Paris Climate Deal: a real start?

I have, as I’ve pointed out, spent most of my life watching arguments about climate change and various, mostly failed, confabs intended to work out a positive response. Cancun, Copenhagen, Kyoto… the whole sorry trail of broken promises and crushed hopes. All through the months and weeks of build-up to Paris-2015, I have kept this in mind as I read suggestions that “this is going to be different” and that “there’s a new optimism this time.” I was fully prepared for another travesty of resentment, finger-pointing and inaction. I was fully prepared to feel disgust and resignation.

That isn’t quite my reaction, strangely. Having now digested the initial reports and analyses of the outcome for about a day, I’m still not entirely sure what my reaction ought to be. Which is new; uncertainty is new, and I just don’t know if it is or should be interpreted as any more than that.

This much I know: the perils, expenses and injustices of anthropogenic climate change are not solved, and are far from being solved.

Yet, as frustrating and absurd as I found advance forecasts that “Paris will not be the end of the road but merely a beginning,” the fact that this appears indeed to be the best one can say may not, after all, entirely preclude the possibility that humanity has made useful progress.

Basically, in short I see three possible redeeming features of the technically inadequate Paris “deal.”

  1. The formal commitment of governments to keep coming back, at regular intervals, and make bigger commitments each time.
  2. Even more important, I get a very real sense that—for all the complaints and resentments that remain—the participants in this process are actually leaving Paris with significantly more mutual trust that they are all genuinely trying to support one another. I don’t know a lot about diplomacy, but for a lot of reasons I’m coming to believe that intangible attitudes like this make a huge difference to human endeavors. If so, and if this rosy glow isn’t a passing illusion, then I think the pledges to follow through on “merely a beginning” really could be something besides one more dodge.
  3. This could prompt business to do more divesting from fossil fuels and investing in zero-carbon technology. In recent years I have read multiple suggestions that a lot of capital’s elites, whatever their personal views, have concluded that world governments just aren’t going to achieve serious pressure on fossil fuels, and have therefore adopted an essentially nihilistic attitude of “okay, then, may as well go right on putting money into oil and coal.” But maybe, along with divestment campaigns and plummeting oil prices and a sense that renewables are finally getting serious, maybe this deal puts that attitude in question again.

So the work is still far from done, and yet, maybe. Maybe we’re approaching a tipping point where—instead of no one wanting to move away from carbon fuels until everyone else commits to doing so—people with power are going to be more anxious to avoid being the last one to join in.

Maybe I will yet see a day when climate change is “meaningfully solved” after all. I don’t mean tomorrow, or next year, I mean like 20 or 30 years from now. But possibly within 40.

Compared with what I’ve been expecting, I at least will regard that as very nearly miraculous.

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