The Climate Path Ahead

The slogan "For the Planet" was projected on the Eiffel Tower on Friday as part of the COP 21, the climate conference in Paris. Credit Francois Mori/Associated Press
The slogan "For the Planet" was projected on the Eiffel Tower on Friday as part of the COP 21, the climate conference in Paris. Credit Francois Mori/Associated Press

At the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro 23 years ago, the world’s nations adopted a treaty that pledged, but ultimately failed, to cut the emissions driving global warming. In Paris over the last two weeks, negotiators from around the world met for the 21st time since then in an effort to move from aspiration to action.

As legions of bleary-eyed diplomats, environmentalists and lobbyists make their way home across the planet, you’ll hear proclamations that COP 21, as the meeting was called, was a historic turning point, and a profound failure.

Both will be right, depending on the scale of reference.

For the first time, even before the opening gavel, more than 180 nations, large and small, submitted plans — yes, voluntary ones — to divert from their carbon-based business as usual. The United States and China guaranteed progress by stepping together a year ago in Beijing after more than a decade of “you first” fights, laying out detailed domestic plans to curb emissions.

The momentum created by such commitments spurred dozens of nations, joined by the World Bank and other influential institutions, to pledge to cut subsidies for fossil fuels. Also, while poor nations see the amounts as insufficient, powerful countries, including China (which long hid behind its status as a developing country), have pledged money and technical aid to help shield the world’s most vulnerable communities from climatic and coastal hazards.

And for the first time, 20 governments and a passel of billionaires led by Bill Gates announced plans to ramp up long-lagging investments in basic research and development on clean energy — like advancing cheap, extensive battery storage to maximize the potential of solar power, safer nuclear plant designs and even technologies to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The need for a research boost was long played down by climate campaigners. They argued that the only missing factor had been the political will to move forward. But the scale and complexity of making a rapid shift from fossil fuels to clean energy will require much more than marches and votes.

After two decades of false starts and dead ends, including the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the task has become to work steadily at limiting the odds of worst-case outcomes rather than “solving the climate crisis” — which was once the central meme of climate campaigners. Urgency is being melded with patience as we confront the journey ahead.

One reason for patience is that infrastructure and energy systems are slow to change. A 2013 report by the Bloomberg administration offered this data point, which underscores the reality of what we face: “Energy use in buildings accounts for 75 percent of New York City’s greenhouse gas emissions, and 80 percent of the buildings that will exist in 2050 are already here today.”

On the scale of the world’s intertwined climate and energy challenges, the language emerging from Paris is grossly insufficient. Because heat-trapping carbon dioxide, emitted in the tens of billions of tons each year, can persist for centuries once released, the warming effect builds unless emissions are ultimately greatly reduced, not just slowed.

Nearly all of the Paris commitments on emissions are restricted to the period between 2020 and 2030, while cresting energy needs and populations in developing countries guarantee that more greenhouse gases will flow into the atmosphere in the decades beyond, unless nonpolluting energy technologies become far cheaper far faster.

In the end, despite diplomacy’s implicit inadequacy, there is merit to the argument that Paris constitutes a momentous turning point. In sharp contrast to past “seal the deal” rhetoric and visions of some magical top-down accord, what is emerging is a process that will accommodate the scale of the challenge, not an outcome — a rough guide to our climate future.

As President Obama put it on the first day of the Paris conference, the goal is “an enduring framework for human progress, not a stopgap solution.”

Over the next few years, negotiators will continue to shape a rule book and timeline through which nations can, with increasing trust and ambition in years to come, share what they are doing to cut emissions given particular economic and geographic realities, conserve carbon-sopping forests and help the world’s poorest places gain access to energy and boost resilience to the inevitable warming and coastal retreats already baked into the climate’s trajectory.

With some colleagues, a young doctoral candidate at Yale, Kelly Levin, wrote a prescient paper in 2007 on the “Super Wicked Problem of Climate Change” that perfectly described the dizzying obstacles to action and why “progressive incrementalism” is actually the best path to success.

On Friday I asked Dr. Levin, now at the World Resources Institute, what needs to come next in this process.

“To ensure that it is indeed transformational,” she said, “decision makers will need to think how the policies we put in place today will lead to transformation over time — making them hard to reverse, entrenching support over time and expanding the population they cover.”

What will drive leaders to act for the sake of future generations even when their constituents are largely focused on the near and now?

Pope Francis, acting in large part because of the climate treaty timeline, provided the answer in his encyclical on the environment and poverty and in speeches on ecology, equity, energy and climate. He has made it clear that the decisions ahead, while informed by data, will be shaped by values.

Francis was variously embraced and attacked for his critique of consumptive capitalism in his encyclical. But what was missed was his important call for accepting a diversity of approaches to addressing the climate problem.

“[T]here is no one path to a solution,” Francis wrote. “This makes a variety of proposals possible, all capable of entering into dialogue with a view to developing comprehensive solutions.”

That is precisely how the Paris outcome has been framed and how the world will, with urgency and patience, success and failure, forge ahead.
Correction: December 12, 2015

Andrew C. Revkin writes the Dot Earth blog for The New York Times and is the senior fellow for environmental understanding at Pace University.

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