MSNBC’s headline read: “Obama’s success at climate summit puts world on a new path,” while New York Magazine confidently declared, “The Paris Climate Deal Is President Obama’s Biggest Accomplishment.”
Last Saturday, President Obama praised the Paris Agreement, announcing, “Today the American people can be proud, because this historic agreement is a tribute to American leadership. Over the past seven years, we’ve transformed the United States into the global leader in fighting climate change.”
We did it! The world is saved, and, as usual, it’s all thanks to the indefatigable efforts of the United States.
If only that were true.
The Obama Administration’s second-term efforts to combat climate change have been admirable, but the results are still too little and too late. The window of opportunity to prevent the worsts of the dangers of climate change is closing with every passing moment. The Paris Agreement was important in that it prevented that window from completely shutting for a little while longer. However, the agreement’s ultimate success is dependent on whether the opportunity is actually taken.
To be effective, an international climate agreement needs to be both ambitious and binding. Unfortunately, those qualities are extremely difficult to achieve during a negotiation process that is dependent on agreement by consensus. Sufficient ambition would require some nations to bind themselves of their own volition to commitments they would find overly burdensome. The 2015 Paris Climate Conference (COP21) followed over twenty years of fruitless United Nations climate negotiations yearning for that impossible goal, but success was envisioned this time around because ambition would be forsaken for a binding agreement.
The hope was that each nation would submit an INDC (intended nationally determined contribution) outlining its pledge to reduce carbon emissions. The INDCs would enter into force through a treaty whereby each party agrees to implement its self-imposed mitigation commitment into domestic law. Hence, the commitments would become binding. There would be no reason to object to such a treaty because of the self-determined nature of its terms. Some countries could pledge to do a lot while other countries could pledge to do very little, while most would end up pledging something in between. They would all sign a treaty promising to keep their pledges. Although the pledges would not meet the criteria for sufficient ambition, over time each nation would hopefully up their pledges so that they might eventually all add up to meet the goal of limiting anthropogenic global warming to a tolerable level (see the 1.5°C vs. 2°C debate).
Then along came the United States, a self-proclaimed leader in this global endeavor. The United States promised an INDC that it could achieve through executive action only, but it still needed to make sure the agreement would not require anything from the Republican-led Congress. When almost every nation expected the Paris Agreement to be legally binding, the United States could not accept such a treaty because that would require the Senate’s consent, and the Republicans were not going to approve anything to do with climate change, because — well, you know — it’s a hoax. Consequently, the United States did play a leading role in Paris, but it did not lead the way forward.
Long story short: the United States gets its way, and the world gets the Paris Agreement. Goals have been stated, progress will be checked, but any concrete action will be voluntary. It is neither sufficiently ambitious nor binding, but for all its shortcomings, it is about as good as it could have been given the constraint of the United States’ inability to ratify. The opportunity to confront climate change meaningfully wasn’t exactly taken, but the window of opportunity to do so was held open a little while longer. Instead of hailing the agreement as a success or lamenting it as a failure, we must now focus on making the most of this opportunity before the window does close and it becomes too late to prevent catastrophic damage.
What Comes Next?
First, climate change will never be adequately addressed until we can overcome Republican denial. And second, there is no silver bullet to climate change — various approaches have merit, and we will need a little bit of each of them to confront the problem.
When I was in Paris for the climate conference, I noticed one thing in particular: the GOP is famous — or should I say, infamous — worldwide for its unique stance on climate change (go American exceptionalism!). As the cliché goes, the first step to overcoming a problem is recognizing that there is a problem. It is almost inconceivable for non-Americans that one of the two major political parties in the United States has not yet accepted the reality that climate change is a problem, and it is equally inconceivable that their obstinacy carries such weight.
However, while science denial is still present among some (notably the Chair of the Senate Committee on the Environment who brought a snowball to the Senate floor to disprove global warming), Republican rhetoric around climate change is evolving. Leading Republicans, such as those running for president, prefer to dismiss climate change not as a hoax, but as an issue worth little attention compared to more pressing matters like ISIS and Planned Parenthood.
At Stanford, many students ride bicycles to get around the large campus, but very few wear helmets. I’m of the majority who continue to ride without a helmet, but I, like many of my peers, fully understand that it would probably make me safer. I just don’t want to wear a helmet. Similarly, the intransigence of Republicans is less a result of ignorance and more a result of solution aversion.
The party is plagued more by economic denial than by science denial. Confronting climate change will have a price, and there’s no getting around it. There are three possibilities with climate change: mitigation, adaptation, and suffering. The more we do of one, the less we must do of the others. While conservatives may be disinclined to support bold, revolutionary changes on account of climate change, they also ought to be the greatest supporters of spending on mitigation and adaptation. At the Hoover Institution at Stanford, George Shultz, Secretary of State during the Reagan Administration, likens this cost to that of an insurance policy. You don’t buy insurance because you think you’re going to use it. You buy it because it costs less than it would cost later down the road should you end up having needed it. Cutting carbon emissions now is going to cost a lot, but it will cost much more later on if we do nothing.
Well, there you have it. I’ve solved the problem. Send this article to your local Republican representative, and, after reading that last paragraph, they’ll change their stance on climate change in a heartbeat!
Unfortunately, that’s not how things work. The Republican Party will need a major impetus to reconsider its positions and what conservatism really means in America. Something like a landslide loss in a presidential election on account of an insurgency of the out-of-touch far-right — that might do it.
But even if a president who recognizes climate change as a problem is elected in 2016, and even if Congress becomes open to climate action, what is the sort of action that is needed?
There are some people who think that city and state governments are the most suitable to address climate change, while there are others who believe the problem can only be properly addressed by the international community. Some scientists think the world is turning a blind eye to the obvious solution that is nuclear energy, while others hail renewables like wind and solar as the most promising alternative energy sources. Economists claim a price on carbon (such as a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade program) would put this issue to bed once and for all, while others claim that regulations like fuel efficiency standards and subsidies for research and development are necessary. Naomi Klein says we must overthrow capitalism to truly address the root of the problem, but business leaders claim the private sector has an important role to play.
So what can be done?
Local governments can start acting now (like California has), but eventually we will need universal participation to achieve the necessary ambition. Nuclear energy is relatively safe and does provide consistent, reliable energy, but it also requires massive, long-term investment to implement at a large scale. Renewables like wind and solar are flexible and relatively cheap now, but they still require innovative improvements (like cheaper and more efficient energy storage) to account for the variability and demand. There is no clear answer to what the perfect energy mix is, but it is definitely a carbon-free energy mix, and both nuclear and renewables are carbon-free. A price on carbon would certainly help steer the economy away from fossil fuels, but in its absence, fuel efficiency standards and pollution regulations are better than nothing. Overthrowing capitalism is impractical, but getting big oil out of the pockets of our government officials would be a good first step. The private sector can certainly help (i.e. through innovation), but it will also need a push from government to do so. And as the paragraph begins, that push can come from all levels of government — these proposed solutions should not be seen as exclusive but rather as quite interdependent.
Each of the aforementioned proposals has merit, but there is no silver bullet. Climate change is not a problem that can be solved; it is already happening. The best we can do is get to a zero-carbon economy as soon as possible in order to limit the dangers that lie ahead.
The Paris Agreement was not the success that was needed, and declaring it as such could beget complacency. While the United States did not decisively lead the world to a more sustainable future this time around, the opportunity to be a climate leader is still on the table, and in the coming years, we will see if the United States comes around to taking it.
Ruairí Arrieta-Kenna, a sophomore studying political science, is a staff writer at Stanford Political Journal.