Today, November 30, 2015, is the official opening of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference just outside of Paris, France, commonly known as “COP21.” (“COP” refers to “Conference of Parties,” meaning countries party to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change of 1992). We have no idea yet how this meeting will turn out, but COP21 may well prove to be the most important and consequential event in history this year, and could have considerable significance for the course of world history as it unfolds in the 21st century. I realize that’s a bold claim, but there’s certainly reason to think it’s true. There is nothing more important in the world right now than addressing the problems of anthropogenic climate change, and COP21 is the biggest and most important multinational meeting of diplomats ever held to try to hammer out a comprehensive and binding plan to deal with humanity’s number one problem. Indeed, I don’t see how the stakes could possibly be any higher.
Some may take issue with my statement that nothing is more important than climate change. I’ll get to that in due course, but first, it’s probably worth a brief summary of what is happening in Paris, why it’s happening and what the world hopes to get out of it–just browsing social media this morning I realize a large number of people have no idea what COP21 is or why it’s important. Basically, the idea is for the major countries–but also many smaller ones too–to come together and negotiate a deal that everyone can live with that will have the effect of reducing global carbon emissions such that overall planetary warming will be kept under 2° C by the year 2100. Scientifically there’s a significant question as to whether that 2° target is realistic, but it’s the one everyone is aiming for. What we hope comes out of Paris is the basic framework of an agreement where countries will limit their carbon emissions to a certain level, which will be different for each country. This is similar to, but not exactly like, the previous international plans for carbon emission reductions, such as the noble but flawed 1997 Kyoto Accords (which notably the United States did not ratify).
Secretary of State John Kerry, seen here arriving at the Paris talks, will be one of the chief negotiators on the U.S. side at the COP21 summit.
Why is this particular meeting so important? Because, quite simply, the world is running out of time to stop the worst effects of climate change. COP21 is not happening in a vacuum. It’s the latest in a long chain of diplomatic efforts, stretching back 25 years, by nations to reduce carbon emissions and avoid making global warming worse than it already is. The conceptual model is the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which was a multinational treaty that proved an extremely successful effort to ban chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that were depleting the ozone layer. Most people don’t realize how successful Montreal was: today CFC emissions are a tiny fraction of what they were in the 1980s, and the “hole” in the ozone layer, while still there and still dangerous, is showing clear signs of recovery. Montreal proved that the multinational treaty approach is feasible for global environmental issues. The problem has been that limiting carbon emissions, which come from activity at the very heart of industrialized economies, is much harder to limit than CFCs, which were a fairly minor luxury in the scheme of things. The previous best attempt, the Kyoto Accords, was imperfect to begin with, and has fallen apart since 1997. We have about one more chance–and only one–to get it right. Otherwise it’s too late to avoid 2° of warming, no matter what we do.
Climate change is the biggest problem facing the world right now. It is more important than ISIS/Daesh and the threat of terrorism. It is more important than fostering economic growth. It’s more important than the U.S. Presidential race, or the rise of xenophobic or neo-fascist ideologies in Europe and America, or access to health care, or mass shootings or various other issues that have occupied the media recently. I’m not for a moment suggesting that these issues aren’t important or don’t require action–they are, and they do. But, important as they are, none of them unite the entire human species as a stakeholder in the same problem. Furthermore, climate change is significantly related to many of these problems. Certainly it is related to terrorism and security threats and has played a role in the war in Syria in which ISIS/Daesh has participated, and whose refugees have raised questions about immigration, security and diversity in the West, which in turn has affected the Presidential race, outbursts of violence, and social safety-net issues. There is no “silver bullet” to solving the world’s problems, but doing something about climate change would certainly have a major ripple effect that would dramatically improve our chances of solving these others. This is why climate change is so important to address.
ISIS (also known by the derogatory term Daesh, which they evidently hate) would very much like to see the Paris talks fail. Climate change and its propensity to drive conflict plays directly into their hands.
Unfortunately, the success of the Paris climate talks are by no means guaranteed. The very nature of these negotiations among so many countries, with so much at stake, is very cumbersome, and the chances of reaching a deal are uncertain. Add to this the fact that a lot of people and interests out there are actively hoping for the talks to fail, for whatever reason. The problems caused by climate change play right into the hands of ISIS/Daesh, and their nihilistic worldview is by definition allergic to any sort of positive development in international cooperation. Furthermore, various political factions, including the Republican Party in the United States, want the talks to fail because many of them (or their campaign donors) are personally invested in the bizarre delusion that climate change is some sort of hoax or that it isn’t really happening. On Capitol Hill, Republican lawmakers are even now engaged in an unconscionable attempt to persecute and harass climate scientists working for the NOAA in the hopes that climate science can be somehow discredited. (Climate change deniers also tried to ruin the last big climate summit, in Copenhagen in 2009, by hacking the emails of climate researchers and painting them falsely as evidence of some sort of deception).
Climate change is no longer a topic that we can afford to ignore, downplay or soft-pedal. It ceased to be that a long time ago. Addressing climate change is not only advantageous from an economic, geopolitical and technological standpoint, but it is a moral imperative–in fact a moral issue that I believe is this century’s equivalent of abolitionism during the 19th century. This is the point that Pope Francis made with his “Encyclical,” which was an attempt to give a moral dimension to the political stakes at the Paris talks. We had better hope that the men and women gathering in Paris are as wise, nimble and far-seeing as those of us who sent them there have a right to expect them to be. They have the gravest responsibility on their shoulders: a world to save. With the stakes this high, they need all the hopes, prayers and support we can possibly give them.