Bernie Sanders is Right, the Paris Climate Agreement Doesn’t Go Far Enough
Late last year, leaders and representatives from almost 200 countries met in Paris for COP21, a long-hyped climate conference with a goal of constructing a comprehensive climate agreement to limit the effects of human-made global warming. After two weeks of intense negotiations, they finalized a 30-page document, which was hailed by many news outlets, such as the Washington Post, as a groundbreaking deal:
The deal was struck in a rare show of near-universal accord, as poor and wealthy nations from across the political and geographic spectrum expressed support for measures that require all to take steps to battle climate change.
UN Secretary General, Ban-Ki Moon, also hailed the deal as a huge accomplishment:
This is truly a historic moment. For the first time, we have a truly universal agreement on climate change, one of the most crucial problems on earth.
So now the question is, what exactly did this deal accomplish and why is there so much praise?
The biggest positive of this agreement is just the fact that unlike Kyoto and Copenhagen, almost 200 countries actually agreed to keep the global average temperature below 2 degrees Celsius, with an aspirational target of 1.5 degrees Celsius. If this difficult goal is actually met, there is a chance that we will be spared the worst impacts of climate change, and possibly save humanity from complete environmental destruction.
Another important section of the Paris Agreement is the idea of climate finance. Developed nations which contributed the most to global warming during industrialization, such as England and the United States, are encouraged to raise at least $100 billion per year collectively to help developing nations build renewable power systems. This is also the first climate document which uses the terms “loss and damage”, calling for all parties to recognize how climate change has resulted in severe weather events such as Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Phillippines, as well as more gradual effects such as flooding and coastal erosion in Bangladesh.
Each country will also have to meet to renew their reduction targets every five years, ensuring that the efforts to shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy will continue to evolve, rather than stall after the agreement is signed.
These aspects of the accord are certainly huge steps for a planet whose nations have previously been unable to even come to a basic agreement on shifting their economies to mitigate climate change. However, is this agreement ambitious enough for a planet which has witnessed the hottest year in history, an uncharacteristically strong El Nino due to warm ocean temperatures, and record melting of both the Arctic and Antarctica?
Bernie Sanders doesn’t think so. His official statement wasn’t quite as optimistic as the mainstream media, and large climate organizations such as the Sierra Club:
While this is a step forward it goes nowhere near far enough. The planet is in crisis. We need bold action in the very near future and this does not provide that. In the United States we have a Republican Party which is much more interested in contributions from the fossil fuel industry than they care about the future of the planet. That is true all over the globe. We’ve got to stand up to the fossil fuel industry and fight for national and international legislation that transforms our energy system away from fossil fuel as quickly as possible.
The Senator isn’t alone in recognizing that COP21 might be too little, too late. James Hansen, the NASA scientist who first spread public awareness of the effect of greenhouse gases on the climate back in the late 1980s, had some harsh words:
It’s a fraud really, a fake. It’s just bullshit for them to say: “We’ll have a 2C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.” It’s 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.
Even if less widely covered by the corporate media, these weren’t the only dissident voices of the climate conference outcome, as aggressive climate organizations such as Greenpeace had similar criticisms. For instance, here is the reaction from Erich Pica, President of Friends of the Earth U.S:
The Paris agreement is not a fair, just or science-based deal. The United States has hindered ambition. The result is an agreement that could see low-lying islands and coastlines swallowed up by the sea, and many African lands ravaged by drought.
While the Paris Conference was certainly a step forward, this sort of agreement would have been more historic if we were still living in 1997, the year the Kyoto Protocol was signed. We are no longer living in a time period when just a simple acknowledgement that we need to stem the use of fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy and sustainable development is enough to be considered progress.
The biggest issue with this agreement is that the pledges aren’t legally binding. We know the agreement will put pressure on countries to uphold their climate targets but there is no legal backing to ensure that these nations, acting in their economic self-interest, will actually make the necessary cuts to save our planet. The accord doesn’t even go into effect until 2020, meaning that we have four more years of absolutely no accountability.
Even worse, these pledges alone will not accomplish the goal of limiting the temperature increase to 2C, even if fully enacted by each nation. While this would be the largest emissions cut in history, it would still result in a 6.3F temperature increase by 2100, which is between 3 and 4C and would likely be a major threat to human existence.
These pledges will need to be ratcheted up in the coming years and while this is possible due to the new five-year cycle, it remains to be seen if these current commitments will even be followed, especially without meaningful sanctions for breaking the agreement.
Other than the preamble of the agreement, which contains strong language about the challenges ahead and necessary actions we must take as a global community, the vague language suggests that this agreement could turn out to be merely symbolic, lacking the teeth to actually halt the climate effects we currently face. For instance, an economic sanction such as a carbon tax, or cap-and-trade program, which were supported by President Obama, as well as leaders of Canada, Chile, Ethiopia, France, Germany and Mexico, were omitted from the agreement, even though 20 countries and a multitude of cities, have already enacted this important measure:
The carbon tax is one of those measures which demonstrates a serious commitment to ending climate change, and these game-changers were missing from the final draft of the agreement.
The language of the document is very vague, with no set amounts for how much industrialized nations must raise to help develop energy systems in poorer nations, or even a target year when we must to peak our carbon emissions. Without these distinct targets, or even guidelines for how drastic the climate pledges of each nation must be, we are still at serious risk of catastrophic climate change which will have a serious impact on our way of life.