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At least that is the impression from the red carpet Paris climate agreement.
However, not so fast! Yes we have a deal, but let's take a look under the hood for a moment, shall we? While there is much good in the deal, there is also much concern.
First of all a quick primer. Take a look at this nice brief summary from The Atlantic. Go ahead and read it first before going forward.
Before I get to my concerns, why do I call it a red carpet agreement?
Once in a while, major world leaders come together to sign major agreements. Usually, the deals are worked out in advance by negotiators and the leaders come to sign the agreement in a flurry of media attention. I always worry about the presence of the high ranking officials in the last moments of these negotiations since they often will overreach and agree to things that are not necessarily politically possible in their own nations. They get tremendous attention from their national stakeholders, but can they deliver on the agreements?
I have three areas of concern.
1. Voluntary reductions. Each country is required to set targets for greenhouse gas reductions. However, if a country doesn't meet the goals, there are no real enforcement mechanisms. In many ways, this is like many goal setting systems. My academic readers may be familiar with The American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment that urges universities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2060. These systems have had modest impact largely due to the lack of verification measures. They are earnest systems that look good upon initial implementation. Yet, the actual outcomes are mixed. Just take a look at the Mayors' Climate Agreement signed by over 1000 U.S. mayors. The agreement states that mayors will strive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to Kyoto Protocol levels. I am certain that some of the mayors are working diligently to achieve the goals, but that others used the agreement for political purposes. There are many agreements like this in the area of greenhouse gases. They do lead to reductions, but not at the collective levels that are intended or needed.
2. Funding. The agreement states that 100 billion is needed annually to support technology, mitigation, and adaptation. When Ecuador sought 3.6 billion over 12 years to stop oil drilling in its fragile tropical ecosystems, little money was raised and Ecuador went ahead and drilled anyway (I wrote about this issue here in 2014). Can the world raise that much money? Clearly most of the funding will have to come from richer countries like the U.S., China, and those in the European Union. Given the political situation in many of these nations, I think that the funding goal is a bit aspirational. Perhaps with the assistance of Bill Gates and other global kazillionaires the goals will be made, but I do have concerns over the needed funding.
3. What happens if goals are not met? One of my main issues as of late is the lack of planning for climate chaos in a world of 9 billion people. While I think it is a great thing that the Paris meetings were held and that the world agreed on something, I just do not have a tremendous amount of hope that the agreement will result in the needed greenhouse gas reductions. While some researchers have been working out various scenarios for the climate chaos in store for us if the agreement fails, we have not invested enough time and talent to address the modeling and planning needed to try to assess the challenges we could face. As climate scientists know, climate shifts happen rapidly. By focusing only on the climate agreement we are investing in hope and neglecting potential dark realities that billions could face in the coming decades.
In summary, I don't think it is time to take the pressure off of our international leaders regarding climate change. I also think we have to shake off the comfy feelings from the Paris agreement and see it for what it is--an agreement that has many pitfalls for failure. We also have to recognize that the agreement assumes that with reductions in the agreement the world will warm 1.5 degrees C (roughly 2.7 degrees F). Failure to achieve targets will lead to even higher temperatures and climate chaos scenarios.