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Climate Change: Good News from Paris?


The 21st Climate Conference, also known as COP21, was just held in Paris. It is the most important international climate change agreement made at least since 1997’s Kyoto Protocol. But is it good news, or bad?

Among environmentalists, there is disagreement as to whether the accord coming out of Paris represents a positive outcome:

The major mainstream U.S. green groups are singing the Paris Agreement’s praises. Take the Sierra Club. “President Obama’s leadership in getting the world to this landmark agreement, a turning point for humanity, will go down in the annals of history,” said Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune. The Natural Resources Defense Council sounded almost as enthusiastic. “A great tide has turned,” said Rhea Suh, the group’s president. “Finally the world stands united against the central environmental challenge of our time … This agreement sets us on a course of verifiable gains we can build on over time.” Alden Meyer, director of policy and strategy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, got wonky and specific in his response, but he was excited too, listing the major achievements and framing the deal as the beginning of the end for oil, coal, and gas: “The agreement’s temperature goal, net zero emissions objective, and processes to steadily increase the ambition of national emissions reduction commitments combine to send a clear message to the fossil fuel industry: after decades of deception and denial, your efforts to block action on climate change are no longer working.” ... Farther to the left, though, there is a lot of discontent over what the deal left out., disappointed with the slow timeline and the lack of any measures to[constrain fossil fuel extraction](, gave the agreement a mixed review: “Every government seems now to recognize that the fossil fuel era must end and soon,” said Bill McKibben, a cofounder (and Grist board member). “But the power of the fossil fuel industry is reflected in the text, which drags out the transition so far that endless climate damage will be done. Since pace is the crucial question now, activists must redouble our efforts to weaken that industry.” Friends of the Earth U.S. was even more dissatisfied. Its activism around COP21 focused largely on climate justice issues such as getting the developed world to contribute more assistance to developing countries to adapt to climate change, to transition to clean energy, and as compensation for [climate change-related loss and damage]( It also worked with indigenous communities to call for indigenous rights to be recognized in the substance of the text, which did not happen. “The Paris Climate Agreement is not a fair, just or science-based deal,” said Erich Pica, the group’s president. “The United States has hindered ambition. The result is an agreement that could see low-lying islands and coastlines swallowed up by the sea, and many African lands ravaged by drought. Using the world’s atmosphere and the suffering of the vulnerable as a guide, the United States is failing — by a long shot — to do what climate science and justice demand.”

John Quiggin at Crooked Timber, at least, is looking at the bright side:

As I’ve [argued on my own blog](, it seems likely that the global agreement on reached at COP21 in Paris will mark the turning point in efforts to stabilize the global climate. If so, it will mark the defeat of the right in one of the most bitterly contested arenas of their long-running culture war, and also one of the hardest to explain. There’s no obvious reason, apart from tribal hostility to “enviros” why this should have been a culture war battleground at all. There was, by 1990 or so, a well developed literature on “free market environmentalism” which pushed the idea that environmental problems were the result of inadequate property rights, and that the solution was to create such rights: in this case, tradeable emissions permits. Environmentalists were generally hostile to the idea, preferring direct regulation. Eventually most environmental groups came around to the view that a carbon price was essential to solving the problem. Instead of claiming victory, the right opposed the idea ferociously and effectively, with the result that the policy outcome has included much more intrusive regulation, and much less reliance on markets, than would have been optimal. The oddity of a supposedly market-oriented government in Australia preferring “Direct Action” over price-based policies is by no means unusual. ... > > 1. A Republican win in 2016 would certainly be a major problem. But the momentum is such that it would probably not make much difference. Even if a Republican Administration weakened environmental standards, no one is going to build a new coal-fired power station in the US, knowing that it might have to shut down after the next election.

The last segment is presented as a footnote, yet it is probably the most important aspect of Quiggin’s piece. If COP21 represents a turning point in the way the US handles climate change, that’s a huge deal. ExxonMobil, which was recently revealed to have lied for nearly 40 years about climate change, is now facing serious potential consequences for their deception. The days of climate “skepticism”–more aptly termed “denial”–seem to be coming to an end.

There will surely be those who never accept the truth about climate change, but as international agreements are made and the real consequences of climate change become more and more obvious, denialists will become more and more marginalized. Unfortunately, the actions being taken now will be too late to save low-lying island countries like Tuvalu, which may well sink beneath a rising ocean, displacing their citizens. The climate targets agreed to–standards meant to limit the overall damage of climate change, by not letting it get worse and worse–will still have devastating consequences around the world, probably for generations to come.

But it’s also possible that more can be done to limit damage now, as denialists exert less and less influence. Global temperatures (and sea levels) will inevitably rise at this point, but we also know they will, and having that information in hand makes us better equipped to act in the present, which we can do much more ably in the absence of organized opposition.

With that opposition fading into junk science history, the future won’t be perfect, but at least there may be some hope.

Photo by Peter.Bowden