“Everything is coming together as everything is coming apart.” So said Jamie Henn, strategy and communications director at 350.org, after he and the other organizers of the People’s Climate March put hundreds of thousands of people on the streets of New York City in September 2014 for the largest climate demonstration in history. Henn’s observation has grown even more apt over the last 14 months, especially the “coming together” part. Interviewed in Germany during the final negotiating session before the Paris climate summit in December, Henn predicted that “Paris won’t deliver everything we need, but the dominoes that will take out the fossil-fuel industry have already started to fall.”
There’s no need to dwell on how things are “coming apart”: With 2015 on track to become the hottest year ever recorded, Mexico just having dodged a bullet from the strongest hurricane ever seen in the Western Hemisphere, and South Carolina still recovering from floods that ranked as the country’s sixth one-in-1,000-years weather event since 2010, the evidence of intensifying climate disruption is obvious to anyone who doesn’t believe that snowballs in February somehow disprove humanity’s role in this. At the same time, encouraging and, frankly, surprising things are coming together. At the popular level, there is unprecedented organization, mobilization, and support for tackling the crisis; a genuine mass movement, which first emerged at the ill-fated Copenhagen summit in 2009, has come of age. And at the elite level, there is unprecedented consensus that the situation is truly grave and that meaningful action must be taken if our children are not to inherit a hell on earth.
Whether all this will yield a successful result in Paris—indeed, what “success” will even mean at the 21st Conference of the Parties—will be answered in time. But the outcome is at least up for grabs. There are more positive signs now than before any global climate negotiations in history (and this reporter has been covering them since the Earth Summit in Brazil back in 1992). Words are coming out of the mouths of government, corporate, and financial elites that would have been inconceivable a few years ago. And the words are not mere greenwashing; they are backed by actions that are fundamentally redirecting the policies of some of the most powerful actors on the global stage.
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Start with the historic breakthrough that the presidents of the two climate-change superpowers made seven weeks after the People’s Climate March, when China and the United States agreed to a joint agenda of slashing greenhouse-gas emissions and super-accelerating clean-energy development. China’s coal use is already peaking, and the country is slated to deploy enough wind and other renewably sourced electricity to match the entire US electricity grid by 2030.
The US-China breakthrough is a game-changing development, but its full implications still have not sunk in for many observers. On the diplomacy front, it ends the stalemate between Washington and Beijing that for decades has been the main stumbling block to an international treaty, thus opening the door for better news from the Paris summit. Arguably even more important is the economic message that the US-China agreement sends. When the world’s two largest economies and two largest carbon polluters pledge a specific timetable for cutting their emissions, it sends a clear signal to investors and policy-makers the world over. The message is straight out of Economics 101: limit the supply of a commodity—in this case, the authority to emit carbon pollution—and its price rises.