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Paris pact on climate change: What’s fear got to do with it?

Fearmongering took a back seat to other tactics during the Paris negotiations. The result: a universal agreement with historic goals relying more on trust, humility, and compassion.

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    French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius (right) and Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, react during the final session at the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) at Le Bourget, near Paris, France, Dec. 12.
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“Fear is not a good adviser,” says German leader Angela Merkel. She offered that advice recently about a fear in Europe of Muslim migrants. But she might as well have been talking about global warming. Take the climate-change accord reached Dec. 12 by every nation on Earth. It certainly was driven by heightened concerns about potential threats from a rise in global temperatures. But after 23 years of trying to achieve a pact for universal action, negotiators finally found a way to an agreement beyond fearmongering.

The 31-page document, hammered out over 13 days near Paris, relied not on a kind of coercion or shunning based on paranoia. Rather the talks began with an invitation for each representative to volunteer a plan for reducing greenhouse gas in their own country. The need was made clear: to hold warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). More than 180 countries responded to an expectation that progress was possible. Some set targets for 10 years, others 15 years. 

And in a historic first, the delegates agreed on a common goal to limit the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees. They also, in marked humility at the task, made a shared admission of concern that the goal may not be enough. With their new-found foundation of trust, the delegates were ready for further collective action and injected a legal requirement. Countries will need to update and enhance their carbon-reduction commitments at five-year intervals starting in 2025. By comparing individual progress, some countries will necessarily stand out as role models, inspiring others to speed up. Most of all, each contribution will be valued. This helps create stronger grass-roots support in each country for leaders to act.

The regular required reviews should help get over the “free rider” issue – that others should jump first or make a greater sacrifice. China and the United States, the world’s largest carbon emitters, helped along these lines by agreeing last year to work together on solutions to climate change.

Tackling a global problem like climate change needs to first build a community of trust, not scare countries silly about erratic weather. As was seen in Paris, more countries want to assist others that are most vulnerable to rising seas or other effects, such as low-lying island nations like the Maldives. Rich or poor, large or small, this accord sets the right framework of trust, humility, and compassion. Fear wasn’t totally vanquished. But at least it was not the adviser it was once thought to be.

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