Notes from the underground parisThe 21st Conference of the Parties (COP 21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is taking place in Paris until December 11th.

The Paris Conference will hopefully yield real solutions to climate change — that is, provide measures to achieve sufficient mitigation of CO2-equivalent emissions to make adaptation to the unavoidable impacts of climate change possible. But even as the plans and deals are being hammered out, two things are clear: first, that the lead up to the conference has already forced important action on the part of various stakeholders, and second, that any resulting plan could still be dismantled before it can be carried out.

The former was demonstrated when President Obama rejected the Keystone-XL Pipeline in November. The Pipeline would have cut a swath of petro-filth through the middle of the US, all so that Canada could plunder and strip its own environment in order to provide some of the dirtiest energy on the planet. So there is at least hope that the Canadian sludge tunnel is finally no longer a threat.

…Unless the next administration decides to take another look at it. This is the concern with Paris — that whatever ambitious goals are established may be gutted by stakeholders failing to enact them, following an outline used by the US after the third COP – in 1997, in Kyoto, Japan. After enthusiastically supporting the Kyoto Protocol, the US subsequently failed to ratify the agreement. For this and other reasons, Kyoto was ultimately seen as a failure.

So what will happen this time?

The UNFCCC has seen ups and downs since it was established in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, but the current mood is one of cautious optimism — albeit against the backdrop of Cassandra-like anxiety. Speaking at the start of the conference, President Obama showed both his understanding of the gravity of the problem and his optimism that a solution was achievable. This offers hope that he will drag the US, kicking and screaming if necessary, into a meaningful agreement.

During nearly seven years as President, Obama has been on both sides of the climate change issue — for example, pushing for improved fuel efficiency and cleaner power plants, but also supporting fracking and expanded drilling in the Arctic and off the Atlantic coast. Now, in the final stretch of his two terms at the helm, the President has decided to work toward a legacy of environmentalism. It is easy to criticize his failings, but more important to encourage his current efforts — especially as his opponents work against him and against the environment.

The President’s Clean Power Plan is being met with threats by a short-sighted Congress. Fearing economic harm and loss of jobs (disregarding the economic boon and jobs that would be created through building sustainable energy infrastructure), they ignore that the fossil fuel industry is unsustainable and destructive. In place of long-term profitability, better jobs, and a clean environment, the political pawns of the oil, gas, and coal industries would saddle coming generations with blighted infrastructure, polluted air, land, and water, and all the dangers posed by climate change. Rather than embrace the challenge, encourage innovation, and lead the world in trying to solve a problem for which the US is largely responsible, they ignore risk, deny science, and do the bidding of their corporate sponsors.

Nonetheless, as the President intends to veto any legislation that undermines — pun intended — the Clean Power Plan, there may indeed be cause for optimism.

Of course, the US, while an important part of the equation, is not the only stakeholder. The international tenor leading up to Paris was different from that seen before prior COPs. Countries, cities, municipalities, and even private companies were actually setting goals for emissions reduction, mitigation, and adaptation. It could be that technology has advanced far enough to suggest that sustainable energy is achievable, or it may be that the impacts, increasing scientific understanding, and overall greater urgency of climate change have finally overcome the head-in-the-sand mentality that has long prevailed among key public and private stakeholders. Whatever the cause, countries and other COP participants finally seem eager to commit to saving the planet.

Of course, the voluntary efforts to mitigate global temperature rise which have been put forward by almost every country on Earth ahead of Paris are not expected to yield the goal of keeping global temperature below 2ºC above the pre-industrial level. For that reason, it is important to reach an agreement that makes up for the shortfall. An initial draft of such an agreement has promise, but is also riddled with points of contention that will need to be ironed out by the close of the COP.

Still, provided countries live up to their promises, Paris has already accomplished more than previous COPs. But if Paris fails to yield the large, binding treaty we would all like to see, the solution to climate change would then be to plan and promote a huge COP every year, thus encouraging countries to keep upping the ante. Since this notion is unrealistic to say the least, the key to Paris’ success will be not just the quality of the agreement reached, but the subsequent pressure to actually enact its proposals.

A successful agreement will have the results of: (1) hitting the 2ºC goal (or better – unlikely as that may be with so much CO2 already in the atmosphere); (2) allowing developing nations to leapfrog countries with long industrial histories by building sustainable energy infrastructure now, which will provide needed energy without the fossil-fuel price tag of pollution and global warming; and (3) preventing or limiting the conflicts and natural disasters which are the unavoidable consequences of the status quo.

Work on the Keystone XL Pipeline has been shut down. Shell Oil has ceased its exploration in the Arctic. The Clean Power Plan will survive this Congress. Paris is already reaping rewards, and any deal reached there should further help slow the march to 2ºC. But a weak deal or one which is undone by administrations with an aversion to science will not only be a setback for environmentalists, but will surely result in extinctions, increasing international conflict, displacement of populations, and coastal devastation.

President Obama says that the time is now to get a workable climate change agreement — that waiting to do so is no longer an option. Much has been accomplished in preparation for Paris, and much more may be accomplished before December 11th. But if the goal is the prevention of catastrophic climate change, we won’t know if we’ve done enough by the close of the Conference, whatever agreement is reached. We can only plot the best way forward, and not let laziness, ignorance, or greed change us from that course.


CSPW Contributor Adam Arnold worked with GAP’s clinical program while earning his J.D. from the University of the District of Columbia’s David A. Clarke School of Law, is a member of the Maryland Bar, and has an LL.M. in International Environmental Law and International Organizations from American University’s Washington College of Law.