The perpetual tug-of-war over how nations large and small should combat the impacts of climate change will commence in Paris on Nov. 30, when world leaders from 190 countries gather for the U. N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Many hope the convention will yield a legally binding treaty that will force polluting giants like China, India and the United States to make good on commitments to cut greenhouse-gas emissions that lead to global warming.
Others, though, like Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee, say that the climate conventions, which began in 1992, are little more than a way for heads of state to rack up frequent-flier miles while traveling to exotic parts of the world to hammer out meaningless and economy-hurting initiatives to curb greenhouse-gas emissions.
In a Nov. 4 speech at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., Lee mocked efforts by world leaders to clamp down on greenhouse gases. He called President Barack Obama's goal to reduce emissions little more than a plot to enshrine his own energy plan, the Clean Power Plan that aims to cut U.S. carbon emissions by 32 percent by 2030. To make matters worse, Lee says, Obama could try to lock this in without consulting him and other members of Congress.
After explaining to the Heritage Foundation the many ways in which Obama has attempted and—according to Lee—failed to hem progressive change into the fabric of America during his seven years as president, Lee took a jab at Obama, climate-change science and the efforts to contain global pollution that many believe is critical to saving the planet.
"But, today, with just one year left in office," Lee said to the group, "and with the smug satisfaction of someone who believes the policy of climate change is just as settled as the science supposedly is—President Obama knows that compulsion, not persuasion, is the only way to fundamentally transform a nation."
But some Utahns see Paris as a beacon of possibility, where nations can at last agree that the Earth's climate is warming, spawning chaotic weather events, massive drought and turning millions into climate refugees.
Cherise Udell, founder of the group Utah Moms for Clean Air, says that while her organization has almost exclusively focused for the past eight years on making the Wasatch Front's air more breathable, it is now branching out into climate change.
And the two efforts, Udell says, are intricately entwined. "The local is connected to the global and the global is connected to the local," she says. "If our air is clean in Salt Lake but our ecological systems are collapsing, it doesn't really matter how clean our air is."
Eight weeks ago, Udell says she decided she would attend the Paris convention. Her hope for a meaningful deal in Paris, and her desire to be present, it turns out, was contagious. Now, Udell is leading a contingent of 20 Utah schoolchildren and 12 adults to Paris.
The terrorist attacks in Paris could prompt a change of travel plans for some, but for now, Udell says that she and many who signed up plan on attending the conference.
While in Paris, the students plan to cover talks as journalists. ABC4 News has partnered with them to broadcast dispatches, Udell says. This week, many of the students are taking a six-day crash course on journalism, tutored by local reporters.
Piper Christian, a 16-year-old student at Logan High School, will attend the conference. Some of her teachers will broadcast her dispatches to their classrooms. Christian hopes that her presence at the conference will help spark young people's interest in climate change.
"It's a little bit troubling that the very people who are going to be most affected by climate change, my generation, are often left out of the climate-change narrative," Christian says. "After the people who have created these problems are gone, we're going to be the ones cleaning up this mess."
Udell says the students might not be able to cover some high- profile negotiations, but she is attempting to secure interviews with leaders who are party to those discussions. One is Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, president of the National League of Cities, who is also slated to attend.
Udell says the students will interview Becker and likely cover an international mayor's summit. And by having Utah students in Paris, Udell hopes the attention paid to the Utah contingent will spark interest in other Beehive State residents.
"There isn't a lot of conversation here about the climate summit," Udell says. "We're trying to create a reason to have that conversation."
And, while Udell hopes the Paris convention will lead to an earnest effort to grapple with rising carbon emissions, she has no patience with people, such as Senator Lee, who deny the problem even exists. "My tolerance for climate-change deniers is about zero," she says.
"History will cast those doubters in the light that they deserve, which is people who dragged their feet and got in the way of change and progress," Udell says. "That will be their place in history, and that's their own doing."
Matt Pacenza, executive director of the clean-air organization HEAL Utah, says he, too, sees hope in the fact that world leaders continue to address the impacts of climate change.
On a topic of the magnitude of climate change, which often involves rising oceans and warming worldwide temperatures, it's easy to get bogged down in hopelessness. But Pacenza—who routinely goes up against Utah lawmakers on clean-air initiatives that quite often crash and burn—has a hopeful perspective.
And his analogy on dealing with climate change involves Utah Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, who has led the state's efforts to wrest millions of acres of public lands within Utah from the federal government.
Pacenza speculates that deep down, Ivory and his environmental foes know that the federal government will never turn a single acre over to the state. But that doesn't stop him from fighting tooth-and-nail for something that he believes in.
"I think that's the way we should look at climate change," Pacenza says. "It's a crisis and we should deal with it, and we might look back in the long run and say we didn't do enough, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try."
Read "Letters to the Future" on p. 19 for more insight on the Paris climate talks.