A turning point in the fight against climate change


A season of upbeat news about humankind’s struggles to combat climate change and to turn the tide on our addiction to fossil fuels reached its crescendo this past weekend. That’s when the world’s leaders — 195 of them — signed off on a landmark agreement to curb greenhouse gas pollution. Some critics say that the plan — which aims to limit the rise in global temperatures from 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius, or below the level that scientists say would be catastrophic — doesn’t go far enough…that it’s too little, too late. I’d say that the journey of 1,000 miles begins with the first step, and this is a huge first step in the right direction. Here’s some background on how the plan works:

The more-ambitious-than-expected deal will see greenhouse gas emissions peak “as soon as possible,” and achieve a balance between sources and sinks of those gases in the second half of this century, with progress reviewed every five years. Countries will attempt to limit global temperature rise to between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius, the level scientists say cannot be breached if we are to avoid the worst risks of global warming.

To help achieve these goals, rich countries will provide $100 billion a year to help developing countries deal with climate change — a figure that is included in the treaty’s preamble, and is not legally binding.

Critics of the deal, from different parts of the political spectrum, have already tried to diminish its significance. But it deserves to be defended. As President Barack Obama has said, it may prove to be “the best chance we have to save the planet we have.”

For those who argue that the deal is not ambitious enough, it’s worth remembering that the talks nearly collapsed several times over the past two decades, and have been one of the most complex set of international negotiations ever. Whereas the 1997 Kyoto Protocol — which mandated country-by-country reductions in greenhouse gas emissions — involved a deal for the EU states and 37 developed countries, the Paris treaty also involved developing countries, which makes it the first genuinely global treaty to tackle climate change.

President Obama, whose track record on environmental issues has slowly but steadily improved over the course of his presidency, deserves a lot of credit for his role in taking the climate talks seriously and for successfully pushing for this breakthrough. By his own admission, his inexperience and perhaps naivety in the early stages of his presidency regarding climate change brought him to the realization that nothing could be done without years of hard work. He directed his EPA to develop groundbreaking regulations to reduce emissions from power plants, and he also negotiated a deal with China on curbing emissions that set the stage for Paris.

But it’s important to note here that the Paris climate agreement — while huge in the global significance of things — is just part of a much broader trend of positive developments, all of which suggest that the key world leaders finally acknowledge that fossil fuel pollution is a huge problem. Here’s an interesting rundown of what’s happened in just the past few weeks:

The world is shifting. At least that’s what Bill McKibben, a leading environmental activist, tweeted on November 6. He was referring to the recent wave of push-back against fossil fuel companies. On November 5 New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman opened an investigation against ExxonMobil for potentially lying to the public and investors about the risks of climate change. The next day, the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have transported 830,000 barrels of crude oil per day from the Canadian tar sands to refineries near Houston, was rejected by Pres. Barack Obama and effectively killed. Then only two days later, Peabody Energy announced that a two-year investigation by Schneiderman had come to a close, forcing the company to disclose any financial risks it faces from future government policies and regulations related to climate change.

It is tempting to take the rush of recent events optimistically, especially if you have been waiting to see more concerted action against human causes of climate change. In addition to McKibben, several activists, scientists and environmental lawyers agree the world is shifting from one doused in denial to one that might take big steps in the right direction. Such news, however, begs the question: What’s behind this change of heart? “The science is strong and getting stronger,” says Richard Alley, a geoscientist at The Pennsylvania State University. “And despite great efforts by clever people over decades, no one has succeeded in finding any real problems with the science or in generating any serious competing ideas.” But what’s more likely to change public opinion, many climate scientists point out, is the extreme weather prevalent today. Whether it is California’s record-breaking drought or the fact that 2015, like the year before it, will set yet another first for the hottest year on record, people are now seeing the impacts that likely arise from climate change in their own backyards. It is no longer a threat relegated to the future and faraway places.

Not only is the public beginning to accept climate change as a real danger, they’re realizing that fighting it is a viable option. Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann points to “the remarkable growth of renewable energy” as adding to the sense that public perception is at a tipping point. Cleaner energy sources are surging so much that 2014 marked the first time in 40 years that global carbon dioxide emissions stalled, and even dropped during a time of economic growth. With the tie between economic growth and lower carbon emissions severed, the public has begun to see renewable energy as a viable alternative. Indeed, a recent Pew Research Center survey showed a clear global consensus on a need to tackle climate change. Across all 40 nations polled, roughly 78 percent of residents supported the idea that their countries should limit greenhouse gas emissions.

The holidays and the looming arrival of a new year always make December the most optimistic and hopeful time of the year. And so it is right now, regarding the issue of climate change. I believe that 2015 will be remembered fondly as the year that we finally turned things around on fossil fuels.

Read more about why the climate deal works from Reuters: http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2015/12/14/why-the-climate-change-deal-works/

Check out Scientific American’s hopeful report on climate change: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-turning-point-in-combating-climate-change-may-be-here/

Learn more about the need for worldwide action on fossil fuels in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on Americahttp://shop.benbellabooks.com/crude-justice

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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