Not sure what really happened at the Paris climate summit over the weekend? Did we save civilization? Or screw it?
As you sort through the post-summit spin, here’s a central fact to keep in mind. When it comes to climate change, the United States is both an outlier and the ultimate insider.
It’s an outlier because it is the only major country where denial of climate science is still taken seriously by powerful forces in politics, government, and the media. This reality, which leaves the rest of the world alternately shaking its head and gnashing its teeth, sharply constrained the ambition of any agreement the Obama administration could commit to in Paris.
At the same time, the United States is the ultimate climate insider because it’s the No. 1 global warming polluter on Earth. Yes, yes, China emits more heat-trapping greenhouse gases on an annual basis, but the atmosphere cares about emissions over time, and here the U.S. remains well ahead. The U.S. has ranked among the world’s leading producers of oil and gas for decades; its 20th-century rise to superpower status was powered largely by its access to cheap, abundant fossil fuels. Like any petro-state, the U.S. is a climate insider because it accounts for so much of the problem.
That climate outlier-insider nature has everything to do with what the Paris summit did and did not accomplish, as illustrated by an impassioned speech I watched Secretary of State John Kerry deliver last Tuesday to a standing room-only press conference.
After some opening pleasantries and scene setting, Kerry plunged into substance and began discussing—what? The policy specifics of the U.S. position in Paris? The intended news peg of the speech, Kerry’s announcement of $800 million in aid to developing countries to help them cope with sea level rise, worsening droughts, and other climate impacts that can no longer be avoided?
No, Kerry focused on climate change deniers. He began by trying to make a joke: “My friends, these people are so out of touch with science, they believe that rising sea levels don’t matter, because in their view, the extra water is just going to spill out over the sides of a flat Earth.”
Nobody laughed, but I don’t think the problem was simply Kerry’s earnest delivery. It was also that many of the journalists in the room were from other countries, and most other countries stopped heeding climate deniers not just years but decades ago. Nevertheless, Kerry soldiered on, addressing his next seven paragraphs to “those who may still question the 97 percent of peer-reviewed studies on climate change.”
Though bizarre from an international perspective, this rhetorical approach made a certain sense in the U.S. context, and a secretary of state can hardly be blamed for caring about the U.S. context. Climate deniers dominate the Republican Party; the Republican Party holds majorities in both houses of Congress; the Senate in particular could block any Paris agreement that could be legally classified as a treaty.
Thus the Paris agreement ended up a confounding hybrid.
On one hand, it contains soaring, even unprecedented, pledges to fix the problem. It commits the world’s governments to limit global temperature rise to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue even the 1.5 degrees goal that poor and especially vulnerable countries demanded. (After all, low-lying island states are already disappearing under rising sea levels after “only” 1 degree Celsius of temperature rise, while vast swaths of Africa and Central Asia have been enduring record droughts and floods.)
These audacious goals will be achieved by de-carbonizing the global economy “as soon as possible” and in any case by the second half of this century. That pledge in turn means that oil, gas, and coal—which collectively provide more than 80 percent of humanity’s energy today—must be abandoned, a stunning departure from business as usual. These and other aspects of the Paris agreement are why boosters have a point in calling it a “historic” breakthrough.
On the other hand, these pledges are not binding, and the Paris agreement lacks a convincing road map for delivering on its lofty goals. The emissions reductions pledged by individual countries, even if fully implemented, would result in temperatures rising by roughly 3 degrees Celsius, a suicidal amount. And the only means of enforcing these voluntary pledges will be public shaming by civil society and the rest of the international community.
What’s more, most of the reductions are not scheduled to begin until 2020, even though scientists have warned that global emissions should peak by 2020 if we want to have a good chance of preserving the cryosphere—the snow- and ice-covered regions of the earth, which are melting at terrifying speed. (Lose the Greenland ice sheet and we ensure roughly 20 feet of eventual sea level rise; lose the West Antarctic ice sheet and it’s 80 feet.)
Nor does the Paris agreement provide anywhere near enough financial aid so that developing nations can do what’s necessary: reject coal and other dirty energy options in favor of solar, wind, and climate-friendly alternatives even as they prepare for the climate impacts certain to increasingly punish them in the years ahead by erecting sea defenses, improving weather forecasting capacities, and strengthening water supply and health systems. The agreement simply reiterates a commitment wealthy countries made at the Copenhagen summit in 2009 to provide $100 billion a year in climate aid by 2020; it promises to begin increasing such aid in 2025, though by an unspecified amount.
Compared to the scale of the problem facing poor and vulnerable countries, even $100 billion a year “is peanuts,” as UN climate chief Christiana Figueres conceded in Paris. And since wealthy countries to date have not mobilized even that $100 billion, governments and civil society groups in poor countries are understandably unsatisfied with these elements of the Paris accord.
The terrible irony is that the final Paris agreement is at once a disastrous disappointment and probably the best that could have been achieved, given the effective veto power that climate deniers in the U.S. exercised over the process. The agreement almost certainly would have been more ambitious had the Obama administration not had to craft it to avoid a certain veto by Senate Republicans.
Kerry admitted as much in Paris, albeit usually behind closed doors. “He said he wished that we could include specific dates and figures for emissions cuts and financial aid [to developing countries], but he explained this could trigger a review by the U.S. Senate that could scuttle the entire agreement,” a delegate from a Mediterranean country told me, requesting anonymity because his government is a U.S. ally.
Last Friday, as the negotiations approached their final 24 hours, the Chinese vice foreign minister, Liu Zhenmin, told a press conference, “The U.S. secretary of state said that his government would face domestic difficulties if [specific emissions targets and timetables] are included in the Paris agreement.” Liu added, “We must have the United States on board for a successful Paris agreement. We need to find a solution that is acceptable to all.”
My request for comment from the U.S. delegation’s press office received no response.
Bottom line? The Paris agreement is an amazing achievement that could herald the end of the fossil fuel era, but only if civil society in all its forms pushes governments and corporations the world over to act with unprecedented speed and ambition to go beyond its voluntary and insufficiently bold provisions.
Climate activists are already promising to invoke the 1.5 degrees target to block every new oil pipeline, fracking operation, and other type of fossil fuel infrastructure that gets proposed. Business and finance arguably will play the most decisive role. Richard Branson, the CEO of Virgin, led a group of CEOs who pledged in Paris to make their own companies carbon neutral by 2050, a trajectory they said was consistent with 1.5 degrees. “It’s actually just not that big a deal,” said Branson, but he emphasized that investors and entrepreneurs “need clear long-term goals set by governments this week.” Time will tell whether the Paris agreement sends that market signal strongly enough.
Of course, while the end of the fossil fuel era would be good news from the perspective of preserving a livable planet for our children and their children, it amounts to a death sentence for the fossil fuel industry as constituted. Climate deniers in Congress may have been the immediate reason why the U.S. delegation didn’t support a stronger agreement in Paris, but it is the ExxonMobils and Koch brothers of the world who command the allegiance of those climate deniers.
“Rather than blame Secretary of State Kerry and President Obama, who I think understand the climate crisis and want to do what they can to reach a just agreement in Paris, we should blame Charles and David Koch, because it is their funding of climate deniers in Congress that has made it impossible for the U.S. to be more ambitious at this summit,” said Victor Menotti, director of the International Forum on Globalization, a nongovernmental organization in San Francisco.
It’s the oldest rule in politics: Follow the money. Climate change has always been about money, but the Paris agreement has a chance to change where money will flow, how quickly, and in what quantities. If civil society and political leadership can make large enough sums shift away from fossil fuels and toward climate-friendly alternatives quickly enough, Paris could be remembered with immense gratitude by any future descendants we may have. If not…