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Hope in the Heat: Millennials Weigh in on COP-21

09/12/2015 12:13 GMT | Updated 08/12/2016 10:12 GMT

A friend attending COP-21 made the mammoth conference sound like a glorified science fair. "Each country has a pavilion showing what it does in terms of climate change," he described, adding that "the fact that it just looks like another trade show" didn't sit well in his psyche.

Wasn't this meant to be a 'world-changing event'? COP-21 has been described in apocalyptic terms - "our last best chance to save the planet" and so on. There have been 20 climate change conferences (this is the 21st, hence the COP-21 title) and this one is expected to produce a landmark agreement.

Whatever deal is signed, it is likely to be praised as progress. Yet in spite of all the fervour, the ideal conference outcome - a pact to keep global warming under the two-degree Celsius "danger threshold" in coming years - seems out of reach.

Retired NASA climate scientist James E. Hansen (credited with being the first to warn the world of global warming almost 30 years ago) called the prospective Paris deal "half-baked".

Unsurprisingly, frustration ran high when I asked millennials what they thought of COP-21. One friend remarked, "All the old guys in suits are going to be dead by the time [climate change] is an actual problem so they should step aside and let the people who are closer to the problem (i.e. our generation) direct the debate."

Her husband chimed in with some well-researched pragmatic optimism. Hope stems, he argued, from "finance talking about COP-21 in a way that takes strengthening low carbon energy sources and energy efficiency long term fundamentals as a given."

"Renewables companies (facilitated by governments and investment strategies) will change the world, lobbied and influenced by civil society all the way. What I find exciting is that the market is moving... we are in the early stages of a global energy transition."

While reaching agreements on limiting emissions is notoriously difficult, getting to agreements on technology investment that could lead to emissions cuts is apparently much easier, even more so when private wealth fronts up some cash.

Last week, President Obama, French President François Hollande, and Microsoft founder Bill Gates introduced Mission Innovation, a pact among governments, including the United States, to double their spending on research and development of clean energy technologies by 2020.

Gates has been credited by one of Obama's advisors as "the intellectual architect" behind the private sector effort. He is spearheading the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, to support risky, early-stage clean technology projects.

The Coalition's investment principles argues that it is through public-private partnerships that energy access can increase in developing nations while reducing global emissions.

"We can't wait for the system to change through normal cycles," Gates writes. "Humans have changed their energy diets before, but never as rapidly as we need to today. Moving this fast is unprecedented, which is all the more reason to start now."

Former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower said, "I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent." Gates might disagree. Gates' personal pledge is $1 billion and he will be joined by Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, among others.

This group of private investors shall pledge part of their wealth to clean energy ventures if governments uphold their part of the deal. Gates identified high-risk but promising technologies that deserve more private sector investment, such as flow batteries and solar paint (if successful, solar paint could someday transform practically any surface into a solar energy panel).

Tough questions continue to plague the debate. The financing issues that come with climate change policy cannot be solved by a sense of moral obligation alone: the nations poised to suffer the most from climate change are the developing countries that contributed the least to the issue in the first place.

These nations have long searched for compensation for the elevated costs of both developing their economies more cleanly, as well as absorbing heat waves, flooding, and other climate shocks. Such issues weighed heavily on a friend who reads 100-page climate reports for fun.

"I'm off to a dinner party with great mates tonight and I bet COP-21 doesn't come up," he said. Meanwhile, according to a recent issue of The Economist, Google searches for Kim Kardashian overtook searches for "climate change" in 2007 and have not fallen behind since.