The signing of a global treaty on Friday marks more than just the symbolic launch of new policies on climate change. What’s perhaps most significant is the changed mind-set that made the accord possible.
Where some past efforts to address global warming were marked by bickering and the search for grand bargains, the agreement reached four months ago in Paris was about pragmatism and nudges. Aspiration met the art of the possible.
The attitude seemed to be: Let’s stop talking and start acting. That, it turned out, helped make the difference.
After all, a similar United Nations-backed climate summit in Copenhagen ended with a whimper in 2009. At today’s Earth Day signing by more than 170 nations in New York, by contrast, countries are embracing an accord that promises to have tangible results and truly global buy-in.
A central agreed-on goal is to hold average global temperatures to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
The deal, and the attitude behind it, might build a foundation for additional international steps in the future – steps that many climate experts say will be necessary to put that 2-degree target within reach.
How did this turnaround happen?
It’s a story that involves both individual leadership and collective learning from past failures, climate experts say. They also cite two fundamental trends that have altered the currents in which policymakers swim: mounting scientific evidence of the threat and the rising availability of technologies to address it.
“The costs of acting are going down, while the costs of inaction are going up,” says Michael Tubman of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a nonpartisan group in Washington that supports policies to respond to climate change.
Since 2009, the price of solar power has fallen more than 80 percent, for example. Meanwhile, a rising perception of climate change as a here-and-now phenomenon may help explain why public concern about the issue has generally been edging up around the world since 2009, when the Copenhagan summit convened.
What the world thinks
The pattern shows up in polling from Brazil to India, Kenya to Germany, and the United State. As of the Paris talks in December 2015, a global median of 54 percent saw global warming as a “very serious” challenge, according to Pew Research Center polling.
The issue remains politically divisive. In the US, for example, Republican candidates for president have voiced skepticism or outright opposition toward the treaty. Yet US participation in the Paris agreement doesn’t require a congressional vote. And some policy experts say that, while political support for climate action may ebb and flow, the general trend is becoming deeper rooted over time.
Even in the US and China, the world’s two biggest carbon-emitting nations, the Pew Center polling in 2015 found more than two-thirds of adults supporting action by their country to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions as part of an international agreement. In the US, 50 percent of Republicans feel that way.
In coal-reliant China, attitudes reflect not merely the climate issue but, more immediately, the high levels of pollution in populated cities as a risk to public health.
Against this backdrop, presidents and prime ministers from around the world have taken a heightened leadership role. So did nongovernment figures such as Pope Francis and philanthropist Bill Gates.
“Extraordinarily – I’ve never seen it in my entire time in public life – 140 heads of government all came to Paris on the same day to make clear their personal commitment to a global agreement,” US Secretary of State John Kerry said in remarks during the December summit.
In that speech, he also pinpointed a crucial change in approach that set Paris in contrast with the Kyoto Protocol of 1997. That accord sought internationally agreed and binding carbon-reduction targets. Critics say is lacking in the current agreement. But supports say it makes action more feasible.
“Let me tell you something,” Mr. Kerry said. “Having been at Kyoto, and trying to pass it on the floor of the United States Senate, and not being able to, we have learned the lessons of the past. The reason that so many countries are at the table now, the reason that nearly all nations – all but 10 – have announced their own targets, is precisely because this doesn’t work one-size-fits-all. Because we have learned, through the years, that every country needs to take action based on its own assessments and its own capabilities, and those will change over time.”
Push your neighbor
The new approach, in which nations develop their own plans, hinges on peer pressure as well as the domestic interests of each nation.
The “decentralized, non-binding approach is exactly what has brought so much weight and value to this year's summit,” wrote the Monitor’s David Unger at the time. “Rather than be bound to a paper text, countries are instead bound to one another.”
That created a new sense of fellowship and activism. Small island nations became loud voices in a so-called “high ambition coalition,” supporting the goal of holding warming to 2 degrees, and the aspiration of capping the temperature rise at just 1.5 degrees.
And big nations also played their role. China, for one, didn’t want to again get the climate-laggard label it had in Copenhagen, said Joanna Lewis of Georgetown University, who spoke at a climate-policy discussion this week, hosted by The Christian Science Monitor. Leaders from the US and India, as well as China, could have easily been dissuaded by political or economic challenges at home.
“It took a tremendous amount of moral courage from these three leaders to really stick to their determination to get things done,” said Andrew Light, a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute, at the Monitor event.
Though it’s not formally part of the Paris agreement, new public and private investment in energy breakthroughs could hold the key to whether the world can actually achieve the 2-degree target. The commitments nations are making so far, while meaningful, will need to be expanded significantly over time to reach that goal, policy experts say.
But with the US and China pledging to move this year, the needed ratification by 55 nations accounting for 55 percent of global emissions might happen some time in 2016.
For now, the 170-plus nations signing the agreement at the UN in New York are more than have ever signed a treaty on its first day.