Rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement

The U.S. on February 19 officially rejoined the Paris climate agreement, reversing former President Trump’s decision in 2017 to withdraw from the international accord at the end of 2020. President Biden signaled this change in direction on his first day in office when he signed an executive order putting the U.S. back on the path to once again become a member of the agreement, which is a multilateral effort to curb the effects of climate change. Nearly 200 member countries have agreed to the treaty.

The climate agreement was adopted at COP 21 in Paris on December 12, 2015 and entered into force on November 4, 2016 with a goal of limiting global warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. In fact, warming beyond 1.5 degrees, scientists have warned, could trigger runaway climate change.

Under the terms of the accord, each nation set its own greenhouse gas emissions targets with a goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050. Countries agreed to establish finance programs and share resources with those countries that needed support. At the signing in 2016, the U.S. announced its target was to reduce emissions by 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

Critics of the agreement have pointed to the lack of mandated standards and the relatively modest goals set by most nations as insufficient to head off the worst of the climate crisis. Needless to say, the exit of the U.S. from the accord — the only country to renounce the treaty after adopting it — increased the probability that climate-driven catastrophes would accelerate across the globe. Now that the U.S. is rejoining the accord, it is expected to establish a new target for 2030. Calls are mounting for at least a 50 percent reduction in emissions by then.

The widespread blackouts in California and Texas serve as a stark reminder of what we could be facing as the climate crisis worsens. Although different in scale and severity, the power outages in these two states underscore the extent to which we are unprepared for extreme weather events and the coming climate chaos. “We’re already seeing the effects of climate change,” observes Sascha von Meier, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. “There will be more of this and it will get worse.”

What happened in California and Texas was not just an environmental disaster; it was a breakdown in security and stability, the capacity to carry on with our day-to-day lives. As Sir David Attenborough recently told a UN meeting, the climate crisis presents the “biggest threat to security that modern humans have ever faced.” The reason why is not hard to understand: we have left the relatively benign climatic period that led to the flourishing of human civilization.

“If we continue on our current path, we will face the collapse of everything that gives us our security: food production, access to fresh water, habitable ambient temperature and ocean food chains,” said Attenborough. “And if the natural world can no longer support the most basic of our needs, then much of the rest of civilization will quickly break down.”

Another way to think about what’s at stake is to put the climate emergency in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. According to Mark Carney, former head of the Bank of England and now UN envoy for climate action and finance, the world is heading for mortality rates equivalent to “a coronavirus crisis every year from the middle of this century, and every year, not just a one-off event” unless climate change is addressed immediately. As he puts it, “you cannot self-isolate from climate” and there is no waiting for climate change to pass; it will only “just get worse.”

So, yes, we’re back in the Paris Agreement and that’s a good thing, but it’s far from sufficient. There is much work to be done. That work involves the implementation of new government regulations and innovative technology such as heat pumps and electric vehicles. But the even harder work involves meeting the challenges of equity, justice, and accessibility, making sure that every person can lead a decent, healthy, and secure life. To do so, we must recognize at a fundamental level that the threats we face should unite us, not divide us; it is the key to our very survival as a species.

COP24, Wishful Thinking, and the U.S.

When the UN climate talks at COP24 opened in Katowice, Poland earlier this month, there was good reason to be concerned about the outcome. After much infighting, however, delegates at the last minute settled on most of the rules for putting the 2015 Paris agreement into practice. The new pact outlined how countries will provide information about their climate actions, including mitigation and adaptation measures, as well as steps to provide financial support for climate action in developing countries.

“The guidelines will promote trust among nations that all countries are playing their part in addressing the challenge of climate change,” declared the official UN statement issued at the conclusion of the gathering. One could be forgiven, however, for believing this press release reflected wishful thinking more than actual reality.

COP 24 opening plenary. Photo by UNclimatechange licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

The agreement, for example, called on countries to step up their plans to cut emissions ahead of another round of talks in 2020. But the key question of how countries will bolster their targets on cutting emissions was largely overlooked.

Current targets, agreed to in the wake of the Paris climate talks in 2015, put the world on course for 3C of warming from pre-industrial levels, which scientists say would be disastrous, resulting in droughts, floods, rising sea levels, and a sharp reduction in agricultural productivity.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of COP24 was the obstructionist role played by the US. While the country provided important leadership in securing the Paris climate agreement, it proved to be far less constructive in Katowice. Throughout the negotiations the US delegation sought to water down language. Siding with the oil and gas nations of Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, it blocked the conference from “welcoming” the IPCC report on the impacts of a temperature rise of 1.5C.

Just as infuriating, the US held an event at the conference promoting the continued use of coal, natural gas, and other fossil fuels. In contrast, the European Union and several other developed countries joined with dozens of developing nations in declaring they would focus on preventing a 1.5C rise in their carbon-cutting efforts.

At this point in the climate crisis, it should be clear that there are only two ways to move forward. One is to implement clean energy technology on the scale of the Manhattan Project or the Apollo Program and stop the burning of fossil fuels. The other is to accept that billions of people will suffer and die because we refuse to take this course.

Which path will our community adopt? This is the question we should be asking ourselves at every turn, whether it is expanding the North Campus at Cornell, developing the Green Street Garage Project, repowering Cayuga Power Plant, or implementing a new Green Building Policy for the City and Town of Ithaca. We can criticize the lack of commitment and refusal of the US to address the pressing issues of climate change at global summits, but can we let ourselves off the hook? Clearly, we need to set a new course and act with a greater sense of urgency. As Greta Thunberg, the 15-year-old Swedish climate activist, told the COP24 delegates, “we are facing an existential threat and there is no time to continue down this road of madness.”