After Paris: Hope and Hard Work on Climate Change

, former president | December 14, 2015, 9:59 am EDT
Bookmark and Share

This post is a part of a series on The Paris Climate Agreement

My father was an army sergeant and my mother was an intelligence officer during World War II. They talked vividly and proudly about the war years; it was the defining time of their lives, when they witnessed, and in small ways, participated in the making of history.

I have often wondered whether my generation would ever have a comparable opportunity to define itself. What great cause would we be able to tell our children about? What would we accomplish that historians would look back upon as a turning point?

With the climate agreement in Paris, we may now have an answer. If we make good on its promise, we will have changed the course of history and demonstrated, for the first time ever, the power of an entire world united in a common cause.

Paris Agreement acknowledges climate reality

The agreement is the culmination of years of work by so many. Scientists who amassed data to prove to a skeptical world that that the burning of fossil fuels causes grave harm to the planet. Faith leaders and activists who decried the immorality of leaving an overheated world behind for the next generations. Businesses that developed low-cost alternatives to fossil fuel energy. State and local leaders who experimented with policies like cap-and-trade and renewable energy standards, and proved that they work. And, I am proud to say, groups like UCS, which has persuasively warned of global warming’s impending danger for many years, and successfully pushed for policies like the doubling of fuel economy standards in cars and trucks and limits on carbon pollution from power plants that put the United States in a position to lead in the negotiation.

Sadly, also propelling an agreement is the never-ending march of grim events that gives us glimpses of a future of runaway warming. In the past year or so, we saw heat waves in India and Pakistan, record-breaking typhoons in Asia and Mexico, droughts and fires in Africa, Australia, and the American west, and flooding in many cities even when the sun is shining.

High-ambition carried the day

All of this brought the world’s leaders to Paris, where they set aside hardened positions to focus on the common goal of preventing catastrophic climate change. As an American, I am particularly heartened that President Obama and Secretary Kerry played critical roles in helping to lead a so-called “high ambition coalition” that secured many key elements of the deal.

The agreement has many of the essential components for success. It establishes an ambitious long-term goal to limit temperature increases by phasing out fossil fuels over time. To make a “down payment” on that goal, it compiles pledges by 195 countries (itself a historic first) to cut global emissions within the next 10 to 15 years. Because these cuts get us only part of the way, the agreement requires countries to review their pledges every five years and raise their ambition level. The agreement also calls for a common set of monitoring, verification, and reporting procedures. Countries that don’t meet their pledges can therefore be “named and shamed” – giving some teeth to what is otherwise essentially a voluntary agreement. Finally, wealthier countries that have benefitted the most from burning fossil fuels are importuned to provide funds and technology to help poorer countries lower their emissions and adapt to what is to come.

Paris agreement can only succeed with powerful action

But, as important as it is, this agreement matters only if it truly spurs change at a scale we have never seen.

The Union of Concerned Scientists will continue to play its vital role in making history, as we have for over forty years. Knowing that ongoing U.S. leadership remains critical, we will push for the next level of policies that will raise our ambition level, like putting a price on carbon, ending fossil fuel subsidies, and doubling our investment in clean energy research and development at the federal level, while encouraging many new states to welcome cleanly generated electricity and vehicles that run on it. We will put our scientists to work to devise better policies to preserve and enhance forests and farms and their ability to absorb the carbon we emit. And we will demand change from those who stand in the way of progress, like large oil companies that cling to their fossil fuel reserves.

I heard many stirring speeches at the Paris negotiations. The best one was by Al Gore; as he ended, he quoted these lines from a poem by Wallace Stevens:

After the final no there comes a yes,

And on that yes the future of the world depends.

In Paris this week, the world finally said “yes.” May that yes define our times.

Feature photo by Joe deSousa.

Posted in: Energy, Global Warming, Vehicles Tags:

Support from UCS members make work like this possible. Will you join us? Help UCS advance independent science for a healthy environment and a safer world.

Show Comments

Comment Policy

UCS welcomes comments that foster civil conversation and debate. To help maintain a healthy, respectful discussion, please focus comments on the issues, topics, and facts at hand, and refrain from personal attacks. Posts that are commercial, self-promotional, obscene, rude, or disruptive will be removed.

Please note that comments are open for two weeks following each blog post. UCS respects your privacy and will not display, lend, or sell your email address for any reason.

  • billy d marshall

    so what are we going to do while we wait for these controls take effect?
    melting icecaps:
    1. bag it (plastic) and let it drift into the currents (gulf stream, etc.) to the right locations.
    2. there is a demand for glacial fresh water for drinking. so these bags would be directed to Europe, by using bumper boats, depending on demand. the rest of the bags would be bumped into currents toward Africa, middle east, etc. for drinking water or for under ground storage for future use. this would give use enough income to care out the rest of the plan!!!
    3. at the right locations, the fresh water is pumped ashore to processing plants to bottle the fresh water and /or to deep wells, under pressure, until the water stars running out of the ground.
    4. in the meantime start planting trees for fruit, fiber and income, using plastic and drip irrigation. the one thing that stops deserts is trees!!!
    5. eventually, we want to turn the ground green, because an acre of green produces 10,000 btus of air conditioning, income and chews up CO2!!!
    bottom line, MAKE IT PAY FOR ITSELF!!!
    ps: i am a tree farmer!!!

  • Concerned

    I agree with James Hansen that we and the world need to implement a Carbon tax to make these commitments stick. I like Hansen’s proposal of the revenue neutral Carbon Fee and Dividend (CFD).

    CFD is much more straightforward than Cap and Trade. It cannot be gamed, as seen in the unfortunate Cap and Trade attempts in Europe. What are the chances that the UCS will get behind CFD? What are the chances that the Obama administration will get behind CFD?

    CFD should make sense even to conservatives (no new taxes) unless they have their heads wedged in the denial space.

  • anneliesemarques

    I certainly hope that the problem of packaging was addressed. May seem like a trivial thing, but it is not, as the North Pacific garbage collection demonstrates, and how rapidly it is growing. Any material that is not earth friendly should not be produced. For example, styrofoam. Transfer stations refuse to take it so it ends up in a landfill site. This time of year in particular, when many holiday gifts come in boxes lined with styrofoam, is a great strain on the environment. And the plastics … well they’ve been talking about this for years, but nothing is done, other than conscientious folks buying bags to bag their own groceries. Please, guys, put pressure on the companies that manufacture this stuff. BTW, there are many photos of this floating garbage site in the north Pacific, you can google it. Also photos of birds who have consumed all sorts of manmade things, mostly plastic, sadly to their demise.

  • Montyb

    I wish I could share Mr. Kimmel’s positive feelings about the Paris Agreement but I can’t. As he points out, there are many uncertainties about whether countries will live up to their commitments. From my perspective, the gaps in timing for steps to be taken, countries to report on their progress, etc. are far too great. There are frankly no penalties for a country failing to move forward and “shame” is not enough. Even that depends on the country reporting its emissions accurately. Hanson pointed out nearly 30 yrs ago the need for urgency. This agreement in my opinion lacks much sense of urgency even though it may be better than what came out of past meetings on global warming.

  • Christian Hartleben

    The Paris Agreement does not acknowledge the climate reality of the death of phytoplankton. By 2100, there will be as much oxygen at sea level as there is currently at the top of Mount Everest.

  • I certainly hope and pray that Paris starts a new day in preserving our earth, but I will truly believe it when I see (figuratively) a tax collector standing beside every oil well, coal mine, and dock measuring the barrels and tons and collecting the carbon tax before the fuel moves away from the source. The fuel companies are not going to just give up because a few nice words were spoken in Paris

    • Richard Solomon

      With this new deal it is likely that the fossil fuel companies will put even more effort into protecting their interests and short term profits. As the size of their pie shrinks, they’ll fight to retain as much of it as they can. If you think it’s been tough up to now, just watch. The bare knuckles will really come out in Congress during the next year when the election takes place!