There was a time in my career when the US withdrawing from the UN Paris Climate Accord would have sent me into a depression, the way the failure of the Copenhagen negotiations did in 2009.
The day of Trump’s announcement, I had a little cry at my desk, partly out of frustration, but mostly out of joy and relief at the global response to his announcement and how far the climate movement has come.
I date the beginnings of my climate career to the 2008 UN climate negotiations in Poznan, Poland. As a third year environmental policy student at the University of Toronto, I couldn’t believe my luck in winning a coveted spot on the Canadian Youth Delegation.
It was a turning point in several ways. Until then, climate change had been an abstraction; one that I cared about deeply, but that I understood in terms of CO2 parts per million and 2° C targets. Our youth delegation joined with others around the world. There were 500 of us including those from small island developing states. They were able to talk about the everyday realities of climate changes with an immediacy and urgency that lit a fire under me.
Those negotiations were my first taste of activism and it was addictive. In retrospect, I feel a bit naive. We were so serious. The fate of the world was at stake. I remember meeting in the basement of a bar where we planned a disruptive mass action to hold on the final day of negotiations. We all took our cell phone batteries out for fear of being tapped.
The action was dubbed “project survival” and the idea was for youth to stand in solidarity with small island states and other peoples whose existence is threatened by climate change. We created silver placards that said “survival is non-negotiable” and handed them to government negotiators as they entered the plenary room on the second last day of negotiations. I remember being overwhelmed with emotion as negotiators made their final remarks. Looking up at the jumbotron we realized many had covered their country placards with our survival ones.
Following that final session, we 500 marched into the main hall and unfurled a massive survival banner while the leaders of the action made emotional pleas and were interviewed by media. Nothing happened, of course.
A year later, I attended the 2009 negotiations in Copenhagen, this time as an organizer for the Climate Action Network Canada. 2009 was the year that the Kyoto Protocol was set to expire and the pressure to reach a “fair, ambitious, and binding” agreement was high. People were literally calling it “the last chance to save humankind.” The negotiations ended in abysmal failure, with Canada joining the US in playing an obstructionist role. I remember feelings of disappointment, confusion and powerlessness.
I think most people who have worked on climate advocacy in Canada will understand the feeling I’m describing.
Over the next few years, I worked on a campaign to end fossil fuel subsidies and I helped organize a civil disobedience action against pipelines on Parliament Hill. The point is that most of the time it felt like we were getting nowhere, preaching to the choir, and that the wins that were achieved never came close to matching up to the enormity of the problem. Climate denial was still mainstream.
I noticed a trend of people in my circles reconsidering the best ways to take action. Many of my former colleagues turned from focusing on winning international climate agreement or pushing for Canadian federal climate action -- unlikely under Stephen Harper’s government -- to local or regional initiatives where change was achievable.
My boss at the Climate Action Network left to run and grow what is now a thriving, local Ottawa-based environmental organization. Other friends turned to urban planning, focusing on local sustainable transit. Others worked in municipal or provincial politics working from the inside to create change.
I spent the next years as a digital campaigner for Change.org, where I worked on achieving small wins on issues from animal rights to children’s mental health, and occasionally climate-related campaigns. However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was on the sidelines of the issue I felt most strongly about.
When the Paris negotiations happened in 2015, the world was a different place, largely because of the hard work put in by millions of individuals to mainstream public support for climate action, to implement successful local or regional initiatives, to develop and improve the economics of clean technologies, and to get the private sector onboard. The agreement was stronger than hoped for with an aspirational goal of limiting temperature rise to 1.5C.
When I decided to get back to climate change I knew it had to be in a different capacity. I had seen how my peers in the climate movement had changed gears. They had gone local or had begun to look for other creative approaches to make the clean transition a reality that didn’t rely solely on government.
I knew also that rather than fighting the negatives—100% necessary, but for me emotionally draining—I wanted to focus on solutions. The “how” of solving climate change is incredibly complex, but the “what” is pretty simple: stop burning fossil fuels, start building clean energy. I decided I wanted to work on building clean energy.
When I joined CoPower I discovered a powerful tool for change that I had never previously considered: impact investing. I used to have this bias against money. Solving climate change for me was about sacrifice not profit. My perspective has since changed. The reality is that by creating attractive, profitable clean energy investment opportunities, we can mobilize the hundreds of millions, or even billions, needed to build clean energy infrastructure at scale.
Trump’s announcement prompted me to reflect on how far the world has come since those 2008 negotiations. I realize I’m living through the tipping point. Things are starting to happen faster than I can keep track of. The economics of renewable energy are undeniable, and economics are hard to fight. Investment in renewable energy has surpassed fossil fuels. China and India (who, at the negotiations I attended 8 and 9 years ago, were reluctant to take action if the US would not) are now playing a leadership role and strongly re-affirmed commitment to the Paris Accord following Trump’s announcement.
It feels sudden, but really it’s the long hard work of millions of individuals. I see the climate movement now as an ecosystem. Civil disobedience activists push the envelope so that the rest of us can take a step forward. Religious leaders, journalists and Indigenous leaders win hearts and minds and remind us what’s at stake. Scientists ground us in reality. Clean energy developers put their money on the line and actually install the technologies that will reduce carbon. Business leaders demonstrate that doing good for the environment is good for the bottom line.
Are we moving fast enough? Absolutely not. The climate science is still terrifying. But we’re at the point where one misguided man can’t derail the progress that’s been made by us all.
Lauryn Drainie is Manager of Marketing & Engagement at CoPower.