Paris Climate Summit & the Growing Climate Movement

Students learn about and discuss what is at stake at the Paris Climate Summit and consider the growing international movement for action on climate change.   


To The Teacher:

From November 30 to December 11, 2015, world leaders are gathering in Paris for a United Nations conference on climate change. Previous conferences have fallen short of their key goal: creating a legally binding international agreement to reduce the carbon emissions that are fueling climate disruption. Nevertheless, analysts and activists view the Paris summit as an opportunity to draw the world's attention to this issue. Although environmentalists had planned massive protest demonstrations to pressure leaders to act, the tragic terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13 have thrown these plans into doubt. In this context, activists are looking for creative means to get their message across.

This lesson consists of two readings designed to inform students about the Paris climate summit and to think critically about the issues surrounding it. The first reading takes a look at the conference and asks: What is at stake? What might the outcome of the conference be? And what actions are climate change activists hoping that world leaders will take? The second reading considers the growing international movement to force action around climate change. In particular, it looks at some of the tactics that young people are using to promote change around this issue. Questions for discussion follow each reading.

Note: See our recent TeachableMoment lesson on the student-led fossil fuel divestment movement for further exploration of that growing form of climate activism.


Ask students if they know about the global summit taking place in Paris in late November and early December. 

What is the subject of this summit?  What have students heard about it?

Elicit or explain that from November 30 to December 11, 2015, world leaders are gathering in Paris for a United Nations conference on climate change.  The aim of the conference is to arrive at a global agreement to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions to avoid catastrophic disruption of the earth’s climate.

Tell students that we’ll read and discuss two short pieces on this subject.



Student Reading 1:
What is the Paris Climate Summit?

From November 30 to December 11, 2015, world leaders are gathering in Paris for a United Nations conference on climate change. Previous conferences have fallen short of their key goal: creating a legally binding international agreement to reduce the carbon emissions that are fueling disruptive changes in the world’s climate. Nevertheless, analysts and activists view the Paris summit as an opportunity to draw the world's attention to this issue.

In a November 17 report for Newsweek, reporter Mirren Gidda described the stakes of the conference:

For 20 years running, the U.N. has held an annual conference on climate change. Never in the two decades of meetings, talks, and lobbying have the assembled delegates managed to procure what is needed most: a legally binding and universal agreement on how to slow the rise of global temperatures. They came close in 1997 (Kyoto) and in 2009 (Copenhagen), but those two conferences, like the other 18, failed to achieve this goal.

The importance of the 21st Conference of the Parties [COP21] in Paris cannot be overstated. The host city is reeling from a deadly terrorist attack on November 13 that left over 120 dead and 300 wounded. A number of planned demonstrations, concerts and festivities will be canceled, but the core event of COP21 will go on: starting on November 30, leaders and high- level officials from 196 parties have 12 days to reach an accord that could save the planet. The primary objective of COP21 is to divvy up carbon cuts to the developing and developed nations to reduce worldwide greenhouse gas emissions and cap global warming at 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit over pre-Industrial Revolution levels by 2100. That’s roughly the point at which, research suggests, the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica will start to melt at an unstoppable pace, prompting a catastrophic rise in global sea levels. Parts of the world will be hit by devastating floods while others will experience severe droughts that will lead to famine as crops fail and potable water supplies dry up.

Despite the urgency of the issue, most observers are pessimistic that the conference will produce the kind of agreement on fossil fuels emissions that is necessary to slow the pace of climate change. Janet Redman, co-director of the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network, argued in a November 13, 2015, article for Foreign Policy in Focus:

So can these talks deliver an agreement that moves us into a post-fossil fuel world? The simple answer is no.

For starters, the draft agreement they’ll be using as the basis for discussion makes no reference to fossil fuels at all. Perhaps that should come as no surprise, given that dirty energy companies and their financial backers are among the sponsors of the summit.

In the absence of a concrete plan to roll back our reliance on coal, oil, and gas, governments are kicking around climate "solutions" that let countries keep on burning them.

They’re entertaining ideas like carbon capture, use, and storage — a technology that would allow facilities like power plants to pump carbon emissions into the ocean or underground geologic formations. The approach is unfeasibly expensive, risky, and unproven at scale, but the U.S. and China favor it as an option that would preserve the role of dirty fuels....

In other words, even as governments are talking about setting climate targets, they’re working hard to expand the extractive global economy with measures that could deepen the climate crisis. That’s ridiculous. We need to cut carbon, not find new places to bury it.

More fundamentally, we need a new economy based on using less — and sharing it better.


Others are slightly more hopeful. In a November 3, 2015, article for The Nation, environmental correspondent Mark Hertsgaard noted that, although the conference may not produce a strong agreement, a major shift in public opinion has been taking place. This is beginning to produce real changes. Hertsgaard writes:

At the popular level, there is unprecedented organization, mobilization, and support for tackling the crisis; a genuine mass movement, which first emerged at the ill-fated Copenhagen summit in 2009, has come of age. And at the elite level, there is unprecedented consensus that the situation is truly grave and that meaningful action must be taken if our children are not to inherit a hell on earth.

Start with the historic breakthrough that the presidents of the two climate-change superpowers made seven weeks after the People’s Climate March, when China and the United States agreed to a joint agenda of slashing greenhouse-gas emissions and super-accelerating clean-energy development. China’s coal use is already peaking, and the country is slated to deploy enough wind and other renewably sourced electricity to match the entire US electricity grid by 2030....

?[T]he [coal] industry is in "terminal" and "structural" decline, concludes a recent report—and oil is feeling the heat. Fear of stranded assets was one reason that the Shell Oil Company recently retreated from the staggeringly costly proposition of drilling in the Arctic—that, and the ruckus that climate activists kicked up, including launching a flotilla of kayaks to block the company’s rig from leaving the port of Seattle. [Stranded assets are resources - in this case energy resources - that are no longer able to earn an economic return for the companies that own or control them.]

Which highlights another transformation: The climate movement is not only growing; it’s winning concrete victories. Most mainstream media attributed Shell’s retreat to low oil prices, and those doubtless played a role. But Shell’s announcement also cited the "unpredictable federal regulatory environment." That "regulatory environment" is a function of politics, and the climate movement is now clearly affecting how political leaders and institutions calculate.

Can the Paris talks produce the kind of agreement that is necessary to save the planet? If world leaders are left to their own devices, it is not likely. This makes outside pressure from climate activists and their supporters all the more critical.

For Discussion:


  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  2. According to the reading, what is the Paris summit? Why is it significant?
  3. According to Janet Redman, what are some of the issues that are being debated in Paris? Why does she view these as inadequate?
  4. Journalist Mark Hertsgaard sees some signs of hope. What are some of the promising developments that he cites?
  5. Based on the reading or other news you have heard, do you think the Paris talks provide grounds for hope or skepticism? Defend your position.



Student Reading 2:
Climate Activism in Paris and Beyond

Although activists had planned massive protest demonstrations to pressure world leaders in Paris to act, the tragic terrorist attacks in that city on November 13 have thrown these plans into doubt. In this context, activists are looking for creative means to get their message across.

After the attacks, the French government announced that it would ban major protest marches outside the conference due to security concerns. Author and activist Naomi Klein argued forcefully in a November 20 article in the Guardian that grassroots voices in the streets are a critical part of climate discussions. Klein is part of a global "climate justice" movement that calls for addressing climate change in ways that promote greater equity around the world, recognizing that those who have contributed the least to climate change are suffering the most from it.  Klein wrote:

The French government’s decision to ban protests, marches and other "outdoor activities" during the Paris climate summit is disturbing on many levels. The one that preoccupies me most has to do with the way it reflects the fundamental inequity of the climate crisis itself - and that core question of whose security is ultimately valued in our lopsided world.

Here is the first thing to understand. The people facing the worst impacts of climate change have virtually no voice in western debates about whether to do anything serious to prevent catastrophic global warming. Huge climate summits like the one coming up in Paris are rare exceptions. For just two weeks every few years, the voices of the people who are getting hit first and worst get a little bit of space to be heard at the place where fateful decisions are made. That’s why Pacific islanders and Inuit hunters and low-income people of color from places like New Orleans travel for thousands of miles to attend. The expense is enormous, in both dollars and carbon, but being at the summit is a precious chance to speak about climate change in moral terms and to put a human face to this unfolding catastrophe....

[A]fter the horrific attacks of 13 November, [the French government] needed to determine whether it had the will and capacity to host the whole summit - with full participation from civil society, including in the streets. If it could not, it should have delayed and asked another country to step in. Instead the Hollande government has made a series of decisions that reflect a very particular set of values and priorities about who and what will get the full security protection of the state. Yes to world leaders, football matches and Christmas markets; no to climate marches and protests pointing out that the negotiations, with the current level of emission targets, endanger the lives and livelihoods of millions if not billions of people....

In explaining why forthcoming football matches would go on as scheduled, France’s secretary of state for sport said: "Life must go on." Indeed it must. That’s why I joined the climate justice movement. Because when governments and corporations fail to act in a way that reflects the value of all of life on Earth, they must be protested.


Beyond Paris, climate activists around the world are deploying new tactics aimed at both governments and private industry. Often, young people have been at the fore of these efforts. As journalist Tony Dokoupil recently reported on MSNBC, a group of young Americans is suing the government to force stronger action against global warming:

One kid says that his family’s farm has been damaged by drought and wildfire. Another says that his childhood home has been devalued by rising sea levels. A third alleges an assault on his whole culture as man-made climate change upends the natural world.

These and 18 other "youth plaintiffs" (ages 8 to 19) sued the federal government on [in August], walking a first-of-its-kind constitutional claim up the courthouse steps in Eugene, Oregon. The kids argue that inaction on climate change is a violation of their right to life, liberty and property. And they demand that President Obama, seven federal departments and the Environmental Protection Agency act immediately to preserve the climate for "future generations."

The White House was not immediately available for comment. A spokesperson for the EPA declined to address the specific merits of the lawsuit, but agreed that the government has "a moral obligation to leave a healthy planet for future generations." The agency pointed to the White House’s Climate Action Plan - and the EPA’s controversial Clean Power Plan - as examples of remedies already underway. But the lawsuit portrays these efforts as "ineffectual" and "demonstrably short of what is needed."

Some of the young people’s complaints are lofty and intellectual, and others reflect basic childhood interests like the health of a local swimming hole. They span childhoods in Oregon, Colorado, Florida, Arizona, Washington State, Hawaii, New York, Alaska, Pennsylvania and Louisiana. But all are treated as equal violations of the U.S. government’s fundamental responsibility to protect its citizens today, and provide for a healthy tomorrow.

"The purpose of the case is to protect our rights," Tia Marie Hatton, an 18-year-old plaintiff from Oregon, told MSNBC. "They depend on a healthy climate and right now that healthy climate is being negatively impacted by the government allowing and promoting the use of fossil fuel."

These young people can take inspiration from the Netherlands, where environmentalists successfully sued their government. There, a court mandated that the Dutch government cut its emissions by at least 25 percent within five years.

Another tactic being advanced by young people is fossil fuel divestment. With this tactic, students across the U.S. and the world are pressuring their universities and local governments to withdraw investments from the industries most responsible for greenhouse gas emissions. In 2012, the international environmental organization launched a fossil fuel divestment campaign that began at just a few universities. It has now grown to include more than 400 colleges, universities, cities, states, and religious institutions. The group is using the Paris summit to build momentum for the divestment campaign. On September 1, put out a press release that read:

The divestment movement is challenging institutions, individuals, and governments to show climate leadership and align their investments with their values by divesting from fossil fuels ahead of the COP21 Climate Summit in Paris. An avalanche of public commitments to divest from fossil fuels would build momentum and send a powerful signal that the world is rapidly and irreversibly moving away from fossil fuels.

"If you say you want action in Paris, then you have a responsibility to divest from fossil fuels," said Executive Director May Boeve. "By shifting resources from the dirty energy of the past to the 100% renewable energy of the future, institutions can model the type of action we need from countries at COP21. With our climate in crisis, divestment is a moral necessity."

The divestment movement enjoys support from a broad range of institutions including the United Nations, UN Secretary General Ban-Ki-moon and UN Climate Chief Christiana Figueres. Former EU climate chief Connie Hedegaard recently said divesting from coal, oil and gas would make "a very important contribution’ to the Paris negotiations."

Worldwide the divestment movement continues to grow with daily commitments being announced. In Europe an increasing number of institutions are joining the call to divest from fossil fuels. "The European Parliament has formed a cross-party group working on the carbon bubble and divestment while the European Central Bank is looking into the risks of a carbon bubble. Unfortunately, however, the European Commission seems to be dragging its feet. This divestment conference is therefore also a call to them: don't be behind the curve.


Whether or not world leaders come to a meaningful agreement in Paris, pressure for action will almost certainly keep growing from the global movement for climate justice. 


For Discussion:

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  2. After the French government cancelled protests because of security concerns, author Naomi Klein argued that protest is critical. What is the reasoning behind her argument?
  3. Do you agree or disagree with Klein? Is it legitimate for the French government to cancel protests because of safety concerns? Why or why not?
  4. The reading mentions several tactics that young people are using to force action to prevent climate disruption. Which tactics do you think might be most effective? Why?