The Paris Climate Agreement Changes Everything
The conference, which was held at an old airport on the outskirts of Paris, had a kind of Woodstock vibe – not because dancing diplomats were tripping on biofuel, but because of the feeling among many attendees that Paris marked the beginning of one of the biggest cultural, political and economic shifts the world has ever seen. To kick off the meeting, heads of state from 150 nations all posed for a group photo. Outside the conference itself, there were hundreds of side events, parties and rallies that featured trash pickers from India, billionaries like Michael Bloomberg and Bill Gates, celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio and Bianca Jagger, climate refugees from eroding islands in Alaska, scientists and economists from universities around the world, and activists marching for human rights. If you cared about climate, it was the place to be. Everyone knew something important was going to happen here.
And it did. 196 nations of the world made voluntary commitments to cut carbon pollution and help the vulnerable nations of the world deal with the impacts of climate change. There are plenty of devils in the details (the World Resources Institute has a good summary of the agreement), but the larger message was unambiguous: after decades of arguing, fighting and betrayal, the people of the world stood together and said goodbye to fossil fuels. The conference was so full of good feeling that it almost felt like a Coke commercial. Of course, given the degree to which climate change is already ravaging the planet, this farewell should have happened twenty years ago.
As far as the details of the Paris agreement go, there are two big accomplishments worth mentioning. The first is that it more or less eliminated the old distinction between developed and developing countries, which was enshrined in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and led to two decades of political warfare both in the U.S. and abroad (and was one of the big reasons the Kyoto Protocol was never ratified by the U.S.). The basic idea was that the developed world – i.e., the U.S. and the European Union – bore the burden for cutting emissions first, largely because they were the ones who had caused the problem with their 150-year-long fossil fuel party. In order to grow, the developing world – i.e. China and India – believed it had the right to do the same thing. This binary distinction was a big diplomatic blunder, not only because developing nations like China and India are quickly becoming the largest carbon polluters on the planet (even if per capital emissions are well below the U.S.), but also because it created a political dynamic in the U.S. that allowed deniers in Congress to argue that if China and India weren’t doing anything to solve the problem, why should we? The Paris agreement eliminates the old binary distinction – now nations are expected to contribute to the best of their abilities. By putting everyone in the same boat, the Paris agreement underscores an essential truth: We have one atmosphere, and if we screw it up, everyone suffers.