Candles melting in the Melbourne heat. Photo by Cuddy Wifter
On December 12, nearly 200 countries from around the world reached consensus to lower global CO2 emissions to stave off further catastrophic climate change.
In contrast to previous attempts at a climate accord, the U.S. was an active player in the process, leading governments into an agreement to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels (although the voluntary emissions submitted by each country still put us on track for a 2.7 C increase).
The accord aims for “net zero” emissions between 2050 and 2100 and provides for five-year review cycles and a mechanism to compensate countries facing devastating losses due to climate change. By avoiding any language requiring financial commitments, Obama administration officials avoided the need for Congressional (read: Republican) approval.
Reactions to this global agreement have been varied. Climatologist James Hansen described the Paris COP21 climate talks agreement as “a fraud,” and said the effort amounted to “bullshit” and “worthless words.” Greenpeace’s international executive director Kumi Naidoo was less glum, saying,“This deal won’t dig us out the hole we’re in, but it makes the sides less steep.”
Critics note that people living in low-lying coastal areas and small islands remain extremely vulnerable. The accord’s recognition of indigenous rights, initially legally binding and enforceable, were moved under pressure from Norway and other countries to a preamble that is only aspirational and non-binding.
And, of course, Republicans complained. Senator Jim Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, proclaimed that “the United States is not legally bound to any agreement setting emissions targets or any financial commitment to it without approval by Congress.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Obama is “making promises he can't keep” and should remember that the agreement “is subject to being shredded in 13 months.”
But despite the criticisms and words of caution, the success of the accord is good news. It means the conversation about climate change has fundamentally changed. It’s now global. As Obama put it: “We met the moment.”
Agreement about the human role in climate change now has worldwide acknowledgment and support (undergirded by the “secret” agreement Obama crafted with China last year), and further marginalizes the climate deniers. And while the accord was reached by avoiding binding commitments, it represents clear progress over the 1997 Protocol on Climate Change in Kyoto, Japan, when the world’s major polluters wouldn’t even agree to sit at the table.
For the first time, the world has pulled together in recognition of the danger to the the health and well-being of people everywhere posed by the destruction of the earth’s environment. (Perhaps Pope Francis deserves some credit for promoting this connection in his recent encyclical, writing of the “intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet.”)
Despite the terrible attacks on November 13, Paris successfully hosted the talks without major incident, also accommodating a large number of activists and spectators. The news was full of photos and interviews with young people in Paris who view climate change, even more than terrorism, as a real threat to their future. After their success in defeating the Keystone pipeline back in October, the coalition of diverse groups uniting to fight fossil fuel companies is looking stronger than ever.
GreenPeace used “ecopaint” at the Place de l’Etoile to create an image of the sun encouraging policymakers in their commitments to a future fueled with renewable energy. Photo courtesy of GreenPeace.
Here's another reason the glass might be half full after the Paris summit: the involvement of the business sector. One attendee called the presence of big business at the meetings “amazing,” noting that not just Asian and European but American big business attended in force, including representatives from Dupont, Monsanto, and Kellogg. “They wouldn’t have been there if they don’t see opportunities in this direction,” he said
The International Investors Group on Climate Change, a network managing trillions of dollars of assets, said the Paris summit would help trigger a shift away from fossil fuels and encourage greater investments in renewable energy. The Stowe Global Coal Index, which tracks the stock performance of twenty-six major producers, has lost 59 percent of its value this year. And the agreement is said to be a powerful signal to global markets to shift away from fossil fuels and toward a clean energy economy.
Though some may be disappointed, the Paris accord shows the climate movement now enjoys the kind of diversity of participants that can lead to real changes on the ground. Because, after all, as the folks at 350.org put it: “The climate deal won’t save the planet. The people will.”
Mrill Ingram is online media editor for The Progressive Magazine