Paul Pillar

Moving Ahead with the Climate Change Agreement

The principal significance of the Paris agreement on retarding climate change is its universality: the concurrence of all the nations in the world regarding the need for action to slow and then reverse the man-made heating of the planet. Continued differences of view based on differences of economic and developmental status have taken a back seat, more than they ever have before, to enlistment in the common cause to protect the planet's livability. The agreement will function as a bright reference point affirming not only that the fact of man-made climate change is undeniable but also that the importance of doing something about it is undeniable as well.

The credit for an achievement with worldwide buy-in must be shared very broadly, but several credit-worthy contributions stand out. One is that of France, the host of the conference, and its political leaders and diplomats. At a time when that country could have been dwelling on the recent terrorist attacks in its capital, it instead responded with focus and skill to produce an achievement in the finest tradition of French diplomacy. Another pre-conference development of major importance was the redirection of climate policy of China—the world's single biggest emitter of carbon dioxide—under Xi Jinping, especially as reflected in China's accord with the United States on curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Another major contribution was that of the president of the United States, the country that is the second-biggest emitter of CO2. Barack Obama's leadership on the issue has contrasted starkly with the all-too-prevalent tendency among politicians in his own country to exploit whatever polls show to be scaring people at the moment. Or as Washington Post reporter Steven Mufson aptly put it, the Paris conference “owed much of its success to the willingness of the U.S. president to take on both congressional Republicans and fossil-fuel-industry executives on an issue that consistently ranks among the lowest priorities for American voters.”

The Paris agreement is still essentially an exhortation, however universal the exhorting has been. And the exhortation is about not only the need to do something now but to do even better in the future. The agreement itself recognizes that current pledges to curb emissions would be insufficient even if all the pledges were completely implemented. Such implementation would not be enough to meet the frequently cited goal of limiting warming to two degrees centigrade, let alone the more ambitious aspirational goal adopted in Paris of 1.5 degrees.

So the hard part is just beginning. That does not mean technically or even economically hard; rescuing the planet does not need to be either. It is politically hard, given the extent to which politics rest on attitudes that are selfish and/or short-sighted. Accomplishing the needed political task requires the simultaneous use of several strategies.

One is naming and shaming. Much of the Paris agreement implicitly rests on this approach at the international level, with its provisions for periodically accounting for how well or how poorly each country is doing in reducing harmful emissions. But naming and shaming also ought to extend to how the issue is handled in domestic politics, and certainly in the United States. Anticipation of the response of the Republican-controlled Senate was the main reason the Paris agreement was structured as an extension of an existing international convention on climate change rather than as a new treaty. Opposition within the United States to action on climate change now, post-Paris, sticks out like a sore thumb even more than it did before. The Republican presidential candidates either deny the science of climate change or come up with excuses for not taking governmental action on the subject. This pattern is both damaging and an embarrassment, and those who sustain the pattern ought to be made to feel even more embarrassed.

To oppose necessary action to reduce global warming because of some immediate pecuniary interests is irresponsible. To deny scientifically-based reality is a pre-Enlightenment attitude that would look less out of place in the Middle Ages than in the twenty-first century. Outrage is an appropriate reaction to the first. Ridicule may be one of a number of appropriate reactions to the second. And any politician who likes to talk about the need for U.S. leadership should be forced to explain in the same terms any resistance to the consensus demonstrated in Paris—resistance that is the antonym of leadership.

Another element of political strategy should be persistent education on how economic and environmental well-being are not mutually exclusive alternatives but instead go together. This is true on a large scale, in that many of the economic implications of a significantly warmer planet are devastating. It also is true at a smaller scale, at the level of jobs and of path-breaking industries that are engines of prosperity and growth of national economies. With the right stimulus and nudge from government, the market and technology in the private sector respond, and they can respond in growth-inducing and job-creating ways. We already have seen some of this with advances in renewable energy sources.