EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been updated to reflect the author’s further reflections after the end of the summit.
Thanks a lot, Republicans. You weren’t in Paris physically, but you still managed to grievously weaken the landmark agreement reached at the global climate summit. On one hand, it is amazing and inspiring that virtually all the world’s governments approved a plan to address an existential collective threat by pledging to leave behind the fossil fuels that are the foundation of modern economies and are controlled by some of the most powerful corporations and nation-states in history. Naming 1.5 degrees Celsius as a goal for the eventual maximum temperature rise was a stunning diplomatic victory for the world’s poor and vulnerable countries. And people of all nations will now take heart that meaningful climate action is possible, which will lend further momentum to the proceedings. Nevertheless, on both scientific and humanitarian grounds, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is correct to say that the Paris agreement “goes nowhere near far enough.” And the main reason it doesn’t is his GOP colleagues in the Senate, which would have had to ratify a bona fide treaty.
The Paris summit’s accomplishments deserve the adjective “historic.” By aiming to limit temperature rise to “well below” 2°C above pre-industrial levels and “pursue” a goal of 1.5°C, the world’s governments went further than ever before in aligning policy with climate science. What’s more, both developed and developing nations pledged to peak greenhouse-gas emissions “as soon as possible” and to decarbonize the global economy. President Obama hailed the deal as not “perfect” but “the best chance we’ve had to save the one planet we’ve got.” A Guardian headline heralded the agreement as the “end of [the] fossil fuel era.”
But the celebratory tone coming out of Paris overlooks how lethal this agreement will be for huge masses of people in the Global South. It also skips past just how far short the accord falls from what science demands. Even if the largely voluntary provisions of the Paris agreement are fully implemented, tens of millions of people in poor and vulnerable regions such as Bangladesh, the Marshall Islands, and much of Africa and Asia are being doomed to homelessness, impoverishment, and death, with today’s children predicted to bear the brunt of the suffering. That such a distressing future is applauded as success in the Global North only reminds us how tragic—indeed, criminal—it is that fossil-fuel interests and the politicians they buy have blocked serious climate action for the past two decades.
The best way to lower the death toll and improve civilization’s future prospects is for civil society all over the world—climate-justice advocates, community and religious leaders, business and financial executives—to push harder than ever to turn the noble but nonbinding aspirations declared in Paris into rapid, concrete transformations of our energy, agriculture, consumerist, and other socioeconomic systems. The Paris agreement can help us build a better future, but only if the resistance of the old order—as personified by the climate deniers in Congress and their paymasters in the fossil-fuel industry—is routed once and for all.
The world changed in Paris, but it is crucial to be clear about how much. Setting a temperature goal of 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius foreshadows a massive potential shift in the global economy. If governments, businesses, investors, and organized consumers around the world take fast action commensurate with that goal, as green leaders like Germany and California have begun to do, it could indeed spell the end of the fossil-fuel era. The key words, however, are “if” and “fast.” Here, the Paris agreement again bows to the obstinance of Republicans. Governments are not required to reduce heat-trapping emissions by a single molecule, much less by a scientifically appropriate amount; they are only required to publicly declare how much and how soon they intend to make reductions and then report them transparently after the fact. Nor need these voluntary reductions begin until 2020, thereby inviting five more years of digging our global climate hole still deeper before changing course—a calamitous choice.