The Fate of the World Changed in Paris—but by How Much?

 Mark HertsgaardTwitter December 13, 2015, The Nation, 14/12/15

Thanks a lot, Republicans. You weren’t in Paris physically, but you still managed to prevent last week’s global climate summit from reaching an agreement that would give humanity a better than iffy chance of avoiding catastrophic sea-level rise, scorching temperatures, and killer floods and drought in the years ahead.

An iffy chance is better than none, and government and civil-society leaders worldwide left Paris pledging to build on the agreement so it becomes a floor, not a ceiling, of ambition. Nevertheless, on both scientific and humanitarian grounds, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is correct to say that the Paris Agreement “goes nowhere near far enough.”

And the main reason why it doesn’t are his Republican colleagues in the United States Senate, which would have to ratify any bona fide treaty the Obama administration might have preferred in Paris.

The Paris summit was by no means a failure; its accomplishments deserve the adjective “historic.” By aiming to limit temperature rise to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels and “pursue” a goal of 1.5 C, the world’s governments went further than ever before in defining the allowable amount of future climate disruption. This was a case of moving the goalposts in the best possible way. What’s more, both developed and developing nations pledged to entirely eliminate emissions of greenhouse gases “as soon as possible,” in effect promising to de-carbonize the global economy.

Thus the leaders of both of the world’s climate change superpowers, the United States and China, praised the accord, with President Obama hailing the agreement not “perfect” but “our best chance to save the only planet we have.” A headline in The Guardian said the agreement heralded “the end of the fossil fuel era.”

But the celebratory tone of politicians’ statements, news coverage, and even most of the comments from non-governmental organizations in Europe and the United States overlooks how lethally punishing this agreement will be for huge masses of people in the Global South. It also skips past just how far short the agreement falls from what science demands—and science does not compromise.

Even if the largely voluntary provisions of the Paris agreement are fully implemented, literally tens of millions of people in poor and vulnerable regions such as Bangladesh, the Marshall Islands, and much of Africa and Asia are being doomed to homelessness, impoverishment, and death, with children predicted to bear the brunt of the suffering. That such a heartless future is applauded as success in the Global North only reminds us how tragic, indeed criminal, it is that fossil-fuel interests and the politicians they buy have blocked serious climate action for the past two decades.