A historic climate agreement was reached in Paris a week ago Saturday. This was very likely a watershed moment that will change the course of the climate crisis. I am still moved as I read the accounts of the extraordinary effort and innovative diplomacy that went into it.
But many within the environmental / climate activist community have called the agreement inadequate to the task at hand. It is widely acknowledged that the Paris agreement alone does not stipulate the changes needed to keep global warming in the safe range. But it is nonetheless a significant, unanimously endorsed start and probably the best plan possible now. Here’s why.
Important parts of the deal are non-binding and the regulatory mechanisms each country will use to achieves their reductions were left up to them. This voluntary nature was apparently essential to get universal buy-in. And for that we can largely thank the Republican leadership in the US Congress that has gone on record with their intensions to scuttle a binding agreement. Because of the US’s role as the 2nd largest CO2 emitter, the world’s largest economy and a technological powerhouse, this agreement had to accommodate our political reality or leave out a pivotal player. Other large countries were also unwilling to legally commit themselves to specific targets. In light of this, a legally binding agreement may have simply been impossible.
And even the voluntary targets that were set by countries, while inadequate in themselves, will require extraordinary changes and have major negative impacts on fossil fuel industries. We can expect strong pushback from them and their supporters in Congress. Unless and until there is more intense popular support for stronger actions, the Paris agreement looks like the best tool we have to work with for now.
Like many others, I’ve been wondering how this non-binding agreement could motivate nations to begin making the really tough changes needed. Does it all just hinge on promises? Part of the answer may lie in the the intense level of preparation, the dead-serious negotiations and the general gravitas that all participants brought to the talks. By the accounts I’ve read, there was no room for or tolerance of climate change denial; everyone seemed to be on the same page that this must be done. The eyes of the world were truly upon this event and will remain on the follow-through, thanks to the reporting requirements of the deal. And everyone knows that the eyes of future generations will look back and judge us as we move forward from here, either taking the tough steps to transform our societies or taking the easy way out. There is probably no better motivator than one’s own conscience (though one’s pocketbook may dispute that).
Yes, some countries may re-neg on commitments (some for legitimate reasons). But if the majority of signatories keep their word this can still have a huge impact. The effects of major shifts in policies, subsidies, technology and investments should ripple through commerce in profound ways. Perhaps individual nations and large corporations could discourage trade with countries that aren’t living up to their commitments. All of this should make fossil fuels increasingly obsolete. This shift may even spur a sort of green renaissance when the multiple benefits of de-carbonizing and improving energy efficiency demonstrate just how well we can live when unshackled from the tyranny of cheap, dirty energy and wasteful consumption.
But it is probably that tyranny – the influence of powerful special interests preventing or slowing progress – that will determine our ability to meet the goals set in Paris more so than national resolve or the availability of resources. Wresting our future from the grip of the entrenched energy goliaths will be our biggest challenge I think.
We now move from planning to implementation. Many states, cities and businesses are already doing this, requiring more renewable sources of energy, providing incentives and investing in clean technologies. And Obama’s Clean Power Plan is a good start (assuming it can survive Republican efforts to kill it). But the federal government must do much more, giving clear direction to agencies to make this a priority. A starter list could include shifting subsidies and tax breaks away from dirty energy to instead fund research and commercialization of renewable energy and green technologies, cutting back and ending leases for coal and oil on public lands, implementing ever-stronger efficiency standards for vehicles and appliances, and hopefully putting a meaningful price on carbon to create a strong economic incentive to change.
Climate change activists will have a big role to play, holding our federal government to a high standard, pushing industry to move faster and keeping the message in the media. The 2016 elections will be an important place to focus our energies. The Paris agreement can be both a rallying cry for organizing and a litmus test for candidates.