Why You Should Feel Optimistic About A Global Climate Deal

CREDIT: AP Photo/Jason DeCrow

Demonstrators make their way down Sixth Avenue during the People's Climate March in New York Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014. The march, along with similar gatherings scheduled in other cities worldwide, comes two days before the United Nations Climate Summit, where more than 120 world leaders will convene for a meeting aimed at galvanizing political will for a new global climate treaty by the end of 2015.

In less than two weeks, world leaders will gather outside Paris to try to craft an international climate agreement that will put the planet on a course to keeping warming to 2°C, the limit scientists have established as a threshold that would stave off the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

While the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris last week have forced officials to ramp up security and scale back the rallies, marches, and other side events associated with the conference, the talks themselves will go forward as planned, with world leaders reaffirming their commitment to the conference in the aftermath of the violence.

Unlike the 2009 talks in Copenhagen, when bickering and harsh rhetoric — especially between the United States and China — all but wrecked the chances of a meaningful deal, the Paris participants have a real opportunity for an agreement, thanks in part to increased willingness of many countries to put the brakes on carbon pollution and to big shifts in public opinion both here and abroad.

“Over the last year, momentum has been building for a comprehensive climate agreement in Paris,’’ said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists and an expert on domestic and international climate change policy. “The atmosphere is very different than it was six years ago in the run-up to Copenhagen.’’

Most countries have put proposed post-2020 emissions reduction commitments on the table, and the United States and China ”are collaborating, rather than confronting each other,” he added.

”More world leaders than ever are recognizing the need to shift to a clean energy economy that virtually eliminates carbon pollution if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change,” Meyer said.

Calculations by Climate Interactive have shown that the voluntary commitments from various nations going in to the Paris summit alone would keep warming by the end of the century to 3.5°C, “getting us roughly half the distance,’’ said Michael Mann, a climate scientist, professor of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University, and director of its Earth System Science Center. “So we’ve already made significant progress from the policy standpoint going into Paris.”

This is reason to feel optimistic “that we can get even closer to limiting warming below dangerous levels with actionable commitments coming out of Paris,’’ Mann added.

Changing priorities

Six years ago, the economy was in crisis and climate change was not high on the political agenda. Today, with an improving economy, including a low unemployment rate, President Obama has made it clear that he sees progressive climate policy as an enduring legacy of his presidency, signaling he is eager for a substantive pact to result from the Paris meeting.

His actions at home support this: since Copenhagen, his administration has put forth a plan to cut power sector emissions 32 percent by 2030 compared to 2005 levels, and the United States and China have forged a historic joint agreement, in which the United States committed to cutting its emissions and China committed to peaking them.

Most recently, Obama rejected construction of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would have carried 800,000 barrels per day of tar sands oil from Alberta across the United States to Gulf Coast refineries. During the course of the seven-year battle, the pipeline had become a powerful symbol of the nation’s political debate over climate change. Obama cited climate concerns as one of the reasons behind his decision.

“Obama now sees climate change as a major global problem, and an opportunity to cement his role as an exceptional president,’’ said Norman J. Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, who studies Congress and politics. “Every president wants to go down as a great president. In most cases, the definition of greatness often depends on what kind of catastrophe you have to deal with, and climate change could cause incredible catastrophes. He is moving to resolve it, adding to the notion he is being transformational.’’

Changing opinions

Furthermore, providing more impetus for a positive climate summit, a major new Pew Research Center poll that surveyed an estimated 45,000 people in 40 nations between March and May indicates vast global unanimity that climate change poses a significant challenge, with majorities in those countries calling it a serious problem, and a global median of 54 percent who regard it as a very serious problem. A median of 78 percent want their country to curb greenhouse gas emissions as part of an international climate treaty in Paris.

Similarly, American public opinion has undergone a real reversal in its attitudes about climate change since 2009, especially among Republicans. In 2009, public opinion was marked by declining acceptance and increasing polarization over climate, with skepticism more than doubling between 2008 and 2010, from 17 percent to 36 percent, according to Christopher Borick, professor of political science at Muhlenberg College and director of its Institute of Public Opinion.

“Much of the increasing doubt about global warming was occurring among Republicans as the issue was entering a period of hyper-partisanship in D.C.,’’ Borick said. “The atmospherics of politics in the United States coupled with the recessionary economic conditions certainly dampened energy as the Copenhagen meetings began and contributed to its ultimate failure in terms of meaningful action.’’

But now, acceptance of the underlying problem of climate change has been rising, he said. Between spring 2014 and fall of 2015, the percentage of Americans doubting the existence of global warming has been cut in half, from 33 percent to 16 percent, with a majority of Republicans indicating acceptance of evidence of global warming for the first time since 2008, he said.

“While Congress remains intransigent on the issue, the administration’s climate… efforts have kick-started real policy mobilization, and appear to have generally solid public backing,’’ he said. “Add to this increased focus on the issue among Democratic candidates for president, more muted and nuanced opposition to climate action on the part of many Republican presidential candidates and major policy wins like [the] news on Keystone XL, and it’s fair to say that America comes to Paris in a far different place than it was in 2009.’’

Hope for Paris

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CREDIT: Climate Nexus

In addition, there are other harbingers of a potentially positive outcome in Paris:

  • National and regional climate policy is much farther ahead today than it was six years ago. For example, by the end of 2014 there were 804 climate change laws and policies in 99 countries, compared with only 54 laws and policies in 1997, and 426 in 2009 when the Copenhagen Accord was signed, according to a study.
  • Civil society has mobilized to stop the dangers of climate change, with influential pronouncements from the pope, the United Nations Secretary General, and the Dalai Lama, among others. Last year, more than 400,000 people marched through the streets of New York City calling for climate action.
  • The last six years have produced huge increases in the growth of renewable energy, and decreases in the cost of its technology, making it, as of 2013, the world’s second largest source of electricity, according to the International Energy Agency. This points to a transition to renewables — and away from fossil fuels — as an attractive and viable option.
  • While optimistic, Meyer nevertheless stressed: “There is still work to do in Paris.’’

    Analysis shows that the national pledges put forward thus far would reduce projected carbon-equivalent emissions in 2030 by about 6 metric gigatons, which represents only about one-third the amount needed for a reasonable chance of keeping global temperatures from increasing by more than 2 degrees Celsius, he said.

    “We need a package of measures in the Paris agreement to address this ambition gap,’’ he said. “It should include a long-term goal that sends a clear signal to business and investors that the age of fossil fuels is coming to an end, and an agreement that countries should review and revise their emissions reduction commitments every five years, starting at the end of this decade… We can’t afford to lock in place the current inadequate level of ambition out as far as 2030.’’

    In the United States, the next president has to build on Obama’s domestic climate action plan to meet the 26 to 28 percent emissions reduction pledge the nation has put forward, Meyer said. In addition, lawmakers and the public must support financial and technical assistance to developing countries, both to help them limit their emissions and to help them deal with the mounting impacts of climate change.

    “While Paris is an important moment, by itself, it won’t guarantee the results we need,” Meyer said. “While it will hopefully create a durable long-term framework for climate action, much more work will be needed… to get the job done.’’

    Marlene Cimons is a Washington based freelance writer who specializes in health, science and the environment.