Seeing the Paris climate talks through a wide-angle lens

The final negotiated text of a climate agreement will be the centerpiece of the international negotiations in Paris this December. But experts say what happens around and after that main event is just as important.

Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters/File
A general view shows the aerial subway and the city rooftops in Paris.

One global climate agreement won’t fix all of the world’s energy and environment problems. So as analysts and policymakers enter the final stretch ahead of this year’s UN climate talks, they’re hoping to include a wide range of sectors in the process, and ensure the summit’s impact continues long after the diplomats return home.

The final negotiated text of a climate agreement will be the centerpiece of the international negotiations in Paris this December. But experts say what happens around and after that main event is just as important. Corporations, sub-national governments, non-governmental organizations, and the public at large, play an increasingly important role in ensuring a stable and expedient shift toward a zero-carbon economy.

That was largely the message of “Stormy Seas: Climate Change and the Economy,” a panel discussion in Chicago co-organized by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, World Resources Institute, and The Christian Science Monitor. Adele Simmons, president of the Global Philanthropy Partnership, and David Waskow, director of the International Climate Initiative at World Resources Institute, discussed the progress leading into the upcoming climate talks, and the challenges that remain. David Unger, the Monitor’s energy editor, moderated the talk.

Watch the full video below, or check out highlights from Thursday’s event:


Three big ideas

  1. The climate pledge as feedback loop
    Much hand-wringing has focused on how to structure an effective global climate treaty. Do you centralize the goals and commitments, and issue a shared target to which all parties must adhere? Or do you work from the bottom up, crafting a suite of customized plans for each individual country that fit their specific economy, society, and politics? The approach to this year’s Paris climate talks is a bit of hybrid of the two, Mr. Waskow said during Thursday’s event. The goal is to create a “feedback loop” between international frameworks and individual nationwide action. “We need to have a process that continues over time, [that] brings countries back regularly – optimally at five-year intervals – to keep ramping up these actions,” Waskow said. “If we can continue this feedback loop over time I think we’re in a different kind of situation that takes us out of some of the tensions of the past between the bottom-up and top-down approaches.”


  2. Greener than thou
    Companies are competitive by nature, so why not pit them against one another when it comes to sustainability? The private sector is already responding to consumer demand for more planet-friendly goods and services, Ms. Simmons said at the event, and that kind of pressure will only grow. “I think about how the whole corporate movement in this space is huge, and, if you’re left behind, you’re going to be left behind in lots of different ways,” she said. When companies are caught cheating – as was the case with Volkswagen installing software to hide the real-world emissions of some 11 million cars – it will only motivate consumers to do more research on companies they care about, Simmons said. “I think if anything it will get consumers to get beyond the first question of ‘are you doing anything’ to ‘are you really doing it?’” she said. “So in some ways it will begin an even greater movement of consumers holding corporations accountable."


  3. The fabric of sustainable development
    Climate action does not happen in a vacuum. The threats of rising temperatures – and the solutions to those threats – are woven across the economy, society, and built environment of individual nations. Waskow pointed to energy access as an example. Some 1.1 billion people across the globe do not have access to electricity, according to the World Bank. As those regions seek to obtain a higher quality of living, Waskow and others believe zero-carbon renewable energy can play a major role, particularly in rural areas that do not have access to the electrical grid. It’s a way to kill two birds with one stone, decreasing energy poverty while spreading the use of cleaner power sources. “Growth and development will also depend on sustainable urban systems in many countries and we’ve seen – we’ve heard – the ways in which climate action is essential to the ways that cities develop in the United States and elsewhere," Waskow said. "So to be able to move forward, we need to see this as a fabric.”    


Two notable quotes

People are very excited by renewable-energy opportunities … People are now seeing this isn’t a drain on the economy. It just means there are other economic opportunities.” – Adele Simmons

Paris happens the first two weeks of December. I think the most important date for Paris is January 1st, 2016. What we need to be thinking in terms of – and what Paris needs to be about – is in fact the action we take going forward … I think that Paris will provide an important platform for highlighting a lot of [climate] action. Then the question is [one of] actually making it happen.” – David Waskow

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