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I attended the United Nations Climate Change Summit in Madrid (COP25) as a student delegate representing the International Forestry Students Association, a coalition of 136 student groups in 79 countries invested in global conservation initiatives. Although the purpose of the COPs is to create global political initiatives that will combat current and future effects of climate change, COP25 was chaired by a vulnerable nation (one that is currently in political upheaval), attended by representatives of the voices of many, and haunted by the few nation-states that hold most of the world’s power.

COP25, an amalgamation of world leaders, UN heads of departments, NGOs, students and activists, was not going to be a grand success from the start if the expectation was to slash global carbon emissions. Rather than being a failure, COP25 was remarkable in its unremarkableness. It was something that could be foreseen by many, minus the details of the outcomes.

Donald Trump, the United States’ freshly impeached president, formally pulled out of the Paris agreement on Nov. 3, 2019. Because the agreement states that anyone who should rescind the agreement has a year’s waiting period after the announcement, the U.S. is technically still in. This means that the U.S. still has negotiating power in COP25.

Instead of merely showing the world that the U.S. will not hold anyone accountable when it comes to fossil fuel emissions, they further picked the scab by making the negotiations extremely vague and diluting the outcomes. China, a country of paradoxes when it comes to energy, produces two-thirds of the world’s solar panels and is currently making plans to build several large coal plants. Again, if anyone had expected the current U.S. and Chinese administrations to be the ones applying pressure to tightly regulate global carbon emissions, then COP25 could be seen as a failure.

Yet if you look at what COP25 accomplished — uniting a coalition of global young people demanding that their voter base and their political representatives take action, fostering collective action agreements between smaller and more vulnerable countries with and without the cultural and technological means to combat climate change, collectively pressuring larger government coalitions such as the European Union (which ended up putting together the European Green New Deal), gathering sustainably minded investors and UN officials — this, to me, is a success. Yet the question of how much these coalitions can collectively do without the support of the other mentioned powerful government institutions holds.

Climate change denial in the U.S. is not an accident. It is a product of carefully seeded information that strongly speaks to values, and especially to American values: Prosperity. Endless resources. Ease. Abundance. Choice. Rural economies were built off of natural resource extraction. Those values will not be shaken by the power of pure scientific information but rather the power one finds in being able to support one’s family and gain honest livelihoods.

Therefore, transitioning our economies from extraction to renewable resources must speak to those values: Allowing families to stay together, in the places they love, with the community they love. Information does not change behavior on its own. It must hit home with values. And if we are to shift voters in the United States to voting for initiatives and representatives that will ensure the sustainability of our world, connections between sustainability and values must be made and vigorously built upon.

COP25, in this way, was a success because it allowed the human connections we need in order to sustainably do so.

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Lily Jane Clarke is a master’s degree student in the Human Dimensions Lab in the W.A. Franke College of Forestry at the University of Montana. She is president of the University of Montana’s International Forestry Students Association. She thanks the University of Montana (UM) Foundation, the UM Graduate School, the W.A. Franke College of Forestry, the UM Climate Studies Program, the Mansfield Center, the UM Office of the Provost, and family and friends for helping her attend COP25.

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