No one can be a bystander now: Thoughts on the Paris Agreement

I hope you’ll pardon the scatteredness of this post. I’ve been reading about the Paris Agreement all day and reading the Paris Agreement itself. There is a lot to digest and I am not finished yet. Here I’ll point to what I’ve been reading and provide some commentary and end with a few recommendations on where you can go as a citizen to bolster domestic action to get to net zero carbon by 2050. It’s just a start.

If you’re looking to spend your whole day on it, start at The Daily Climate and start clicking away. A few pieces I found exceptional are Eric Holthaus’s piece in Slate, Craig Welch’s piece in National Geographic, Fred Pearce’s work at Yale e360, and a quick look inside the Paris Agreement by some folks at The New York Times. These and many other stories across the news world today characterize the Agreement slightly differently, but generally with optimism mixed with caution.

A noted and powerful exception is James Hansen who has some strong language describing the Paris Agreement. He’s quoted in The Guardian:

“It’s a fraud really, a fake,” he says, rubbing his head. “It’s just bullshit for them to say: ‘We’ll have a 2C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.’ It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned.”

My initial feelings and state? Relief, happiness, and guarded skepticism. It’s going to take five years at least to determine if the Paris Agreement is working. There are a few things that immediately please me: the aspirational goal to limit warming to 1.5 C which is a victory for small island and least developed nations and that the “ratchet” mechanism is a smart way to deepen commitments over time. As an educator, I’m heartened to see the role of education in “capacity building.” But I am also concerned that the biggest historical emitters will remain off the hook for the damage the most vulnerable suffer today and tomorrow, especially when it’s the destruction of one’s homeland and its culture. And it’s not clear how nations will be held accountable if they don’t meet the goals in their intentionally nationally determined contributions (INDCs) as this Reuters piece points out. And I think we need a price on carbon to get fossil fuels downsized rapidly. So I have optimism but see clear limits to the existing accord. Glass is empty and full.

I found a blog post by Robert Stavins of Harvard’s Kennedy School pretty insightful. He calls it “a good foundation for meaningful progress.”He provides essential background, why and how Paris is a departure from previous work. its key elements, its anticipated impacts, and his assessment of the Agreement based on his previous writing. He concludes,

So, my fundamental assessment of the Paris climate talks is that they were a great success. Unfortunately, as I have said before, some greens and some members of the press will mistakenly characterize the outcome as a “failure,” because the 2 degree C target has not been achieved immediately.

Let me conclude where I started. The Paris Agreement provides an important new foundation for meaningful progress on climate change, and represents a dramatic departure from the past 20 years of international climate negotiations.  Of course, the problem has not been solved, and it will not be for many years to come. But the new approach brought about by the Paris Agreement can be a key step toward reducing the threat of global climate change. In truth, only time will tell.

As Michael E. Mann wrote recently for The Field Guide to Teaching Sustainability (which I curate), “The most important thing that can come out of the conference is an agreement to improve on [the INDC] commitments substantially by the time of the next conference in five or so years, so that we do get on the path to limiting warming below 2C.” I’d say that happened. The work ahead is to improve on them.

Update: Mann has a solid piece in Huffpost, “The Power of Paris: Climate Challenge Remains, But Now We’re on the Right Path.” There he writes:

Though the resulting agreement is modest in scale, by bringing the world together, it sends a clear signal to global energy markets: The age of fossil fuels is ending, and a new clean global energy economy is taking its place. While past agreements left the door open for continued reliance on fossil fuels by emerging economies like those of China and India, the Paris agreement makes it clear that we must all join together in a common goal — averting dangerous climate change.

Now we need to get policies to stick in the U.S. over the coming few years that create path dependencies to achieve 100% renewable energy by 2050, widespread carbon sinking through forest conservation, management, and reforestation, a price on carbon as fast as possible so we can displace fossil fuels, and meaningful contributions to sustainable development domestically and abroad. We could make incredible progress. Could.

I’m not naive. It will be an enormous lift in a nation as polarized as we are on climate and energy issues. I have no illusions that the radicalized right wing of the Republican party pumped full of money from the fossil fuel industry and other merchants of doubt won’t obstruct and play dirty. Ted Cruz isn’t using “masterful rhetorical trickery” and “dreadful science” in an effort to lose the presidential election.

We know Exxon fought itself and cynically cannibalized its climate science program and doubled down on polluting energy profits and doubt-mongering. Whatever actions we take from now on will take diplomacy, cleverness, and sheer will to ensure that we don’t cede the table to greed and corruption. Civil society and scientists pushed the diplomats. Now we have to push ourselves and our leaders.

If you are thinking of things that you can do to follow up on this momentum, I have a few suggestions. Urge your representatives and senators at the state level to not only endorse the Clean Power Plan but actually push for a more ambitious carbon goal that will push us to beat the United States’s current INDC. You can also leverage your local officials at the county and township level to incentivize energy conservation, better passive solar construction, tackle ordinances or regulations that impede the uptake of home-, business-, community-, or even utility-level solar, wind, and geothermal power, and land conservation measures that can sink carbon. If you work at an organization that lacks a climate plan, advocate for one that can enable the world to achieve the goal to limit warming to 1.5 C and reach a net zero carbon economy by 2050. At Penn State, for example, a colleague of mine worked with people in operations and finance and business to establish a Campus Renewable Energy Fund set up so that faculty, staff, and alumni/ae can contribute to solar and wind installations so that we can move away from fossil fuel power. Can you contribute to a fund like that or set one up? Pooling resources and maintaining focus will do a tremendous amount of good down the road and it will show your commitment in both word and deed.

Right now, I’m pleased that the world’s leaders recognize the gravity of climate disruption and did even more than that: they created a framework from which nations can continue to work in ever-more ambitious ways for decades. Will we move fast enough to avert the 1.5 C threshold? That’s what we have to see. But I’m not going to wait and see if it works because there’s too much that we can do.

No one can be a bystander now. It’s time to roll up your sleeves and work.

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