Climate change action goes home

The just-concluded COP24 conference in Poland took only a few modest steps forward. What each country does now will determine whether real progress can be made. 

Kacper Pempel/Reuters
People attend a Global Campaign to Demand Climate Justice demonstration before the final session of the COP24 UN Climate Change Conference in Katowice, Poland, Dec. 14.

High hopes preceded a two-week gathering of some 14,000 delegates from nearly 200 countries that concluded Dec. 15 in Katowice, Poland. The conference, known as COP24, was expected to reignite worldwide efforts to curb climate change.

Whether to applaud the meeting’s modest achievements or condemn the lack of major action on this urgent issue lay in the eye of the beholder. The conference chair, Poland’s Michał Kurtyka, was so pleased at the conclusion he leapt off the podium to congratulate delegates. Yet earlier speaker Greta Thunberg, a 15-year-old Swedish schoolgirl who has raised international awareness of the dangers of climate change, scolded the gathering, saying, “You’re not mature enough to tell it like it is. Even that burden you leave to your children.”

Reaching any agreement, especially one that might call for national sacrifices, from such a large and diverse body was always going to be a daunting task. But in fact some essential, if somewhat wonky, progress was made that keeps the 2015 Paris global climate pact alive and keeps open the possibility of more progress.

Most significant was an agreement on how countries will measure and monitor carbon emissions, essential to understanding exactly what each nation’s emission levels are – and whether they are growing or shrinking. 

Action now returns to individual countries – and in some cases even cities – and what they will do. The challenges ahead were dramatically illustrated recently in France, where the government attempted to enact a fuel tax to discourage the use of fossil fuels. After days of confrontations with rowdy yellow-jacketed protesters French President Emmanuel Macron was forced to back down. 

Canada may prove to be the next testing ground. A carbon tax going into effect there soon will raise the prices of oil, gasoline, and natural gas. But the money collected will be returned to households; in most cases, families will receive a larger “rebate” than the cost they incur in higher energy prices. 

In the United States, a so-called Green New Deal is gaining momentum. It would speed the transition from fossil fuels in the next 10 years, converting 100 percent of the nation’s electricity supply to renewable sources. It would also update the nation’s energy grid, increase energy efficiency of buildings, invest in research into more green technologies, and provide job training for workers in a new green economy.

When described in these terms, without attachment to any politician or political party, 81 percent of American voters either “strongly” (40 percent) or “somewhat” (40 percent) approve of such a plan, according to a new survey from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication.

The plan was seen most favorably by Democrats (92 percent) and independents (88 percent). But nearly two-thirds of Republicans (64 percent) liked it, too.

That may be in part because 82 percent of those surveyed had heard nothing previously about a Green New Deal, though the idea already has the support of some 40 members of Congress.

The new Congress, with its Republican Senate and Democratic House, now has the opportunity to resist turning the Green New Deal into a battlefield for partisan warfare. It could move forward on a plan that already has clear voter support and that could make a significant contribution to stemming the ill effects of global warming.

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