We’ve heard ad nauseum that the commitments brought to Paris yesterday won’t stop global warming, but the real goal is more farsighted and complex:
Committing to a global agreement in Paris in the next two weeks will accomplish plenty, even if the greenhouse gas commitments don’t add up now.
A binding agreement will allow the parties to increase commitments as energy technology improves in coming years. An agreement also shows every leader, scientist, philanthropist and investor that the world is getting together to stop climate change. Almost all nations are at the table; as President Obama said yesterday, “This is happening, there’s no going back.”
To function as a framework, the agreement that comes out of Paris in two weeks needs to have specific, reasonably ambitious targets with mechanisms for transparent verification. Just as important, it needs to allow frequent reviews so countries can adjust their goals upward. And the developed world must finance technology commercialization to avoid building out dirty fossil-fuel energy by default in developing countries.
Not that greenhouse gas emissions don’t matter, they very much do. Many of the negotiators in Paris are from countries that already face severe risk to their economies and populations from global warming. The damage is begin done and climate won’t negotiate a grace period for reversing it.
Americans tend to view those affected countries as “over there somewhere” while in Europe those countries are land neighbors. The European media is covering that aspect deeply this week by running vignettes on the effects of climate change in countries around the world, from farms in France to the cities in the Netherlands to poorer countries in Africa and Asia.
Europeans are also watching the United States. Will an agreement, however reasonable, survive the 2016 presidential election? Journalists around the world are struggling to explain how, after Katrina and Sandy, our government could remain torn over whether climate change is a real problem.