About the Paris Climate Agreement

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Before I start, I want to say that I’m going to try to keep this from being political. Climate change is real, and that’s a fact. It’s not a political statement.

As many of you have heard, President Trump officially announced on Thursday that the US will withdraw from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. Like me, a lot of you probably weren’t sure exactly what that means. So here we go–

The Paris Climate Agreement (officially the 21st Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, if you want to be fancy) was the first successfully brokered deal between (almost) every country in the world to combat climate change. The only two to not agree were Nicaragua and Syria; Nicaragua because they are already doing a lot to stop climate change and didn’t think the deal went far enough and Syria because they were busy being in the middle of a civil war.

The reason this deal worked out where others have failed is because it’s an agreement, not a treaty. Treaties are legally binding and notoriously hard to get more than a few heads of state to ratify. The agreement is more casual — every country will set their own goals to curb emissions; there’s no global power dictating how each country should act. Instead of force, the power behind the agreement is peer pressure. Everything is available online, so every country’s citizens know exactly what their governments have promised. Everyone knows what each country has signed up for.

The agreement’s purpose is to keep global temperatures from rising more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius), and the signers would really like it to stay under 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) more than pre-industrial levels. (Humans started on the path of global climate change in the 1880s* with the Industrial Revolution.) Although 3.6 degrees doesn’t seem like a lot, it’s potentially disastrous. During the Ice Age the world was only on average 9 degrees (5 degrees Celsius) colder than it is now, and yet the sea level was 350 feet (106 meters) lower. 3.6 is somewhat of an arbitrary number, but most scholars agree that’s when the truly horrible things start happening. Be careful about clicking that link, because it legitimately sent me into an eschatological crisis for a whole day.

While apocalyptic natural disasters seem far fetched, we have to realize that global warming undoubtedly was a factor in the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. Climate change leads to worse droughts, which lead to mass migration, which leads to political instability, which leads to war. I’m not saying that the whole world is going to plunge into World War Three if we hit the 3.6 degree mark, just that we should be very careful about thinking that global warming isn’t going to be a problem until far in the future.

To make 3.6 degrees look even harder to hit, we’ve already used up more than one degree in the years since the Industrial Revolution, and most of that since 1975. XKCD has a great comic explaining how global warming is speeding up.

And if you weren’t panicking already, the current Paris Agreement as it stands won’t keep us from reaching that 3.6 degree mark. But it wasn’t meant to, because all countries will reconvene every five years to make sure everyone is on track with their own goals and to, hopefully, set stricter goals for the next five years. In order to control the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, part of the agreement limits released gasses to the amount that trees, soil, and the oceans can naturally eat up.

Trump decided to exit the Paris Agreement for lots of political reasons that I won’t go into, but it might actually not be as bad for the planet as it could be. Now, finally, comes the good news of this article.

We can’t technically leave the agreement until November 2020. In addition, the federal government doesn’t actually have that much power when it comes to emissions. Rather, much of the power is in state government and private companies, many of whom are doing a surprisingly good job at limiting their own carbon consumption. For example, the governors of New York, California, and Washington have created a coalition to support state level renewable energy initiatives. California, the 6th largest economy in the world, is also one of the cleanest. As of this writing, 187 mayors across America have committed to upholding the Paris Agreement, with more expected to join. Here in Salt Lake City, our own Mayor Biskupski has partnered with local energy companies to transition the city to 100% renewables by 2032.

Michael Bloomberg, erstwhile mayor of New York City turned UN special envoy for cities and climate change, has stated that he’s confident that the US will be able to meet the Paris Agreement’s goal without the help of the federal government. His foundation has pledged $14 million to help this goal.

All is not lost, friends. The future is scary, but ignoring it isn’t going to make it go away. We all know what to do: turn your lights off, drive less, read this list* of things that you may have not thought of, call your representatives. The future isn’t set in stone, but it’s getting close.

About The Author

Just a girl who has a lot of feelings about planetary science

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