Paris climate change accord marks historic progress, if it’s not too late

The slogan “For the Planet” is projected on the Eiffel Tower as part of COP21, the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris.
The slogan “For the Planet” is projected on the Eiffel Tower as part of COP21, the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. The Associated Press

Like global warming itself, success at the historic Paris climate talks was always going to be incremental. It’s a big ask, rethinking a century of fossil-fuel reliance in the hope of outrunning climate change.

But with the approval of the landmark global climate accord this weekend, the world can celebrate progress in at least one important battle: From government leaders to big business to financial markets, no one can seriously deny the shared urgency on global warming.

Some 40,000 delegates from 195 nations showed up for the summit, committing nearly every country in the world for the first time to an attempted reversal of calamitous levels of heat-trapping pollution. It wasn’t just governments. Businesses spanning the economic spectrum showed up. Bill Gates did shuttle diplomacy. The turnout alone was an achievement.

So was the general unspoken agreement not to leave without an agreement, though it pushed negotiations long past Friday’s deadline. Nations have sought for 20 years to address global warming, only to have talks break down from Kyoto to Copenhagen. This time, consensus, however imperfect, was reached.

Scientists have determined that if global temperatures increase more than 2 degrees Celsius (or about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) over pre-industrial levels, the planet will reach a tipping point past which climate change will be irreversible and catastrophic. Even those 2 degrees will submerge islands and swamp coasts, displacing millions.

The agreement to aim for less than that rise was laudable, though beyond optimistic. Temperatures already have risen by 1 degree globally, and are on track to blow past the 2-degree mark even if every pledge made at the conference is kept by every country. Scientists following the talks noted that the greenhouse gas cuts being promised are only about half of what’s needed, and only voluntary.

That’s why one of the key takeaways from Paris is that, if there is to be any impact, much more must be done, by every nation. Unfortunately, this nation’s Republican-controlled Congress seems hellbent on preventing that kind of commitment.

Never mind that business leaders here and worldwide already have begun to advocate shifts to some sort of carbon pricing, be it fees on carbon dioxide emissions or a broadened cap-and-trade system. U.S. conservatives in office and on the campaign trail sought, disgracefully and bizarrely, to sabotage the president’s climate plan in the midst of negotiations.

They are on the wrong side of history, and their obstructionism prevented much of the international deal from being legally binding; that would technically have made it a treaty subject to Senate approval, which the Republicans had vowed would be dead on arrival.

That said, they’re mostly alone. The vast majority of Americans and other nations view human caused climate change as a crisis; the summit conveyed that message both to governments, and as importantly, to markets.

And we can boast that a big part of that message came out of California. Clean energy has come a long way, in no small measure because ambitious policies set here years ago have mainstreamed solar power, clean cars, energy efficiency, cap and trade and other innovations, showing other economies that there’s life beyond carbon.

One of the key takeaways from Paris is that, if there is to be any impact, much more must be done, by every nation.

California still has a way to go; the state remains a major oil producer. But as The Sacramento Bee’s David Siders reported, Gov. Jerry Brown was the toast of Paris, using his celebrity and gravitas to forge subnational agreements to cut emissions. And a major new venture fund to underwrite clean energy came out of the conference, backed by Gates and others including the University of California.

All this is progress. And it’s desperately needed. Thanks to emissions from gasoline engines, coal-fired power plants, methane leaks and other waste products of the industrial era, last year was the hottest in recorded history and next year is on track to be even hotter.

Greenland is melting. Sea levels are rising. Wildfires and storms have been amplified. If this had happened overnight, we might be better poised to fix it. Humans understand fast-breaking crises.

But this was bit by bit, drop by drop, year by year, person by person. Incrementally. That’s how we got into this disaster. Now, if it isn’t too late already, that’s our only hope for getting out of it.

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