Given the repeated failure of the world’s nations to agree on how to deal effectively with climate change, the recently concluded summit in Paris must be considered a major victory. It’s a huge relief to know that we’re not ready to throw in the towel in the face of a seemingly intractable problem.
After the disappointing outcome of the Copenhagen climate conference of 2009, which many deemed a failure, the problem seemed too big, too complicated and too politically controversial to resolve. Some saw it as a death knell for the planet.
In the intervening years, however, the glaciers continued to melt, the seas continued to rise, street flooding in Miami Beach occurred more often and winter came later and later. Had a chance to wear your “winter” wardrobe yet?
Perhaps that focused the minds of participants in Paris — that and the unbearable smog in cities such as Beijing and Delhi, which created waves of public anger at leaders of developing countries who resisted compromise deals at Copenhagen.
Whatever the case was, the participants at the Paris conference reached a watershed agreement. It is far from ideal, but for the first time the participant nations committed themselves to limit global temperature rises to “well below 2 degrees Celsius,” though the pledges on individual targets submitted by governments put the world on track for around 3 degrees (not as good).
If you are of a mind to see the glass as half empty, there are plenty of questions: What are the target dates? Under what penalty? What about monitoring, reporting and verification? And, biggest of all, what about enforcement? To reach a deal, the entire idea of enforcement was dropped in favor of public commitments by countries to reach individual goals. Obviously, this is not ideal, but it is the first time any such pact has been reached. That is the signal achievement of the conference.
And if you are of a mind to see the glass as half full, here’s the best news: Carbon emissions — the main cause of the greenhouse effect that produces global warming — declined in 2015, and recent developments suggest this trend will continue.
For one thing, solar energy is becoming cheaper to produce, thanks to technological advances, which some consider a fundamental change in the rules. Meanwhile, coal production is becoming relatively more expensive compared to both new technology and the cost of coal production and use before the era of regulation. And, as in the cases of Beijing and Delhi, the people of the world are demanding action by their leaders, helping to break the political logjam that blocked progress.
In this country, climate-change deniers abound in Congress. But even so, the United States and China announced plans to reduce carbon pollution in advance of the Paris meeting, thanks to President Obama’s plans to limit emissions from power plants by way of regulation. This raised America’s credibility and, in turn, gave participants the confidence to make a global deal on the basis of cooperation and shared sacrifice.
Paris is just a beginning. Technology must continue to improve. Given recent advances in the costs and effectiveness of solar energy, that seems a given.
Ensuring that political will does not falter will be much harder. It will require climate change to remain an urgent political priority, despite the nay-sayers. It shouldn’t take the complete inundation of, say, Miami Beach to convince the skeptics of the error of their views.