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COP21: Grand Success or Major Disappointment?

Bob Siegel headshotWords by RP Siegel
New Activism
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National leaders across the world have praised the climate agreement signed in Paris on Dec. 12. President Barack Obama called it “a turning point for the world.”

Indeed, when compared with the previous 20 U.N. COP meetings that all came up short of a meaningful agreement, this has to be seen as a success. But then, with the years that have passed since the first COP meeting in 1995, the level of urgency has grown exponentially. Had we taken action then, the task would be far easier now.

Given the very wide disparity of positions -- with countries like India and China insisting that fossil fuels are essential to bring their people out of poverty, while island nations clamored for action that could mean the difference between life and death -- some degree of compromise was inevitable. Indeed the question that hung in the air through the two-week conference was: How much could reasonably be expected?

While the U.S. did play a meaningful role that we can take some satisfaction in, one can’t help but wonder if we might have done even more, had the Republican opposition not taken such an extreme position.

Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org said, "This didn't save the planet, but it may have saved the chance of saving the planet."

It brings to mind a baseball analogy. Picture the home team coming from behind, in the bottom of the ninth — not to win the game, but to tie it, sending it into extra innings and keeping hope alive.

Climate crusader James Hansen, who was among the first to sound the alarm, was less pleased with the level of compromise, calling the outcome a “fraud.” He called the agreement, “just worthless words. There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned.”

Indeed, it seemed that the idea of a carbon tax, which many, including Hansen, had called essential in the lead-up to the conference, was swept aside in the rush to come up with some kind of agreement before the clock ran out.

It should not have been a surprise. U.N. climate chief, Christina Figueres, said of the possibility, back in October at an investor event in London, “I agree it would be more simple ... but it’s not quite what we will have.”

Still, Hansen, who has been concerned about this longer than anyone, calls the 2-degree target “highly dangerous,” and insists that only a carbon tax, or fee, as he prefers to call it, will prove sufficient to the task, given the urgency.

Secretary of State John Kerry had the following response to Hansen’s comments. “… With all due respect to him, I understand the criticisms of the agreement because it doesn’t have a mandatory scheme and it doesn’t have a compliance enforcement mechanism. That’s true. But we have 186 countries, for the first time in history, all submitting independent plans that they have laid down, which are real, for reducing emissions."

I tend to agree with Kerry. I believe we have reached a tipping point. I think the number of actions that have already taken place, the number of companies, countries, cities and investors that have already committed, and the amount of innovation coming out every single day is going to bring far more change than people expect. People will choose to take action because they will understand that it will be in their own best interest, and they will see how easy and affordable it will be to do so. Of course, there will be laggards. American Republicans may well be the last in the world to take action, but in the end, even they will have no choice.

It’s true that there is no such thing as too soon from a climate perspective. If we were to entirely outlaw the use of all fossil fuels today, that would yield the best outcome for the climate. Of course, that is totally unrealistic. A transition is required. People talk about how many miles it takes to turn an oil tanker around. What we are talking about here is not an oil tanker; it’s the entire world economy. How quickly can we turn that around?

That is what we will find out from this day forward and for the rest of this century.

Image credit: IIP Photo Archive: Flickr Creative Commons

RP Siegel headshotRP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, Grist, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering,  Design News, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, Environmental Science, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Eniday, and engineering.com among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 53 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP was the winner of the 2015 Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week blogging competition. Contact: bobolink52@gmail.com

 

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