Paris, Je T’aime

Last week, nearly 200 countries large and small signed an historic agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to thwart the worst impacts of climate change.

Notre Dame Cathedral
Last week, nearly 200 countries large and small signed an historic agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to thwart the worst impacts of climate change. (ostill/Shutterstock)

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Something profound happened in Paris last week and we have to celebrate it. One hundred and ninety-five nations came together and made a pact to act against climate change. They agreed to hold global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius, with a target of no more than 1.5 degrees. They agreed to revisit this year's commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions in 2020, when it will be even cheaper and easier to get off of fossil fuels. The countries that got rich burning fossil fuels agreed to help fund climate solutions for countries that didn't.

Not very long ago, none of this progress seemed possible. Last November, the U.S. and China jointly announced plans to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Before then it was hard to imagine how the world's biggest polluters could ever stop playing chicken. The U.S. was seemingly immobilized by the toxic partisan debate that is still in full swing this holiday season. China, India and other developing countries were adamant that they would not cut emissions to solve a problem created mainly by developed countries. And the prospect that rising emissions in China and India would overwhelm reductions elsewhere in the world became an argument for doing nothing in the U.S. 

The accord reached in Paris represents a world-wide breakthrough, with every country pledging to achieve and report emissions reductions with rigor and transparency. Crucially, it was an agreement reached by all countries—including the small island states that have the most to lose from sea level rise in the immediate future—not just a deal brokered by super-powers and imposed on the rest of the world.

Of course it is not enough. Keeping all of the promises made in Paris will not save the planet as we know it. The biggest polluters, including the U.S., will have to outperform their pledges very quickly. But ambitions can grow, and grow quickly, as clean energy keeps generating more wealth and as climate change keeps inflicting more unbearable costs.

Paris proves the potential—undemonstrated until last week—for the world's governments to act collectively on climate change. That is huge. We should all claim it as the victory it is, and as Americans, we can take some credit for it, too. The Obama administration had credibility and a strong negotiating platform in Paris because we have been acting on climate change in this country. We are curbing carbon pollution from cars, trucks and now power plants. We have cut our reliance on coal-fired power dramatically by forcing dirty old coal plants to shut down or clean up, and we are ramping up clean energy so fast that we are seeing twice as many jobs in the solar sector as in the coal mines. And big new investments in fossil fuels—Arctic oil drilling and the Keystone XL pipeline are among the most high-profile examples—are not moving forward. All of us who fought to make this progress helped to make history in Paris.   

Maybe you read Bill McKibben's opinion piece on the Paris agreement in the New York Times and felt, as I did, less than celebratory afterward. Focusing on the shortcomings of the deal, he writes, "The irony is, an agreement like this adopted at the first climate conference in 1995 might have worked. Even then it wouldn’t have completely stopped global warming, but it would have given us a chance of meeting the 1.5 degree Celsius target that the world notionally agreed on." 

While McKibben is a hero of mine, "too little too late" is not an acceptable critique when the world really does need saving. On the Sunday his op-ed ran in the Times, I was walking in midtown Manhattan without a coat. It was 70 degrees in the middle of December. I passed the News Corp building and their red neon banner was scrolling the so-called news: "Paris climate goals laudable, experts say, but no tools to achieve them." How many people believe that lie? Rather than regretting the half-measures agreed to in Paris, we should be shouting from the rooftops, or better yet, scrawling a solar-powered message in lights, that the full measures are within reach. 

As McKibben himself goes on to write, "We need to build the movement even bigger in the coming years, so that the Paris agreement turns into a floor and not a ceiling for action. We’ll be blocking pipelines, fighting new coal mines, urging divestment from fossil fuels—trying, in short, to keep weakening the mighty industry that still stands in the way of real progress. With every major world leader now on the record saying they at least theoretically support bold action to make the transition to renewable energy, we’ve got a new tool to work with." 

Yes, exactly. And we at Earthjustice will continue to be among the "we" that does the hard, inspired work to empower a growing climate movement in the courts of law and public opinion. This holiday season, I’ll be thanking all the negotiators in Paris who have given us not just a floor, but higher ground to stand on. 

Earthjustice was privileged to participate in the Paris negotiations as a legal advisor to the Republic of Palau, one of the Small Island Developing States whose vision and tenacity in the face of the existential threat of climate-induced super storms and sea level rise helped to secure a more ambitious agreement.

Abigail Dillen serves Earthjustice as our President, leading the organization's staff, board and supporters to advance our mission of using the courts to protect our environment and people’s health.

The International Program partners with organizations and communities around the world to establish, strengthen, and enforce national and international legal protections for the environment and public health.