In Paris, France last December, representatives from 197 countries gathered for their annual UN-sponsored meeting to agree that, for the 21st time, climate change is (1) an actual thing, and (2) something for which developed nations must take responsibility (spoiler alert: US Republicans boycotted the conference).
I had the opportunity to volunteer in the Civil Society zone of the conference, basically a gathering of the world’s eco-activists. It was refreshing to meet like-minded people from around the world who are actually creating solutions to address climate change issues, instead of just talking about the problems. I felt right at home.
However, whenever I spoke, my accent betrayed my nationality, and I felt awkwardly out of place. Rumor had it that the Republicans—in absentia—were acting as a road block to the agreement. The US delegates were hesitant to support a binding agreement, for fear that the Republicans back home would smash it to pieces.
Interestingly, there don’t seem to be any other countries with a substantial population of politically active people who are so opposed to addressing the causes of climate change. I’m not sure why. My best guess is that it’s related to an American obsession with money and associated feelings of entitlement.
There were delegations from resource-rich (and correspondingly high-emissions) countries, and the nations and tribes on the other end of the resource spectrum. The injustice is already visible: poor countries are the first victims of climate change, they lack the resources to respond, and are therefore dependent on the generosity of wealthier nations. Given this diversity of interests at the table, reaching an agreement on anything is a challenge.
Each participating country was required to submit an emissions goal that, taken together, should halt warming at 2.7 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures. This is much higher than the original target of “well below” 2.0 degrees Celsius. “What’s the big deal over a couple of degrees?” you ask? A few degrees difference won’t make much difference to the gluten-free, organic, free-range, low-fat, fair-trade granola roasting in your oven, but the Earth is much more sensitive. It’s been calculated that a 1-degree Celsius global temperature increase would eliminate about one-third of all the fresh water (i.e. drinking water) from the surface of the Earth by 2100—that’s only 84 years from now. (Sorry, kids. You’ll probably live to see it, but our planet won’t look the same.)
We humans are adept at adjusting to change, recalibrating our expectations, and developing new definitions of normalcy. This is easier for those of us in developed countries because we are slightly insulated from the first shocks of climate change: drought, rising ocean levels, and a decline in the populations of species, such as fish, that people all over the world depend on for food and livelihood. Like the proverbial frog on the stovetop, will we jump out of the pot before we are cooked?
The Paris Agreement is historic simply because of its near-total international support, not due to the ambitiousness of its goals. After two weeks of around-the-clock negotiations, the Paris Agreement was signed by almost every country on our planet, each of whom promises to take responsibility for the greenhouse gases it emits… someday, maybe. There is no structure in which nations can be held accountable for their actions: emissions reduction goals are voluntary, with no incentives to reach them except for peer pressure from other countries. While the Agreement is certainly a good starting point, it is non-binding and therefore mostly symbolic.
Perhaps the most egregious omission from the Paris Agreement is the subject of fossil fuel extraction. The attitude seems to be “Keep burning whatever you want, in exchange for compensating the poor countries that are suffering most.” Fracking, mining, and drilling for oil and natural gas pose both immediate and long-term human and environmental health threats, not to mention how they pollute our atmosphere when they are burned. Despite our campaign to “Keep it in the ground”, the fossil fuel companies have won this round, and extraction continues.
What can we do? Don’t put up with it! Throw a wrench (preferably literal, metaphorical only if you must) into fossil fuel development projects. And perhaps most importantly, though often neglected: talk about it. In many circles, climate change is an awkward and avoided subject. In the face of this global crisis, talking about climate change—and what we can do about it—is actually quite a radical thing to do. Next to religion and politics, it’s one of the subjects that I’ve learned not to bring up at the dinner table. Why? Let’s dive into that: ask people what they know about climate change, and how they feel it should be addressed by individuals and groups. Listen first, and then try to find common ground. (Believe it or not, we have a lot in common with Tea Party Republicans, including a distaste for the government meddling in our affairs.)
You’ve reached the final paragraph, and I bet you’re looking for the bottom line. Was the Paris Agreement successful, or not? Unfortunately, I can’t answer that—only your great-great-great-great-grandchildren can, if there are any humans around by then. The Greenpeace-style battle cry “Save the Earth!” sounds so benevolent, though I find it misleading: humans are the endangered species that we should be most worried about, and it is our own mortality that we are most afraid of when we contemplate Earth’s future. The planet is going to do just fine without us.