A few days ago nearly every nation in the world agreed on a plan to reduce carbon emissions. The result is a kind of Rorschach test for citizens. The written agreement is certainly more than an ink blot but it is less than a treaty (which the American Congress would almost surely not approve), and it raises for each of us the question: What do you see?
President Obama said, “This agreement sends a powerful signal that the world is fully committed to a low-carbon future. We’ve shown that the world has both the will and the ability to take on this challenge.”
The New York Times summarizes its view this way: “the Paris agreement will need strong follow-up,” noting that “the cheering and the high-fiving have died down. Now comes the hard part.” In other words, nations must first follow through on their pledges (technically “intended nationally determined contributions”), and then do much more. Editors at the Times understand that if nations do only what they have pledged to do, scientists estimate that global temperatures will rise about 3.5° C, or 6.3° F, over pre-industrial levels, much more than the 2° C that the world has already agreed should be the maximum allowable global warming. Yet we know that warming of less than 1° C has led to the loss of half of Earth’s polar ice cap (and more warming is inevitable due to past emissions).
Climate scientist James Hansen, who warned Congress and the nation about climate change more than a quarter-century ago, has called the Paris talks “a total fraud.” In an interview from Paris, Hansen warned, “we’re not going to reduce emissions as long as we let fossil fuels be the cheapest form of energy. There are lots of countries that want to lift their people out of poverty. And of course, they should do that. But everybody would be better off if the price of fossil fuels was honest. It should include its cost to society.”
The Paris agreement included a kind of stretch goal, stating that the parties hope to limit warming to only 1.5° C. Climate activist Bill McKibben wrote that meeting the 1.5° C goal “would require breakneck action of a kind most nations aren’t really contemplating. At this point we’d need to leave almost all remaining coal and much of the oil and gas in the ground and put the world’s industries to work on an emergency basis building solar panels and windmills.” Replacing the world’s billion-plus automobiles with electric cars in just a few decades is an example of the enormous and expensive effort that would be required.
Meanwhile, Republican presidential candidates in the U.S., most of whom are skeptics about global warming, have barely mentioned the climate deal. And the Obama Administration’s EPA plan to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants is being attacked by at least 24 states, which have filed lawsuits to block it.
In a Psychology Today interview forty years ago, Idries Shah, the leading exponent of Sufism in the west and a founding member of the Club of Rome, was quoted saying, “This is a civilization that is going down, not because it hasn’t got the knowledge that would save it, but because nobody will use the knowledge.”
What do you see? In the historic Paris agreement do you see evidence that the world will, in fact, use its abundant knowledge in order to avoid truly catastrophic climate change?