France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius accepts applause during COP-21, flanked by French President Francois Hollande on the left and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on the right. Credit: The United Nations Conference on Climate Change
For the first time, all nations – rich, poor and in between — have agreed on a universal plan to reduce the emissions that cause global warming. In the past, it was only advanced economies like the United States and Europe that were expected to cut their carbon pollution. Less developed countries now have joined the effort with specific commitments to control their emissions even though they need energy in abundance to give their people such basics as modern sanitation, clean water and electricity.
Second, the Paris deal sends an unmistakable message from the world’s leaders that the era of fossil fuels is over. To one degree or another, the fossil energy sector is a group of dead industries walking. That message is not only evident between the lines of the Paris agreement; it is also the practical implication of agreement’s goal to keep atmospheric warming to as low as 1.5C above preindustrial levels and to put the world’s carbon cycle back into balance during the second half of the century.
Third, it is clear that the goals and commitments in the Paris agreement are not nearly adequate to achieve the 1.5C goal, or even the now obsolete goal of 2C. The agreement is a starting point rather than an end point. Whether its aspirations are realized depends on many undecided things, including whether richer countries will provide poorer countries with enough financial assistance to help them build low-carbon energy systems and adapt where possible to climate changes already underway. That is not an issue of too little money; international action to end fossil energy subsidies would do most of the job, but that commitment is not in the current agreement.
Nevertheless, as several environmental leaders put it after the final text was written, it “signals that governments are committed to finally getting in line with climate science”, it “puts the fossil energy industries on the wrong side of history” and while it does not “dig us out of the hole we’re in, it makes the sides much less steep”.
In the United States, the impressive unanimity behind this agreement further marginalizes the denial camp, including the members of Congress who busied themselves during the Paris conference by passing meaningless resolutions to persuade other nations that they cannot count on America’s promises. In stark contrast to the morality displayed in Paris, the denial caucus in Congress shamelessly exhibited the rot that big money has brought to America’s political system.
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While the climate agreement makes history, the reality is that the situation coming out of Paris is much the same as it was going in: The future that this generation hands to the next ultimately depends not on our dignitaries and diplomats, but rather on the concrete actions of states and localities, businesses, investors, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, educators, scientists, ecological engineers, utility regulators, legislators, city councils and individual energy consumers. That is why “sending a signal” to the world outside Paris was a frequent theme at the climate conference.
The principal practical significance of the agreement is to put an effective end to any reasonable doubt that the problem is real, that it already is upon us, and that the world must shift as rapidly as possible to a global carbon-free energy economy.
The importance of civil society and “subnational” governments, as state and local governments are called in these events, is evident in the world’s three biggest carbon polluters. In China, the world’s No. 1 source of greenhouse gas pollution, the transition to clean energy depends on unrelenting pressure from the people in the streets who are threatened with early death by the air they are forced to breathe. That pressure appears to be one of the reasons China agreed for the first time to concrete carbon-cutting goals.
In the European Union, ranked No. 3 on the carbon polluter list, leaders have set a target for using clean energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but they have left the details to each of the EU’s 28 Member States.
In the United States, the world’s No. 2 source of carbon pollution, states and cities have most of the legal authorities to create a clean energy economy. Building codes, utility regulations, transportation investments, urban planning and zoning, state and local tax incentives, PACE and utility financing for energy efficiency and renewable energy investments in homes and businesses, urban forestry to reduce heat-related deaths – the list goes on – are the most powerful tools in our toolbox for building a cleaner, more secure, more moral, more biologically rich, more prosperous, more responsible and more life-embracing future.
The Paris agreement codifies a universal goal but as always, the future is in the hands of the people. The votes of the American people in next year’s presidential, congressional and statehouse elections will determine whether we build upon or backslide from the climate and energy policies the Obama Administration has created. In other words, it is up to us whether the United States will live up to and continue improving upon the promises in Paris.
The jury is out, as they say. While polls show that most Americans now accept that climate change is real, most still don’t grasp the immediacy of its impacts on their lives. Yet climate change already is wasting billions of taxpayer dollars — $160 billion for disaster recovery alone in the last three years to be precise. It is creating more government regulations; increasing insurance rates; causing asthma and other respiratory problems in more kids; pushing up food prices because of drought; and destroying homes, lives and livelihoods with record fires, floods, landslides, and monster storms. In the same way that television made Vietnam our first “living room war”, global warming is now a living room crisis with its devastations shown on every night’s news, it seems.
We’ll know what the American people decide in 11 months. For now
at the 21st Conference of the Parties under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, duly endorsed by the United States Senate and ratified by the 41st President of the United States in 1992, meeting in the City of Light in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Fifteen, and with the concurrence of nearly 200 nations, the leaders of the world have spoken. The rest is mostly up to you and me.