nov 30 until Dec 11 to hammer out an agreement to protect our planet and all that live on it.

An international agreement on climate change can be an abstract thing, but for those of us in the Inland Northwest the impact cannot be more profound. You and I know the facts: 2015 will be the hottest year for the planet, wildfires this summer were devastating, river flows are at critical low levels, and the feeding and movement patterns of critters around us have been greatly disrupted.

Without bold, coordinated action in Paris, our children and their children can expect their lives to be shaped by the increasingly dramatic impacts of climate change:   more extreme storms, prolonged drought, lengthened fire seasons, expanding wildfires, spreading disease, sea level rise, ocean acidification, species extinction, and more.

I’m traveling to Paris to be a witness to the process, the participants and the outcomes of COP21. In the busyness of our daily lives, the critical nature of the UN-sponsored gathering can be lost amidst news of political campaigns, Mideast violence, and holiday preparations. I hope my reflections in some small way can increase understanding of our human and national responses to the climate crisis.

At the official level, hundreds of delegates to COP21 from over 180 countries will focus on the details of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), the Green Climate Fund, finances, future timelines, and national accountability. These details form the substance of an agreement aimed at keeping global warming below 2 degrees C from pre-industrial levels.

Meanwhile, unofficially, thousands of global citizens like me will be present as part of "civil society." I’ll have the opportunity to observe the formal negotiations and attend environmental events sponsored by the World Council of Churches, 350.org, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and more. Just as importantly, I’ll meet with others from Africa, Asia, South America, Australia and Europe. Hearing their stories will add to my understanding and sharing of the impact of climate change on their lives today.

A spirit of hope surrounds COP21, but challenges to be overcome are great. What is the balance between mitigation (the efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions) and adaptation (the necessary work to protect societies, particularly the most vulnerable, from the impact of climate change)? What about finances? Will developed countries follow through on pledges to the UN’s Green Climate Fund, a fund to assist developing countries deal with the impacts of climate change. And what of political will? Will individual countries demonstrate the political will to implement their part of an overarching international agreement?

In his 2015 encyclical letter, Pope Francis spoke of our necessary care for the earth, "our common home."  He spoke eloquently for ecojustice for all, “We have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor."

Paris lies ahead. It’s time to ask for the wisdom of negotiators, the courage of decision makers, the reasoned calm of all who take part, and for the health of the planet on which we thrive.

– Gary Payton