Never before has there been so much alignment on action that needs to be taken to mitigate the risks of climate change. But never before has there been so much work still to do.
No doubt, the agreement reached in Paris to limit global warming, reduce carbon emissions, adopt clean technologies, and assist poor countries that have been impacted by climate change is historic. Never before has there been so much alignment on action that needs to be taken to mitigate the risks of climate change. Never before have we had such a framework for cooperation. However, the agreement isn’t the endpoint, it’s just the beginning, and now the hard work begins.
The Paris agreement simply opens a door for change, and now we must walk boldly through it. As Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, German environmental scientist and climate advisor to Pope Francis, said, “This is a turning point in the human enterprise, where the great transformation towards sustainability begins.”
Ultimately, the success of global climate action efforts won’t be measured by the signing of this agreement. Rather, it will be assessed by the ability and willingness to execute on the stated commitments of over 190 countries and countless multi-national businesses.
In the U.S., the agreement will undoubtedly encounter roadblocks. Congress’ attack effort to dismantle the agreement began even before the COP21 delegates returned stateside. “The president is making promises he can’t keep, writing checks he can’t cash, and stepping over the middle class to take credit for an ‘agreement’ that is subject to being shredded in 13 months,” said Mitch McConnell, Senate Majority Leader.
But, because the agreement is not considered a treaty under U.S. law, there is little that Congress can do to impede it. While Congress would need to approve funding to assist developing countries adapt to climate change—an important aspect of the American commitment, the 31-page document explicitly excludes emissions reduction targets and finance from legally binging aspects (such as public reporting and five-year review cycles that ratchet up the stringency of climate change policies), thereby protecting the U.S. from liability and compensation claims for causing climate damage.
Some groups feel that this lack of accountability watered the agreement down so much that it is essentially meaningless. However, most experts agree that an agreement signed by 190 countries that doesn’t need explicit approval from Congress is a victory, sending a clear message to the fossil fuel industry and climate deniers alike that efforts to block climate action are now futile.
The real truth is, irrespective of the role that the U.S. government takes, the course has already been determined by the private sector. Companies of all kinds recognize the economic opportunity of shifting to a carbon neutral economy.
As Unilever CEO Paul Polman puts it, “achieving a zero emissions economy is the greatest business opportunity of the century. Consequences will be felt in banks, stock exchanges, board rooms and research centers as the world absorbs the fact that we are embarking on an unprecedented project to decarbonize the global economy. This realization will unlock trillions of dollars and the immense creativity and innovation of the private sector who will rise to the challenge in a way that will avert the worst effects of climate change.”
The behavior of individual governments will be critical in determining the success of the agreement, but, certainly, with almost every nation across the globe committed to play an active role, there will be plenty of pressure on governments to uphold their side of the bargain.
Now, it’s our responsibility to hold our leaders to their word. As climate activist Bill McKibben says, “Every world leader has said something similar. And even if we harbor suspicions that they didn’t quite mean those words, we will use them again and again. We’ll be the nagging parent/teacher/spouse. We’ll assume they really want action. And we’ll demand they provide it.”
No doubt, we’ll still need to stop pipelines, fight new coal mines, prevent utilities from hijacking rooftop solar, and urge divestment from fossil fuels. But if what former President and CEO of The Nature Conservancy says is true, that “a society is defined not only by what it creates, but by what it refuses to destroy,” at least we now have a new tool with which to evaluate ourselves.
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