The Paris Accord: A Major Step Forward for International Cooperation on Climate. Not Enough, On Its Own, to Address Climate Crisis

The news from Paris this weekend was huge.  Nearly 200 countries agreed to take action on climate to keep temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius or an even more aspirational goal of 1.5 degrees.  The deal has many positive aspects. Nations will be transparent about their emissions reductions, and that transparency should help to shame laggards.  Rich countries are pledging $100 billion per year in assistance to poorer nations.

Yet, in many ways the deal does not go far enough.  The key goals of limiting temperature change are aspirational and not legally binding.  That is why climate scientist James Hansen has ridiculed the agreement for being insufficient to address the problem at the scale that’s needed. And, developing and poor nations are justifiably concerned that assistance from rich countries will not be enough and isn’t even guaranteed.

Of course, the flaws in the agreement reflect the political realities of the major polluter nations, particularly that of the United States.  The U.S. Congress is under the control of politicians who still question whether climate science is real, favor lavish subsidies for fossil fuels, and fail to adequately support renewable energy development.  As a result, the Obama Administration had to negotiate a deal that did not need Senate approval, and the Paris Accord, with all its strengths and weaknesses, fits the bill.

Since the goals of the Paris Accord are aspirational, it is up to citizens and progressive business leaders worldwide to push for strong measures in their countries to move to a clean energy economy.  This transition needs to protect human rights alongside environmental priorities. An important place to start the transition process is eliminating the vast subsidies for fossil fuels.  Worldwide subsidies for fossil fuels represent an astonishing $10 million per minute, or over $5 trillion per year.  These subsidies are distorting energy markets worldwide, making highly polluting fuels appear to be “cheap,” when they actually have huge environmental and health costs that will be borne by citizens for generations. And, compare subsidies for fossil fuels with those for clean energy – currently only $120 billion per year worldwide. Fossil fuel subsidies are an incredible 125 times greater than clean energy ones.  Despite these imbalances, clean energy is developing quickly around the world, but if there were a level playing field, it would increase even more rapidly, and at the rate we need to address climate emissions.

Here in the U.S., government incentives for clean energy are expiring and failing to be renewed, while fossil fuel subsidies that have been locked in for decades continue without any opportunity for public debate.  Green America is working to correct this issue by promoting Clean Energy Victory Bonds, legislation that would provide $50 billion in dedicated Treasury bonds that support only clean energy and energy efficiency programs in the U.S. This legislation would create over one million good paying jobs in the U.S., and help accelerate wind, solar, and energy efficiency installations across the country. As we work to pass Clean Energy Victory Bonds, Green Americans can take action with us to divest their money from climate polluters and invest in clean energy solutions instead.

It is also essential that the citizens of wealthy countries assist poor countries in adopting clean energy and addressing the impacts of climate change.  It is only fair that the countries that have benefited from over 100 years of unrestricted carbon emissions that helped generate tremendous wealth, agree to help developing countries build their economies with low-carbon technologies.  It is also in the interest of rich countries to do so for their own sake.  For example, if climate change continues on its current path, the United States could experience sea level rises of 10 feet on its East Coast, destroying the homes and businesses of millions of people.

Climate change demonstrates clearly that we are all in this together, and that there is no place for privileging one nation above others.  As the wealthiest country on earth, the U.S. has a special obligation to be a leader, creating a future for its own citizens and people worldwide.  We can all play a role, as consumers, investors, business owners, and voters to ensure that the U.S. is the leader we need it to be.

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