Post Paris Reflections

The Paris Agreement sets a baseline for the next climate chapter, which we now must write

 “I see no objections,” rang the voice of COP president Laurent Fabius at the final plenary session of COP21, “the Paris agreement is adopted!” The hours of cheers, tears, and praise that followed this announcement—all deserved—drowned out the few voices of dissent. Nicaragua was one such country less than pleased with the deal, stating it was unhappy with the weak emissions reduction targets and insufficient compensation to developing nations already suffering the effects of climate change.

In many ways, Nicaragua’s objection is destructive and misguided; as one of nine countries refusing to submit an “Intended Nationally Determined Contribution” (INDC) to reduce their own emissions, criticizing the final agreement on these lines carries an air of hypocrisy. A more diplomatic approach was taken by the Marshall Islands foreign minister Tony de Brum, who succeeded in rallying over 100 countries to his high-ambition coalition that recognizes the fate of nations most vulnerable to climate change if global temperatures rise even 2oC. Still, we need the Nicaraguas of the world to continue speaking up – at the national, subnational, and civil levels – if we are to move the climate needle away from the catastrophic zone.

The events outside the negotiating halls and throughout Paris during the conference were clear indications that this needle is no longer rusted in place from inaction. Increasingly, actors from all sectors of society are coming to understand that climate change represents both the greatest shared threat to humanity and the greatest opportunity for collaboration. An unprecedented number of subnational governments attended their own meetings in Paris during the first week of the COP. The “Under 2 MOU,” organized by CA Governor Jerry Brown in concert with the German state of Baden-Wurttemberg, puts signatories on a path to cut emissions by 80% by 2030, or to fewer than 2 tons of CO2 equivalent per capita. The MOU now has over 123 signatories from state and regional jurisdictions representing over 700 million people and cumulative emissions greater than the US as a whole.

From the private finance community, Bill Gates announced the formation of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, which plans to funnel over $2 billion towards renewable energy technology R&D. And from “civil society”, the demonstrations of activists throughout Paris and the world brought the sentiments of indigenous communities, island nations, and concerned citizens to center stage.  Even Pope Francis and UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon added their shoes to the over 10,000 pairs laid out at the symbolic People’s Climate March, to show that solidarity remained despite a crackdown on large gatherings.

But let’s be clear—as Nicaragua was – we are nowhere close to a plan for preventing the degree of climate change that will wreak havoc on the world’s most vulnerable communities. The “road through Paris”, as numerous NGOs and governments alike have referred to it, necessitates these voices and actions growing louder and larger. An agreement based on global consensus is never going to set the bar for climate action. However, such an agreement can demarcate a firm baseline upon which both governments and private entities alike can build. Paris accomplished just that. As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry put it, “We didn’t come to Paris to build a ceiling, we came to build a floor.”

We must now raise that floor. One of the most critical articles accepted in the final agreement was that of a “ratchet mechanism”, through which countries will be required to revise their emissions reduction plans every five years. Global realization of the impacts of climate change is growing, and sudden, “disruptive” shifts in both climate impacts and low-carbon technology and policy may occur in the near future. We need this mechanism for increasing our ambitions accordingly.

There certainly were notable absences in the final document as well. The goals of protecting indigenous rights and promoting gender and intergenerational equity were relegated to the non-legal preamble. This is another area where civil society will have to take the lead. Nations are not likely to adopt this language in a binding document any time soon. They know that continued burning of fossil fuels violates these rights, and they don’t want to open up the door to lawsuits from their own citizens or those of other nations. We – the activists, scientists, politicians, voters, CEOs, farmers, fisherman, resource managers, health officials, activists, and everyone in between – must hold our countries and ourselves accountable for creating the kind of world we want for future generations. We must continue to push as hard as possible, with our voices, our actions, and our vote, to move the needle towards a 1.5 degree world.

The Paris Agreement closed a monotonous and futile chapter in the climate change novel and began a new one. How that new chapter will read is up to us, but it’s imperative that we act promptly and decisively. There simply aren’t that many chapters left and, as Friday’s Eiffel Tower illumination reminded us, “No Planet B.”