I arrived in Paris on a cold, winter day. A nervous excitement bubbled in me, as I stared into the clouds, which hid the sun. Signs advertising COP21, the United Nations Climate Change Conference. dotted the landscape, from the tall buildings near the airport, to the city signs on the Champs-Élysées. With only an hour’s sleep the night before, I was exhausted, and was powered only by my imminent anticipation.
Just a few short weeks before, I had been invited by Green Schools to make a video about the importance of youth at COP 21 events. I am a Green Schools National Youth Council Delegate, as well as the founder of a small environmental non-profit organization, Conserve It Forward. Shortly after the videos, Green Schools invited 5 teens to go to Paris. I was so happy to be representing Green Schools, and also, Conserve It Forward at COP21 and related events. I started a GoFundMe page right away, including the video I made, as well as a letter I wrote. Thanks to many very supportive people, I quickly raised money for my costs, and also had some amazing thank you gifts to give out to donors.
Read the rest of her amazing journey.
Once we arrived in Paris, I had only enough time for a short rest and snack before leaving for the first event. We headed to the Cité des sciences et de l’industrie for the Youth for Climate event, which was organized by the Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC). Coincidentally, a year ago I had sat on the first ever youth panel at the ASTC Annual Conference.
Upon arriving at the event, I met Jen Kretser (pictured left), Director of Programs at The Wild Center and the lead organizer of its annual Adirondack Youth Climate Summit, and also Gina Fiorile, an intern at the science center who has been recognized by the White House for her commitment to environmental causes. I had met both of these ladies when we were all at a climate event at the White House in February 2015. I was happy to see some familiar faces right from the start.
During the evening, we heard from many other young people from across the globe with similar, environmental goals. I was happy to hear the teens from India and Finland also supported and included some form of a plant-based diet in their presentations and speeches. I strongly believe that what we eat affects climate change, so this was exciting for me. We heard from several science, environmental and COP21 leaders. Some of them were Walter Staveloz, the Director of International Relations at ASTC; Frank Niepold, Climate Education Coordinator at NOAA (Pictured Right); Karuna Singh, Country Director for Earth Day India, Owen Gaffney, Communications Consultant of “Future Earth”; Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, Climatologist and Former Vice-Chair of the International Panel on Climate Change. There were also interviews by Frederic Castel directly from Bourget of people, including Pierre-Henri Guignard, Secretary General for COP21, and Celine Ramestein, Project Manager for COP21.
After the event was over, I had the opportunity to speak with several people, including Mr. Niepold, who I had met at the White House earlier this year, and also Ms. Singh from India. I also had the chance to speak with Solene Dengler from CliMates.
As we headed back to our hotel, I was amazed by the beautiful city of Paris lit up at night, and also for the holidays. We stayed near the Arc de Triomphe, and even though we were exhausted from not having slept yet, we found a small café on the Champs-Élysées for dinner. I am happy to report that it offered several plant-based dishes, so we happily ate before getting some rest for the next day’s events.
The next day was Friday, and, though tired, I was very excited to start our day. We went to Le Bourget, where the main conference was being held. For those without credentials, there was an enormous conference area full of exhibits, booths, activities, media, and so much more. The event was huge, and almost all of the decorations were made of recycled materials. There were chairs and benches made of recycled, wooden blocks, and bags made of jackets and sweaters. It was amazing how many people were there, how many languages spoken, and how many people and organizations were represented in a single venue.
Some of the booths and organizations we visited were the Climate Reality Project where we met David Ellenberger (pictured right), the World Wildlife Fund, Youngo, and even an entire section dedicated to agriculture affecting the world. My mother and I raced on stationary bicycles to power common appliances at the WWF booth. I loved this idea of exercise to create the energy we need.
I participated in “The Climate Ribbon art installation: a Tree of Life whose leaves are ribbons from around the world” where we wrote messages on ribbons about things we never want to lose due to climate change. Then we tied the ribbons to the tree. I found out later that 2 of my friends from Youth Empowered Action Camp (YEA Camp), Ananya Singh and Amanda Houdeschell, had organized a collection of ribbons from their schools in the United States to send over as part of the exhibit. This activity was organized by 350.org and hosted by several other organizations.
For lunch, there was a wonderful selection of vegetarian and vegan foods. We had sweet potatoes, bread, tofu, broccoli, baked potatoes, and rice. We also had a very nice tablemate from the California Department of Natural Resources. We were sad to leave Le Bouget, but we had to go across town for the next event.
Our next stop was the Marymount International School, a beautiful school on the outskirts of Paris. The grass was truly greener there, as it had just been planted a few weeks before! The trees standing proudly out front were changing to a brilliant yellow color, and we passed under an archway into an area with raised garden beds. Inside an entryway was a theatre, in which waited some of Marymount’s students along with many speakers and guests. A few signs advertised this event as Mini COP21, and I was happy to be included in the lineup of keynote speakers they were hosting over their 2 day event.
On day one, we heard from an artist by the name of Asher Jay, who uses her work to illustrate the unethical trade of animal parts. Next up was Yoca Arditi-Rocha (pictured right), the Executive Director of No Planeta B, a woman who had lived in Puerto Rico, the United States, and Peru. She talked about how we must take climate action now, because there is not another option…there is No Planeta B.
Friday night, we managed to fit in 2 very fast-paced hours at the Louvre Museum. Our friendly guide, a native Parisian named Arnaud, led us through some key parts of the world’s largest museum. I was awed by the gilded, gold ceilings, donned with complex paintings and signs. There was an entire room with the ceilings and walls dedicated to months of the year, and each zodiac sign. I took a picture of each, as well as their corresponding artwork. Arnaud introduced us to his favorite piece, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, also called the Nike of Samothrace, a winged figure standing on the bow of a stone ship. We saw the Venus de Milo, works by Michelangelo, and even statues of the famed Athena, Artemis, and her brother, Apollo. Out of the 11 pieces Leonardo Da Vinci had painted throughout his life, we saw 6. The Mona Lisa stood on a lonely wall across from a 2 story high painting, shielded by a wide and tall glass pane. It was beautiful, amazingly uncrowded, due to it being late on a Friday.
We had to leave Mona Lisa too soon, but I felt honored to have spent even a little time with some of the most famed art in the world. I left knowing that I would return one day, and hopefully with days to spend to really study the creations of so many people from over the ages.
I woke up Saturday, excitement rushing through my fingertips. This was the day I would give my presentation. I packed my notes and multiple USB drives meticulously, checking at least 3 times to make sure I had not misplaced them. I wore a blue dress that zipped all the way to my neck, with long, black leggings, and long black sleeves underneath. The sun was shining brilliantly despite the cold, and I practically ran out the hotel doors.
The trip to Marymount International School was short, and the man at the iron gate buzzed us in immediately. Once past security, my mother and I strode past the green of the playground lawn, and hurried under the arch. We passed the garden beds, and entered the building where the auditorium was. Being a weekend, any students present were there because they really wanted to be. There were students representing the Marymount International School, the American School of Paris, The Green School (Bali), and Colegio Franklin Delano Roosevelt: The American School of Lima. Other guests and speakers were present, and as a whole, we all represented many parts of the world.
I was incredibly excited. I was more happily anxious than almost any other speech I had ever given. The event started, and there were 2 presentations before mine. Francesca and Isabel, 2 teenagers from the school in Peru, mentioned how our food choices affect the environment. I was so happy to hear this, as that very topic was a large part of the presentation I was about to give. Hearing multiple references to this issue of importance throughout my time in Paris really gave me hope. This is a new subject for many people, and I want to do what I can to make it common knowledge. It made me feel great to know others are doing the same.
At 10:00, I handed one of the many USB drives to the technician – I have been taught to always have back-ups – who uploaded my PowerPoint to a laptop. By 10:15, it was my time to talk. Waving happily to my mother, I strode down the shallow steps and made my way to the stage. 2 Marymount students introduced me, before handing me the microphone. I held it, my palms slightly sticky, and began my speech. I loved the sensation of so many eyes on me, everyone attentively listening, hearing my voice resonate along the walls. I hope to have a link to the video of my presentation soon at the Conserve It Forward YouTube channel.
I talked briefly about how I got started with environmental work at age 8. Then, I described what I love most about our beautiful, “common home,” (the theme of the day) all things that people could relate to and that are found all over the globe. I spoke of ways that people could get involved and help, in their everyday lives, and spent a lot of time on the importance of our food choices on the environment. Food is a great, simple way to help our world and all living things. Every time we eat, we have the chance to make change for the entire planet by using fewer resources, and that means eating more plant-based foods, and less animal-based foods. I led everyone in the Human Frog Chorus, which is an interactive demonstration I created in 2012 to show the power of all of us using our voices together.
My takeaway messages for everyone were:
-Reconnect with nature, so that you remember why you love it and want to take care of it
-Together, our small acts equal BIG change
-Think and act with kindness and compassion
-Ordinary people of all ages must feel empowered to make positive change
The audience seemed very receptive to my work and messages. My hope is that I left them with something they can use at home. I had a great time connecting with people who came to talk with me afterwards.
The day continued with more speakers. There was a kind woman with a soothing voice representing Le Ferme Europ é enne des Enfants, an interactive farm in France. I enjoyed her talk very much, and loved how she described how an entire tree fit in a seed. She even handed out chestnuts and maple seeds to some of the audience. Later on in the day, she had a table set up, so we could see how grinding flour works.
Soon afterwards, the audience split into working groups. I was happy to get to work with some of the other speakers, students and attendees, including Francesca and Isabel from Peru, and Mel, a girl from Bali. Our group discussed 4 problems our local communities/schools faced, and we chose the topic of destruction associated with palm oil. I mentioned Project Orang, a project that was started by 2 youth, Madison and Rhiannon, who I had been part of different programs with in the past. A couple of our group members knew about Project Orang already, which was really neat. When the forum came back together, group representatives, including me, took turns speaking about each topic. We had a fun time working together, and then we all got to enjoy lunch together, too.
The afternoon brought new speakers, including Kip Anderson (pictured left), co-director of one of my favorite documentaries, Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret. For Earth Day 2015, I gave away almost 80 copies of the movie through my organization’s Facebook page, and I had also communicated with Kip over the past many months. His presentation was full of facts, dotted with a few personal opinions. Some of the information was as follows: animal agriculture accounts for 51% of global greenhouse gasses, those who eat entirely plant-based can save up to 18 times the amount of land a typical American consumes, and that the agriculture sector is one of the leading causes of deforestation and water pollution. I was thrilled, again, to have someone else talking about this very important topic.
I had one more pleasant surprise before we left for the day. As we were getting our things together, we turned around and saw Madison (pictured right), from Project Orang, sitting in the row of seats behind us. It had been a year since we had last seen each other, at the ASTC conference, and neither of us had known the other was going to be there. We only had a brief time to greet each other, before we had to go our separate ways.
Back at our hotel, we prepared for a short night tour called Illuminations, which took us all over the wonderful, old city to see the lights. I was very tired, but excited to show the city to my father who just arrived that day. We took pictures in front of Notre Dame, as well as the Eiffel Tower, which was aglow with the golden dust of night. COP21 related messages sprung to life on an e-board on the tower. We boarded a boat on the Seine River, which was surrounded by towering walls of ornate stone. I was filled with awe, as we passed under many stone and iron bridges.
Our last stop for the night was a visit to the free, interactive rides along the Champs-Élysées sponsored by IKEA, in honor of COP21. Their exhibit included playground-like equipment that you could ride, to show the power of people to create energy. I thought this was a great way for everyone to take part and have fun. We finished the evening with crepes at a café.
Sunday was our last full day in Paris. We no longer had any events to attend, and while I was excited to get one full day to experience the culture of the city, it also made me sad. I longed to attend more events, to learn more, to see more, and to meet more people. I found it so inspirational hearing the stories and experiences of other people.
We started our day by visiting Montmartre, an area on a large hill overlooking the city. We took pictures outside of Basilica of the Sacré-Cœur, a large church with tall spires and long, monstrous gargoyles, as well as throughout the streets we walked. It was easy to see how residents and visitors could connect with nature, as plants, trees and moss were around every corner. The artists drawing and painting and drawing in the town square captured my attention, but I really enjoyed taking photos of the small plants growing along the old stone walls.
We traveled more, crossing several bridges, until we found ourselves in the Latin Quarter. Previously, the Latin Quarter had been a selection of squares strictly dedicated to academia, where the professors and students had all spoke Latin amongst themselves, hence the name. Nowadays, it was hard to find any Latin writing on any signs, or even the very buildings hunched in the city blocks. We ate lunch at a small Italian restaurant, whose menu contained no Latin, but instead Italian, French, and English. I felt truly at home, staring out the window at the passing cars on cobblestone, with the Seine River in the distance. We visited a public square where gigantic blocks of ice had been placed for COP21, to demonstrate global warming and climate change.
Our next stop was Place de la République, or Republic Square, home of the memorial to those who lost their lives in the November 13 terrorist attacks. Darting through city skateboarders, we found ourselves under a monument, where candles, peace signs, and all kinds of tributes sat. There were still a surprising amount of shoes, left to symbolically represent the demonstrators who were supposed to gather for a march for climate change, but which had been canceled due to the attacks. Looking down at my feet, I spotted 2 origami peace cranes painted on the ground, and this gave me an idea. A current personal project of mine is creating 1,000 origami cranes, within the course of a single year to bring eternal peace and wellbeing. I felt this was a sign of something meaningful and personal that I could leave as part of the diverse memorial, so I wrote a small message of peace on a scrap piece of paper, signed it on behalf of the organizations I was there representing (Green Schools and Conserve It Forward) and folded it into a crane. I studied the items left by caring people from all parts of the world, found just the spot, and placed the crane. I knew I had done my part at this beautiful, solemn memorial.
I was reluctant to leave in the morning. It was cold, early, and darkness hung over all of Paris. It was so early that moisture still clung to the air. I double checked all of my things, reassured that everything was in its place. As we arrived at the airport, it seemed lonely, even after the sun had risen. As we sat waiting for our flight, I found myself staring at the ceiling, where glass statues hung picturesquely. All across the ceiling these statues hung, giving us the feeling of being underwater, with water drops hitting the surface far above us. From our vantage point, they looked like circles gathering around each other, until the smallest circle hugged the oversized water drop at the center. I cannot help but think of this ripple effect, and how our planet Earth is at the center of all of our combined actions and efforts.
As I reflect on my time in Paris, I realize how much I enjoyed the COP21 events, the people who were gathered there to do good for the world, and of course, the beauty and history of the host city itself. I loved the sunny days full of cool air. I adored the atmosphere, everything from the cobblestone streets to the limestone alleyways, to the monuments that seemed to be on every corner. I loved the way the city smelled of old stone and sweet dew, combined with the modernity of the shops and people. I especially loved Le Bourget, and interacting with the other students at the Mini COP event.
I feel my journey to Paris, and my involvement with COP21, were a complete, entire, success. I sincerely hope I can take what I learned from this years’ experience with me to COP22 in 2016 in Morocco. My goals would include staying longer, having more interactive opportunities like giving more presentations, and having more time to take part in activities that you do not even know about until you are there. Being part of an event like this is emotional. There are parts that remind me of so many challenges we face, yet there are so many more parts that give me hope and happiness for a brighter future. Reflection of all I have seen, felt, and learned is a very important part. The entire experience is beautiful, and I look forward to doing it all, again.
Thank you to everyone who helped make this entire journey possible. Thank you to Green Schools for inviting me. Thank you to the people and organizations who helped ensure I was part of different events. Thank you to every single person and organization who shared my social media and GoFundMe posts and links, and also donated, as all of your support means so much to me. Thank you, everyone, for believing in me, and the voice of youth.
Peace & love, Avalon