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Paris Talks Reveal New Kind of Global Empathy


Peter Wheeler

The Nature Conservancy's Executive Vice President

December 2015

Eiffel Tower. Photo © Stuck in Customs/Flickr
Eiffel Tower. Photo © Stuck in Customs/Flickr

Paris is busy today, but like any seasoned sailor, I can sense when the winds may be shifting….

We knew coming into Paris that reaching a global climate agreement wouldn’t be easy, but that it would represent hopefully the last in series of major pushes stretching back over the last six years since COP15 in Copenhagen.

The next two days are make-or-break, and we are seeing a communal feeling of optimism. While there is still a great deal of work to do, there really is a collective sense that we’re all in this together and that we can push on and reach a meaningful agreement.

We keep talking about a global climate deal. But ‘deal’ seems, to me, to be the wrong word for such an immense achievement. I spent the bulk of my career in the world of ‘deals,’ and this is something quite different—orders of magnitude different, as our scientists at The Nature Conservancy like to say. With all the edits, and drafts and versions it almost feels like at the end of the day, all we’ll have accomplished is a large text document.

But something much, much bigger is going on here.

Right now, we are seeing the global community doing something it very seldom accomplishes, and something that practically defies the logic of our modern systems. The global community has collectively chosen to look past the immediate and short term, in order to put the interests of unknown people and future generations ahead of our own.

Entrance to Le Bourget, COP 21 in Paris. Photo © Hallie Sacks
Entrance to Le Bourget, COP 21 in Paris. Photo © Hallie Sacks

While our changing climate is affecting us all, it’s undeniably having a larger impact on strangers who are very far from our own lives and experiences: Fishermen living on remote islands in the Pacific that even the travel magazines don’t go to photograph; Pastoral herdsmen living on the fringe of deserts and grassland; Urban dwellers in growing countries seldom mentioned here in Paris. These are the people who need our help the most.

Many of us as individuals have felt the tug of altruism over the years. We’ve known that someone needs help and we can do some small thing, write a check, serve on a board, send a letter. Do something. Do anything.

But this ‘COP’ though, it is something quite different. It represents a collective act at a scale that could not be larger. An act like this, cannot rely on just an altruistic impulse, and it can’t rely on any one aspect of our society. Neither government, nor business, nor civil society can do it alone. There is no ‘silver bullet’. We have to do something together. This is a massive act of collective, thoughtful empathy.

And it’s all beginning to add up to what they are calling here The Paris Moment.

I am often asked why, after a career spent in banking and living in cities and airports, I joined The Nature Conservancy. My answer usually references my love of mountaineering and sailing in my youth.

On one such sailing trip twenty-five years ago, I was sailing from the British Virgin Islands to Bermuda with my father. In those days, GPS was in its infancy (at least for civilians) so every day at noon, we would sight and record the position of the sun and any other surroundings.

It had been eight days on the rising-and-falling ocean swell, surging forward in those wonderful 30-knot trade winds. Eight days of seeing nothing on the horizon other than sea-birds and the occasional flying-fish, or dolphin fin. And then something seemed to change. After a few hours, we realized what it was. We had been sensing land just over the horizon.

Right now, in Paris, I recognize that same feeling I had all those years ago. We can’t quite see the land yet, but we are close, and we can sense that it’s near.

It will be good to set foot on land for a bit. Get some rest, re-provision. But even if and when we reach an agreement, our journey will not be over. We’ll have to soon set out again to cross an ever-bigger ocean.

And for the voyage ahead we will be part of a much larger fleet, and we will all know the course we are steering.

Originally Posted on Conservancy Talk

December 10, 2015