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Something happened in Paris on Friday that many thought wouldn’t.

Agreement.

Agreement by nearly 200 countries that climate change is a significant problem with short- and long-term global implications that we must address collectively. It was an uphill slog. Those countries signed a pact to reduce their carbon footprints and slow the pace of global warming in the coming century.

In a nutshell, after months and years of preparation, with weeks of hard back-and-forth negotiation culminating in two overnight sessions, nearly 200 countries agreed that:

  • Climate change exists and has the potential to do irreparable harm to the planet;
  • Global commitment to reduce greenhouse gases is critical to minimizing this harm;
  • Each country must commit to reducing carbon emissions, and revise those commitments to ever stricter standards every five years;
  • Each country must demonstrate what measures it has taken to cut emissions via a transparent process, every five years;
  • The goal is to keep the global temperature increase below 2 degrees Celsius, if not 1.5 degrees;
  • Forest preservation is critical to offsetting carbon emissions, and countries should enact policies to limit logging and save intact forests; and
  • Developed countries like the U.S., France, England, etc. should take the lead in providing funds for programs to reduce global carbon emissions, including those in developing countries.

Establishing a framework

To be sure, this is a first step. Conference organizers in Paris and elsewhere must have looked at this effort like herding cats. Coal gobbling countries like China, India and the U.S. have traditionally held different views on their responsibilities for and the extent of climate change. Smaller developing countries like the Marshall Islands, which are sounding the alarm bell that they’re losing ground…literally, have completely different views.

Such widespread agreement is monumental in the shadow of the failed 2009 climate agreement in Copenhagen. While the 2009 summit only suggested what to do, this accord is an almost Earth-wide acknowledgement that countries need to tackle this collectively, and a legally binding commitment to do so.

Will it stop global warming completely by on its own? No, say many scientists. The real tipping point would be to prevent the average global temperature increase from exceeding 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Scientists say that if global annual temperatures rise above 2 degrees, the planet will be past the point of repair, and the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets will melt, sea levels could rise 20 feet, etc.

But as written, this agreement will only limit global temperature rise by about 3 degrees Celsius if countries achieve their current emissions reductions commitments, according to some scientists. It’s far better than the status quo, which is on track to bring an increase of more than 4 degrees Celsius and potential catastrophe. Still, on the new path the oceans will continue to rise, and polar caps will continue to melt, only at a slower pace.

To meet the agreement’s goal of avoiding damaging climate change, the nations of the world must step up the ambition of their cuts over time. The pact is voluntary for countries to strive for that 2 degree goal. What is legally binding is that each country commits to some kind of carbon emissions reduction, that they commit to continuing to reduce emissions more significantly every five years, and that they demonstrate what they have done, again every five years.

One of the biggest reasons the Paris agreement does not specify benchmarks for each country is that the United States Congress would have to vote on such a measure. And the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate would have nixed any such wording. Interestingly, the U.S. Republican party is the only political party in a study of nine developed countries that flat out denies “anthropogenic climate change.” More interestingly, the study suggests that opposition to addressing climate change is strongest in countries with large reserves of oil, natural gas, and/or coal (all of which the U.S. has in abundance).

Reason for optimism

Though it will not stop global warming, this binding agreement sets a precedent for global cooperation to combat climate change and hold each other accountable. Five years ago, this seemed like an impossible task. It also hopefully creates momentum to bring the discussion to the forefront of critical diplomatic and business discussions. It sends a signal that fossil fuels do more harm than good, and should stay where they are. It will force countries to start thinking harder about developing infrastructure for alternative energy, and create a path for industries and investors to spur innovation to scale up clean energy.

And perhaps it sets a framework for more aggressive action on a global scale if the scientific evidence shows our climate is changing faster than predicted.

I’m going to teach middle school students this week about how the warming Gulf of Maine has become home to some invasive species. The European Green Crab, for example, is a warm-water invader that has been showing up in increasing numbers for the past couple of decades. It eats larval shellfish like clams, mussels and oysters. It also destroys eelgrass habitats that are nurseries for many species.

Those kinds of invasive migrations are likely to continue for a while. But I look forward to capping off the classes with a ray of hope offered by the events in Paris last Friday.

 

Here’s some additional reading:

Science Alert: Here’s what you need to know about the new Paris climate deal

National Geographic: Paris Agreement Catalyzes Global Cooperation Toward a Low-Carbon Future

New York Times: Climate Accord Is a Healing Step, if Not a Cure

BBC: What did the Copenhagen climate summit achieve?

2012 Republican Party Platform