Environment Environmental Policy Politics Uncategorized

What About the Paris Agreement? November 2016: A Tipping Point

A year ago this December, I was standing in la Place du Pantheon in the fifth arrondissement of Paris, surrounded by a circle of colossal icebergs melting quickly in the uncharacteristically warm winter weather.  I was an intern for Artists4ClimateParis, a government-funded project commissioning and installing climate-themed art in the streets of Paris in the lead up to the Paris Climate Change Conference 2015. These icebergs constituted a public art piece called “Ice Watch” by Olafur Eliasson, a Danish artist; the piece was realized by bringing twelve, ten-ton icebergs from Iceland and installing them in Place du Pantheon. I spent most of my week in Paris curating “Ice Watch” for the public, and I grew bizarrely attached to it; the piercing aqua blue of the ice radiated in the sunshine, and by breathing the air molecules released from the ice into the square, one was breathing in air last present in the atmosphere thousands of years ago. As the icebergs melted and shrunk in front of the eyes of astounded Parisians, artist Eliasson’s message was all too clear.

Ten months later, the United States is embroiled in the selection of a president from whom some very big things will be expected; along with actually knowing when the election day is, our next president will be expected to continue the progress that was made at the Paris Climate Change Conference 2015. Amidst a political process that has become less of a legitimate analysis of policy and more of a circus act, I fear that American millennials have forgotten the responsibility that our next president has in continuing the progress that was made on climate legislation last December. Instead, we have somewhat resigned ourselves to admittedly very entertaining Buzzfeed compilations of Trump sniffing.

But here are the facts. The big-picture goal of the accord reached on December 12th 2015 is to ensure that average atmospheric temperatures do not reach their tipping point, which is estimated to be an increase of 2 degrees Cecius (3.6 degrees Farenheit). Scientist predict that if this tipping point were to be reached, the consequences of global climate change, such as sea level rise, food and water shortage, severe flooding, and drought, would effectively become irreversible.  

The Paris Agreement stated that NDCs, or “nationally determined contributions” will be established, which cap each country at maximum emission levels. Countries will be obligated to report their emissions regularly. Secondly, the agreement addresses the fact that while already developed nations had few to no obligations to industrialize sustainably, the current industrialization of developing nations may be hampered by the climate crisis of today, and specifically be NDCs.  The wording of the agreement states that while developed nations “should” establish resolute economy-wide emissions caps, developing nations are “encouraged” to do so, but over a more extended period of time. Furthermore, developing nations will receive support in implementing their commitments.

Critics of the agreement say it will not be enough. The use of the word “should” stated above does not legally bind countries to their commitments. As an example, there have been insufficient repercussions for nations who have not met their commitments as outlined in the Kyoto Protocol, signed in December 1997. The Kyoto protocol was not ratified by the United States and set no targets beyond 2012, and thus is only responsible for an estimated 15% of global emissions. In that vein, the principle concern surrounding the Paris agreement is that it still has to be ratified by each individual country. Herein lies the crux of the concern on the matter, in regard to a Trump presidency (what a terrifying phrase).

Trump has come out repeatedly stating his wish to dismantle the Paris Agreement. He has pronounced “global warming [as]… created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive” and has repeatedly rejected the scientific body of evidence supporting climate change. In the discussion of the language of the Paris Agreement, the United States was particularly adamant that the president have the power to accept the agreement without seeking congressional approval. This autonomy on the part of the American president, if put in the wrong hands, could result in outright unilateral rejection of principle elements of the Paris Agreement.

I sat down with NextGen Climate PA Press Secretary Derek Beyer to get his thoughts. NextGen, a climate organization currently dedicated to electing climate conscious politicians, has managed to complete 80,000 Pennsylvania voter registrations, and is present on 90 campuses throughout the crucial swing state. Beyer emphasized that while we cannot be certain what specific climate issues or bills will be raised in the future, it is essential we have candidates in office at all levels who can be relied upon to stand up for the environment on the big questions. “Hillary Clinton brought up climate change in both debates, and recently gave an entire speech dedicated to climate change with Al Gore,” Beyer points out, in reference to Clinton’s collaboration with Gore on a Florida climate rally on October 11th. The rally was well timed as a response to the devastation of Hurricane Matthew, drawing a parallel for conscientious voters between freak weather events and Clinton’s acknowledgement of their connection to climate change.

The choice is clear beyond a shadow of a doubt: progress on climate legislation and the survival of years of climate negotiations, culminating in the Paris Agreement of 2015, rests upon the shoulders of Secretary Clinton.