Friday, April 22, 2016


Dr. Denise Keele, associate professor political science and head of the newly instituted climate change minor, discussed how the Paris agreement on climate change occurred.

“It’s called COP21 because it’s the twenty-first year in a row since the signatory parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992) have held a conference to continue to state that climate change is a problem caused by humans and should be dealt with as a global community,” she said.

Dr. Denise Keele in her introduction to climate change class
The Kyoto conference in 2007 created a protocol to reduce greenhouse gases among nations, but the United States opted out of it. Australia and Canada wavered and then backed out of Kyoto, too. China and India, both considered developing countries by the UN, have never had legal responsibilities to reduce their emissions under Kyoto.   

The last global attempt to resolve an international climate change agreement occurred at Copenhagen in 2009 and “collapsed into chaos and recriminations,” according to the Guardian. The Paris talks were seen as the UN’s last chance. The online magazine, Quartz, relates how a deal was reached:

In the last few hours of negotiations, all countries had to make some sort of compromise to reach a consensus. The US, India and China—the world’s three biggest polluters—accepted that they would have to try to limit global warming to under 1.5 °C of pre-industrial levels. Developed countries accepted partial blame for having caused whatever warming has occurred so far. And developing countries agreed not to seek damage liabilities from developed countries.

Article 4.4 requires developed countries to undertake economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets but developing countries to only “continue to enhance” their mitigation efforts. In the draft that was presented for adoption there were two critical words—“shall” and “should”. The expression “shall” applied to the developed countries’ obligation and the word “should” applied to the developing countries’ obligation.

The US, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, wanted both developed and developing countries to agree on the same, more lenient word: “should.” In effect, the US only wanted to commit to trying to cut emissions, but not be legally bound to do so.

“It’s important to have a major economic power and a major contributor to greenhouse gases represented at these conferences,” said Keele.

The Paris agreement was the first time all the nations were present and the three top players, the US, China and India, reached an agreement, which is not a treaty, said Keele. The US has geopolitical leverage that it can exert on other nations, so that’s why it is so important for the US to sign the Paris agreement.

“The other political story behind this is that if Obama signed it, that would force his successor to follow through on the agreement,” said Keele. “Then it would be hard even for an anti-climate change president not to follow the agreement.”

It is important to note that Paris is not a treaty or an accord, meaning it is totally voluntary and not legally binding, said Keele. That’s why it is called an agreement.

The US’ problem with a climate change treaty or accord is the fear of handicapping itself economically since it largely depends on fossil fuels to run its economy. For example, Kyoto was not supported by the US when the Senate supported the Byrd-Hagel resolution on July 25, 1997, by a vote of 95 to 0. This resolution urged the Administration not to negotiate an agreement with binding targets for the United States and not without the adoption of binding targets in the same compliance period by countries in the developing world. Thus, the Paris “agreement”—not a treaty—allows the US to join the international action since it is not binding and it a includes targets for developing countries, notably India and China.

“I’m optimistic about the Paris agreement,” said Keele. “It is historic and unprecedented with 195 nations signing on. Australia has elections to get through but afterward it will probably sign.”

Keele pointed out that since the Copenhagen 2009 conference, nations have been more transparent in reporting in advance their contributions to climate change. This allows everyone to see what the others are doing and it encourages cooperation among the nations.

“Tools such as transparency, accountability and voluntary agreements work better than legally binding treaties,” said Keele. “Kerry and Obama knew what they were doing. So did the UN secretary general.”

However, the challenge will entail publicly keeping up a level of pressure that forces nations to follow through, she said.

Europe is working toward reducing carbon emissions, said Keele. It has organized itself as a total unit with each country deciding what to carve out. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in office since 2005, has led the way in the “austerity politics” of conservation and use of wind and solar—in spite of the country’s cloudiness and higher altitude. After Kyoto, it started its own carbon neutral program and now is a world leader of sustainability by generating 30 percent renewable energy.

“Climate change is an over-arching issue,” said Keele. “You can’t do anything else if it’s too hot, too wet or too arid.”

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