By David A. Andelman
PARIS—Now the world has a roadmap for the future temperature of the planet. Whether it follows this template is another question entirely. But it’s here. It recognizes, if not compels, the goal of a 2.0 degrees Celsius rise in temperature and suggests that we should prefer to hold this figure to 1.5 degrees. Still, to get there after centuries of neglect would probably mean garaging virtually every car on the road that burns gas and converting every home to solar or wind power. And it would mean many of the nations just emerging from subsistence to industrializations—from India and China to much of Africa and vast stretches of Asia and Latin America—will have to do so without the easy energy from coal, oil, and gas that was the easy route for many of today’s wealthiest economies.
But the mere fact that 195 countries—the most ever assembled under one roof with a single goal—could agree on anything is quite a tribute to the diplomacy of the French, hosts of the just-completed COP21 environmental conference, not to mention the moral suasion of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon who bird-dogged every step. At the same time, there were more than 100 heads of state or government at the debut of this two-week session and many other world leaders and celebrities—from Secretary of State John Kerry and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to Arnold Schwartzenegger, Al Gore, and Alec Baldwin who all weighed in at some point during the conference.
Still, with the 40,000 diplomats, aides, lobbyists, experts, demonstrators, and hangers-on now heading for the exits, there remains the residue they left behind—especially one paramount question. Will the goodwill and halo effect created by this agreement and marked by the smiles, popping of champagne corks, standing ovations, hugs and handshakes all be sufficient motivation to make this complex, somewhat vague, and often far too ambiguous a document work.
The key hope, even of the most skeptical, is that the behavior of the vast private sector, not to mention the most motivated individuals, from mayors to councilman and their many constituents will be in some fashion permanently altered. If this works, no matter how skeptical any Republican Congress or future president of the United States or any other nation might be, noxious greenhouse gases might well be reined in from the ground up, if not regulated from the top down. Such behavior could neutralize any potential impact from a failure of action from governmental bodies with political agendas at odds with or skeptical of an agenda to prevent global warming.
There is certainly no lack of interest groups with such a stake. At the same time, any number of different actions appear essential if the COP21 agreement is to succeed in its ambitious goal of climate control. First, and perhaps paramount, there’s the means to finance this dash to the goal line—$100 billion a year in transfers from the wealthy nations to the deprived. Then there’s the policing of nearly 200 national plans of attack, some more ambitious than others, to make sure each is having the desired impact of reducing the amount of greenhouse gases being pumped out into the atmosphere, and restraining the rise in global temperatures.
Of course, scientists who parsed the sum total of these national plants, 185 of them filed before the conference barely got underway, found that even if they were followed strictly the temperature increases that were likely to result could far exceed the earth’s ability to withstand them. The result would likely be, before the end of the next decade, the utter disappearance beneath rising sea levels of entire low-lying island nations from the Caribbean to the South Pacific, the eradication of important glaciers at both poles and in between, not to mention intensifying horrific weather conditions from droughts to el niños. In short, the world must do better.
This was the hope of the most optimistic who sat through the night from Saturday to Sunday proclaiming their support for the document they’d just approved. Now the hard work must begin. And more than ever before, the world will be watching.
David A. Andelman, editor emeritus of World Policy Journal, is a member of the board of contributors of USA Today and author of A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today.
[Photo courtesy of Takver]