Earlier this month, political and business leaders joined scientists from over 190 countries in Paris to address climate change. The resulting agreement (essentially to do whatever it takes to avoid global warming exceeding 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels) is almost certainly insufficient to effect a solution to climate change. First of all, there are no mechanisms to make the agreement binding. Moreover, the initiatives and mechanisms proposed seem disconnected from the 2-degree goal. But even though this conservationist considers the agreement weak, I was ecstatic with the outcome rather than disillusioned. Here’s why.
These leaders—with often conflicting social, economic and political interests (note: even OPEC and Russia signed!)—actually walked away with at least “something,” and the compulsion to deliver this “something” means the masses have finally awakened (at least partially) to our unsustainable reality—globally! Accordingly, the politicians seem to be finally leading us in the right direction. There is so much work to be done and so much further leadership needed for real solutions, but this trajectory makes me think that there is hope where there was absolutely none before. If the current pace of increasing consciousness around the need for environmental conservation continues, it seems to me that the goals at future “climate summits” will be successively and incrementally more progressive, until we get it right. Paris was a big success in my mind, even if it was not even close to an end goal.
Consider that China committed to an absolute peak in its greenhouse gases by 2030. To do this, based upon current estimates for Chinese economic growth and consequent energy consumption, 20% of Chinese energy must come from alternative energy—more than 100% of current U.S. total energy consumption.
Consider that our own country, so progressive on so many other issues, has been the showstopper thus far (i.e., in Kyoto, Rio and Copenhagen) but has now shown real leadership. Even before Paris, the U.S. committed $3 billion to help developing countries cut carbon emissions and move to cleaner fuels, an element that was essential to any cooperative agreement in Paris from China and India. Also before Paris, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced the Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon pollution from power plants, which seems to be the beginning of the end for the dirty American coal industry. And then in Paris, U.S. diplomats finally figured out a way (changing the verb “shall” to “should”) to disempower congressional power to preclude U.S. participation in the agreement.
Not only has the U.S. government participation in conservation improved, but it also seems that popular culture has moved beyond simply buying a Prius. When I turned vegetarian in ’88 to reduce the size of my own ecological footprint, nobody seemed to understand the connection between eating lower on the food chain and environmental sustainability. Now it seems that Whole Foods customers feel the need to apologize to the checkout person when purchasing a steak, even if it’s stamped “free range,” “grass fed,” etc.
Say what you will about the shortcomings of Paris. Not only does the ability to rally and unify almost 200 countries of disparate cultural, socio-political and economic backdrops suggest that we may have a chance at saving our planet, but the ability to cooperate on anything of importance suggests that we may be able to act together on other important issues as well. This could be big!