Is Hope Possible After the Paris Agreement?

Negotiators have reached the first international climate pact in history.

Charles Platiau / Reuters

With the swing of a gavel on Saturday, the world’s nations adopted the first international agreement to limit the causes of anthropogenic climate change. For the first time in history, more than 150 countries have promised to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide they emit into the atmosphere and to increase these reductions over time.

If ratified, the agreement will include a greater swath of countries than any previous pact, encompassing not only the rich, northern nations that put most of the carbon into the atmosphere, but also the rapidly developing southern states whose emissions could soon dwarf the rest of the world’s.

The document also nods to a more ambitious ultimate goal than any previous agreement. While reinforcing the long-stated international aim of keeping the rise in average global temperatures below two degrees Celsius, it encourages a new push to cap warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius.

“If adopted, countries have united around a historic agreement that marks a turning point in the climate crisis,” said Jennifer Morgan, who directs the climate program at the World Resources Institute, after the final text was announced.

In order to get to this point, national negotiating teams had to resolve many intricate issues central to international climate diplomacy. But if you have only been following the talks somewhat, you may be more interested in a de facto question posed by Venezuela’s lead climate negotiator, Claudia Salerno. Two hours into the most acrimonious public meeting that occurred during the talks, a nearly four-hour plenary on Wednesday, she described her hope for after the talks.

“I want to go back home and look my daughters in the face, and say, ‘It’s all going to be fine,’” she told the group. “‘You’re going to be fine.’”

Venezuela, a petroleum producer, does not have a spotless climate record, and Salerno has pulled stunts at the climate talks before. But in her way, she was stating the prime question behind our roiling crisis. It was the only question that people asked me when I said I had been covering the Paris talks all week:

Are we going to be okay?

The answer is more complicated than yes or no.

* * *

The Paris talks have a sense of carnival. There’s the protestors, the non-profit staffers, the companies all hawking their greener brand initiatives. There’s the strange disconnect between the gentility of diplomatic protocol and the horror of a weather-wrecked world. On the last days of the talks, when closed negotiations ran at all hours, besuited negotiators can be seen slumped and dozing around the site.

It’s spectacle, but an odd kind: canonical, world-historical spectacle.

And, true to spectacle, it is a performance for someone. The Paris talks were not meant to hatch an all-encompassing plan to save the world, once and for all. Rather, they were conceived as a way to send a signal. Negotiators hope the Paris agreement will say to the banks and investors of the world—the barons of Capital, and thus historic possibility—that the world really, really means it about this greener-future thing.

Over the past half decade, more money has been committed to renewable energy than ever before, and the prices of solar and wind energy have fallen precipitously. But in order to halt climate change, many more billions will need to be expended. Research and development budgets, at both governments and companies, must quadruple or sextuple in size. And meanwhile investors must divest themselves of investment in fossil fuels.

The Paris agreement is meant to spur that great re-investment, by signaling the imminent end of the fossil-fuel business and the fantastic opportunity in renewable energy. It hopes to address the boardrooms of the world and say: Keep it up.

Which is good, because in no way are the emissions reductions that countries have made right now adequate. The carbon dioxide cuts specified at Paris will not keep the planet to 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming; they will not even keep it to two. If these cuts were made and no more, the world would warm about 2.7 degrees by 2100. That’s better than the track we’ve been on for a long time, but it is still a catastrophic event.

Everyone knows this. Christiana Figueres, the UN’s lead climate change negotiator and the impresario of Paris, told The New Yorker earlier this year that, “If anyone comes to Paris and has a eureka moment—‘Oh, my God, the [national cutbacks] do not take us to two degrees!’—I will chop the head off whoever publishes that. Because I’ve been saying this for a year and a half.”

The hope of the Paris talks is that it will not matter, that future technological advancements and reduction commitments will get us below the line. And part of the success of the talks is that there will likely be future cutbacks. Because, in a larger sense, the Paris talks have sounded a new era in how the world—as a global system of nation-states—manages climate change.

We have been stuck in an old paradigm for a long time. In 1992, the UN officially recognized the dangers of the greenhouse effect and adopted the Framework Convention on Climate Change. Every year since 1994, the parties to that convention have met in one place, called for reports, worked out procedures, discussed and bickered and walked out on each other, able to do much except the one, crucial thing: formulate a global resolution that would slow and eventually halt climate change.

They tried in 1997 in Kyoto, postulating a protocol that ordered the rich world to cut its emissions slowly over time. It didn’t work: China and India, two rapidly growing polluters, never had to comply with the treaty; and upon election, George W. Bush said the U.S. wouldn’t, either. They tried again a dozen years later in Copenhagen, but talks broke down nearly completely.

So in the run-up to Paris, the UN asked every nation to prepare its own individual climate-change-fighting plan. More than 150 countries eventually did so, announcing how they could feasibly alter their energy system or land-use regime to reduce carbon emissions. China and the United States engaged in months of secret diplomacy to arrive at a bilateral climate-change pact that signaled a real deal might finally emerge this time. (Ironically, China wound up choosing a market-based method for its climate policy, while the U.S. hews to a command-and-control approach.)

When negotiators arrived in Paris two weeks ago—the 21st time they had gathered since that 1992 framework convention—many said that a deal could finally happen. But the text they were meant to pass contained more than 34,000 words and 1,600 bracketed passages: that is, hundreds of  phrases, sentences, or paragraphs that still needed to be adopted, adapted, or cut.

By the end of the first week, lower-level diplomats had resolved many of the easy issues. But some of the thorniest still had to be addressed. Should an international agency be able to check if nations were keeping their carbon-cutting promises? The United States and Europe have committed billions to helping developing countries prepare for the storms to come: Should China and India pitch in, too? And should anyone bear ultimate historic responsibility for the state of the climate?

These have now been sorted out, with “gestures of money” exchanged for “gestures of transparency,” as Jonathan Katz memorably describes it at The New Republic. And much of what was fought about at this conference, especially climate finance (that is, who pays whom for what), will be fought about until there isn’t an international system to fight about them anymore.

But that is secondary, I think, to the new era in climate diplomacy that Paris has begun. The Paris agreement imposes a new cycle, a new calendar of cutbacks, onto the future. This cycle will help decide, in big and small ways, how the human species addresses a crisis on its home-world in at least the next quarter century.

Here is that calendar: In 2018, nations will hold a “facilitative conference” to revisit some of the emissions reductions ideas. If it is ratified by more than 55 percent of nations or nations that cause 55 percent of global emissions, Paris will enter into force two years later, in 2020.

Then, in 2023, the world will meet again for a “global stocktake,” where countries are supposed to announce new and improved emission-reduction plans. Rich countries may also announce more monetary help for poor ones at these events. And every five years after that, indefinitely, the world will meet again to discuss its renewed plans to decarbonize.

These are the two milestones in the international climate agenda: 2018 and 2023. In between now and then, the economic trends of investment and divestment and fossil-fuel burning and solar printing will churn and fluctuate, but the international community will observe them most at those two sessions. (A savvy observer might take note that neither of those two years contain U.S. presidential elections.)

* * *

In some ways, the most hopeful news out of Paris—the new 1.5 degree goal—is also the least realistic. Recent science has indicated that warming to two degrees, still the stated international red line, might be catastrophic, creating mega-hurricanes and possibly halting the temperate jet stream which waters American and European farmland.

From that perspective, 1.5 degrees is an encouraging, ambitious goal. But it’s also a promise that costs negotiators nothing while indicating great moral seriousness.

Because here’s the thing: The math still doesn’t work. 2015 is the hottest year on measure. Because of the delay between when carbon enters the atmosphere and when it traps heat, we are nearly locked into nearly 1.5 degrees of warming already. Many thought the world would abandon the two degree target at Paris due to its impracticality.

In order to slide under the 1.5-degree target, global emissions have to peak in the next five or six years. (Emissions slowed this year, mostly due to China’s economic downturn, but they are expected to rise again soon as India adds industrial capacity.) The world has to completely stop emitting carbon around 2060. Can it be done?

Now we find out. If climate change worries you, think about not only how you vote, but also how you spend your civic attention and how you communicate your concern to policy-makers. Think too about how you’re supporting those already affected by it.

To my mind, climate is our great story. No other narrative envelopes all of humanity in quite the same way, forcing answers about the ethics of food, of oil, of technology, of economic security, of democratic republics and command capitalism, of colonialism and indigenous peoples, of who in the world is rich and who in the world is poor.

We live in the middle of history. Nations still bicker over borders, flaunt weapons of mass death, and abhor refugees in their midst. In Paris, they tried, miraculously and inadequately, to care for their common good.

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