Can the Paris Climate Talks Save Our Planet?

"One Heart One Tree" : Naziha Mestaoui's Project At The Eiffel Tower In Paris
Paris on the eve of the climate conference. Photo: Chesnot/2015 Chesnot

The long-awaited 2015 Paris Climate Conference, also known as COP21, officially begins on Monday, and will comprise two weeks of meetings and speeches by more than 100 heads of state and 40,000 attendees from more than 190 countries, all bent on developing the most significant international agreement in history to combat global greenhouse emissions and, by effect, reduce the speed and intensity of global climate change. But while negotiators seem very bullish that some kind of agreement will be reached, just how effective any agreement will be at actually fighting climate change remains an open question. Indeed, it seems that some climate scientists and environmentalists are more interested in a symbolic win than a scientific one, though that may in fact be the best possible outcome after so many years of inaction.

COP21’s stated mission is to “achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on climate, with the aim of keeping global warming below 2°C” — meaning that the temperature of the planet would need to be prevented from rising higher than 2°C above the planet’s preindustrial levels by the year 2100. Since most climate scientists agree that the global temperature has already risen by 1°C, that means we’d only have another degree left to go, and according to climate models, the temperature will likely rise by as much as 5°C if no action is taken. If the rise is kept below 2°C, the belief is that we’ll be able to avoid the most devastating and destabilizing effects of climate change.

Now, whether or not the 2°C goal can even be met is very much up for debate, but there is nonetheless a tremendous amount of optimism going into COP21 that some kind of major agreement targeting greenhouse-gas emissions will be reached. That optimism is the result of, on the one hand, a more prevalent sense of urgency among most nations that the threat of climate change is real and something must be done about it quickly, and on the other, more pragmatic hand, because the method for drafting an agreement this time is dramatically different than at previous conferences. For the Paris talks, participants have been asked to create and submit their own emissions-reduction plans based on the political and economic realities in their own countries, rather than be expected to just show up and eventually agree to a single set of guidelines, which many countries would then be unable or unwilling to meet. Indeed, thus far the vast majority of the 195 countries attending COP21 have already submitted their own targets and plans, and so going into the conference there is the sense of a strong preexisting foundation for an agreement. As part of her excellent look at the “soap opera of global climate talks,” The Guardian’s Suzanne Goldenberg summarizes the tentative enthusiasm in Paris:

Nations have set their reduction targets in advance. The US has worked to reach separate deals with China, India, Brazil and other countries. Negotiators have whittled down the text of the proposed agreement to a manageable length. The French hosts have invited the leaders for the start of the summit, not the end, which will leave negotiators time to work on the deal. But optimism is evanescent: in a negotiation involving nearly 200 countries, when all of the hard choices are left until the end, anything can happen.

She goes on to warn that by the end of the conference, while many a debate about the fate of the planet has been held, the actual agreements “are made in a sudden burst of activity at the last possible moment, by lawyers and bureaucrats who have not slept or eaten properly in days.”

Should an agreement be reached in Paris, it would provide a framework for ensuring that participating countries meet their goals, and hopefully also a framework for them to revise and strengthen those goals over time as needed. Another important element is whether or not the agreement will be legally binding, as there is virtually no chance it will take the form of a treaty since the Obama administration knows that Republican senators in the U.S. will almost certainly never allow an international treaty combating global warming to be ratified. And another potential problem will be determining how to support and finance the emission cuts among poorer nations, as The New Yorker’s Elizabeth Kolbert explains:

Developing countries, which, so far at least, have contributed relatively little to climate change, are, in many cases, likely to suffer the worst effects of it. These countries have, collectively, been promised a hundred billion dollars a year to help deal with problems like sea-level rise, and to adopt cleaner energy systems. Only a fraction of that amount has been raised. The Obama Administration has pledged three billion dollars, but, in an effort to muck up the negotiations in Paris from a distance, Senate Republicans have vowed to block any U.S. contribution.

But arguably the most important problem with the Paris talks is the seemingly enormous issue of how most climate scientists and environmentalists believe that even if the proposed cuts were agreed upon and implemented, it would still likely result in around a 3°C global temperature increase. Others are pointing out how any plan will be insufficient if it avoids a carbon cap, or a carbon tax, or any tangible move towards a carbon-free civilization. And some scientists are saying that it’s not even possible to stop the planet from hitting a 2°C increase no matter what we do. In other words, its unlikely that any agreement in Paris will actually do anywhere near enough to combat global warming and prevent its resulting catastrophes. But as Mother Jones’s Tim McDonnell argues, the point isn’t to solve the problem once and for all right now, the point is to get actually started in trying to:

No one expects that this summit will be the end of the battle to stop climate change. As technology improves and countries get more confident in their ability to curb greenhouses gases, they’ll be able to step up their action over time. That’s why it’s essential for the agreement to include a requirement for countries to do so. In any case, even if the whole world stopped burning all fossil fuels right now, warming from existing greenhouse gas emissions would continue for decades, so adaptation is also a crucial part of the agreement.

Some environmentalists have criticized that incremental approach as not urgent enough, given the scale of the problem. They could be right. But the fact is that right now, there’s no international agreement at all. The Paris talks will lay an essential groundwork for solving this problem over the next couple of decades. And there’s a pretty good chance the talks will be successful. 

Writing for Nature, Johan Rockström similarly hopes that negotiators will give up any hope of a perfect agreement:

We need an agreement that is good enough to tip the world decisively towards rapid decarbonization. A new treaty does not need to force nations into compliance, but rather should create confidence and send the right signal — to investors, businesses and societies at large — that the global political leadership is turning irrevocably towards a new sustainable era.

He also warns not to pass an agreement that does too little, as momentum towards an accord might be difficult to build up again:

It would be dangerous to allow ‘success’ to be reduced to a low level of political achievement so that the world continues along an incremental policy path that stands no chance of supporting a transition to decarbonization. Equally, scientists can no longer dismiss as failure an agreement that is not fully in line with the demands of climate science. For if Paris is widely perceived to have failed, political leadership is likely once again to enter a [post-failure] climate trauma and instead focus on other more urgent (and politically rewarding) issues.

And there are, of course, the other costs of inaction. In a piece for the New York Times, natural-sciences professor Curt Stager constructs a fascinating and terrifying macro look at what unchecked climate change would mean for all of Earth’s species, and notes that the faster we get started adapting, the better:

The bad news is that the natural mopping up of our mess will be extremely slow. Research by the University of Chicago oceanographer and climate scientist David Archer and others shows that the cleanup will take tens of thousands of years even if we switch quickly to renewable energy sources. When the Earth’s slow cyclic tilting and wobbling along its eccentric orbital path once again leads to a major cooling period some 50,000 years from now, enough of our heat-trapping carbon emissions will still remain in the atmosphere to warm the planet just enough to weaken that chill. In other words, our impacts on global climate are so profound that we will have canceled the next ice age.

And Slate’s Eric Holthaus, who hopes the planet’s dying oceans become a focus in Paris, passes along an even more chilling point from the ecologist Carl Safina, which suggests we might need some kind of symbolic moment to shake us out of our current, self-destructive mindset:

In his decades of environmental advocacy, Safina has noticed what he thinks is a fatal flaw in humanity: “We think that our capacity for technology means that we can do anything.” But climate change is something different. For the first time in Earth’s 4.5 billion–year history, a single species has put the lives of nearly all others in jeopardy. Now that we’ve finally realized the mess we’re in, we can’t seem to stop perpetuating it. “There are problems that humans simply might not be psychologically and sociologically capable of dealing with appropriately on the appropriate time scale,” Safina said.

Can the Paris Climate Talks Save Our Planet?