The Paris Climate Agreement Changes Everything
The last time the world came together to cut a climate deal was in Copenhagen in 2009, and it was a diplomatic train wreck, ending in melodrama, bitterness and recrimination. Even worse, it resulted in an agreement that did little to solve the problem of climate change. In fact, it arguably made the problem worse, since it suggested that nations of the world were about as likely to cut a deal to reduce carbon pollution as a class of hungry kindergarteners would be to cut a deal to reduce ice cream consumption.
But this month’s UN Climate Change Conference in Paris was no Copenhagen. The world has changed a lot in the last six years. Long before French foreign minister Laurent Fabius slammed his green gavel down on Saturday night to close the deal, everyone knew Paris was going to have a happier ending. Exactly how happy, no one was sure. But two nights before the negotiations ended, while hourly news reports from the conference were still playing up the intrigue, I was at a reception in an elegant 18th century building on the Place Vendôme in central Paris co-hosted by billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer. I asked Tim Wirth, former senator and now vice chair of the United Nations Foundation, who has been in the climate fight as long as anyone, how he thought the negotiations were going. He beamed. “It’s a done deal,” he told me. “All that’s left now are the ankle-biters.”
This is not to say there wasn’t plenty of backroom drama in the final hours: would China accept the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C that was being pushed by the small island nations? Would Saudi Arabia throw a monkey wrench into the deal at the last minute? Would India balk because it wanted more help with new energy technology? The word at the conference was, “Everything is up for grabs until it’s not.” But the hard problems had been solved by several years of talks between the U.S. and China, the two 800-pound gorillas in this deal. Negotiations were also propelled by Mother Nature, who had been wreaking havoc around the planet, as well as by climate activists, who had dialed up the political pressure on leaders around the world. Perhaps most important, the rapidly declining price of clean energy – the cost of solar power has fallen by 80 percent in the past few years – made it much easier to imagine a future without fossil fuels.