Riding Shotgun Down the Avalanche

President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping committing their nations to the Paris climate change pact

After hundreds of delegates headed back to their homelands, exausted from two frantic weeks of negotiations, The UN issued statements out of Paris calling the 21st Convention of Parties (“COP21”) a great “first step.” What a surprise to find ourselves at a first step after twenty-plus years of negotiations.

Taken together, the Convention of Parties (starting with the 1997 kick-off congregation in Kyoto and hopefully ending with COP22 in Morocco) describe a glacial political process out of step with the existential crisis posed by climate change. 195 countries, speaking at least six different official languages, representing hundreds of economies and geographies, conferencing their hearts out. That an agreement could be reached is a feat of epic proportion.

Now 27 countries accounting for 39.08 percent of global carbon emissions have ratified. Seems appropriate, as carbon emmisions are highest from us, that the Obama Administration and China’s president Xi Jinping announced plans to formally ratify the Paris agreement on September 3. We know Obama is hoping to leave a green legacy. As China hops onto the bicycle built for two, can they really put this colossal effort into motion? And once the wheels are turning, continue to build momentum?

“I think of this as the hardest thing politically we’ve ever done as a species,” said a US delegate Peter Miller.

Miller is a senior scientist at the NRDC who attended both the 15th COP in Copenhagen and the Paris COP. Remembering the bad logistics and bad food in Denmark, particularly the mayonnaise-injected hot dogs, he says Paris was a coup by comparison. Delegates went to Paris knowing that a top-down technocratic decree was out of the question.

“Transforming the global economy is huge,” says Miller. “It’s going to take a more collective approach” with wealthy economies like the US anteing up, then putting the social screws to other countries.

Obama’s spending bill, overwhelmingly passed by Congress on December 18th anted up $100 billion to a global monetary fund to support African and Asian countries as they transition to clean energy resources. This is persuasive.

Yet the Paris treaty was labeled “weak and toothless,” accused of greatly exaggerating a successful outcome with swaggering photo ops.

Reports described the UNFCCC as “defective and fragile.” Let’s not even fixate on the typo debacle. To use the word “fragile” is probably apt, given that 55 countries, representing 55% of global emissions need to ratify this agreement for it to enforce international emissions reduction goals, ostensibly not legally binding reduction goals. India, Russia, the UK, and the European Union will also need to join in order to attain this delicate 55:55 balance. Meanwhile, the EU has a “national determined contribution” of cutting emissions by 40% by 2030 on 1990 levels. This tinkering with percentages; is it tilting at windmills?

Mark Jacobsen, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Director of Stanford’s Atmosphere/Energy Program was more tactful. “I think COP21 was a bit watered down compared with what it could have been.”

Jacobsen, who drives a Tesla around the Bay Area with the license plate “GHG Free,” published “A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet With Renewables” in Scientific American in 2009. He believes the path is to move to 100% wind, water, solar path in all sectors — electricity, transportation, heating/cooling, industry, agriculture/forestry/fishing.

The old chestnut that a shift to clean energy will harm our standards of living is contradicted by the fact that in 2013, 2014 and 2015 the global economy has grown while emissions have remained stable. Tackling this manifold problem can give rise to thousands of new careers. Heavy lifting for science and engineering, economics, journalism and filmmaking, theology and law.

China and the US just gave us a slow nod and a handshake confirming that, yes, Arctic melting has altered the global economy. We’re all riding shotgun down the avalanche.