Why the U.N. Climate Change Agreement Wasn’t a Complete Disaster

By Brentin Mock Dec 17, 2015

The global climate treaty signed last week in Paris, ink still drying as we speak, is a lot of things. One thing it’s not, though, is a complete failure. There’s plenty that can be said about how the COP 21 pact doesn’t offer enough reparations to countries most vulnerable to climate-change havoc or how it doesn’t go hard enough in the paint on reducing greenhouse gases. But the success of the agreement is that the United Nations was able to corral nearly 200 countries together on one accord.

It’s hard enough getting six city council members to agree on one thing. In Paris, 195 countries came to an agreement. Whoever tells you this was a bust is either trying to sell you a book or they’re a Republican.

What happened in Paris is akin to that time in the 1970s when all the New York City gangs came together to stop fighting, or in the 1989 when all the rappers came together to let us know that we were headed for self destruction. For the A$AP generation, it’s the equivalent of…actually, I don’t know what an equivalent would be for this generation; maybe if Young Thug, Lil’ Wayne, Baby, Drake, Meek Mill and everybody else beefing paused to focus on their collective bottom line. Suffice it to say, it’s that huge.

Still, just like the ‘71 Bronx gang summit didn’t completely end gang violence, the Paris treaty will not bring immediate resolution to climate change. There’s nothing in the agreement that legally binds any of the nations to actually do anything. What it does do though is get all of the countries on the record saying that each will do what it can to stop the globe from warming another 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius—a situation that scientists say would make the planet essentially unlivable.

Each country that signed the agreement has volunteered to take measures to fight climate change. Some have said they will stop burning coal and gas, two causes of carbon pollution. Some say they will significantly increase the amount of renewable energy they’re generating. Some have pledged to stop chopping down forests, which often happens illegally, against indigenous people’s wishes, and in countries where people of color are the majority. Some have signed on to re-forest lands that they’ve plundered for wood. Fully developed countries, mostly in the Global North, are expected to do much more on this front, given they are most responsible for climate-change problems in poorer nations in the Global South.

The United States’ Clean Power Plan requires the nation to reduce its climate pollution load using a similar strategy as the global accord. The common goal is a 32-percent reduction of the 2005 levels of greenhouse gases by 2030. Each state must submit their plan for how it will reach its carbon reduction goals. Unlike the Paris agreement, though, the U.S. plan is legally binding. The Supreme Court could walk that back, but so far, it hasn’t.

If you’re wondering if the global treaty has something in it that will compel economically developed countries to help protect poorer countries from the droughts, floods, tsunamis and similar weather disasters spurred by climate change, it does, and it doesn’t.

Some nations have pledged to help raise $100 billion from both public and private sources by 2020 to help poorer nations adapt to coming climate catastrophes. However, many of these poorer nations are, tragically, just one hurricane or climate-initiated famine away from being wiped off the map—and to no fault of their own. That’s why many of the climate justice activists who came to Paris pushed for a “loss and damage” clause in the treaty, essentially reparations for those places where total devastation is imminent. They weren’t able to get total buy-in on that. Brad Plumer explains at Vox:

A certain amount of global warming is already baked into the system, and some countries are going to suffer no matter what. Low-lying islands, for instance, could get consumed by sea-level rise. So many poorer countries had been pushing for compensation from richer countries, which are after all responsible for most of the emissions in the atmosphere. The US had opposed this, and the deal "does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation." But it does set up committees to deal with displacement and other related issues. 

This doesn’t mean all is lost. The Paris treaty is in its beta version and will be updated at least every five years. Meaning, climate justice advocates can keep pushing for the reparations clause to be included in the next draft, which talks begin for in 2016 out of Morocco.

There have been no shortage of people of color demanding these kinds of just climate provisions including the Indigenous Envirnonmental Network. The NAACP’s Jacqueline Patterson and the Sierra Club’s Leslie Fields are both mainstays in global climate negotiations past and present and have led delegations of Black, Latino and Native American activists at the summits. HBCU students played a significant role in this year’s climate talks by fighting not only for the Global South but the U.S. South. As Robert Bullard, a long-respected leader in the environmental and climate justice worlds, has made a point of saying, the southeast states of the U.S. have been the hardest hit by hurricanes and drought, so they deserve the most resources, especially for people of color.

Of course these climate conventions can’t go on forever. There’s only so much time before we reach the point of no return. Basically, if we don’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions radically within the next couple decades we’re screwed. (This includes Miami.)

This is not an idle threat. This is the universal declaration by virtually every serious scientist in the world. We really are headed for self-destruction, and if nations don’t stick to the goals set in Paris, and improve upon them in the coming years, we will achieve it. 

Brentin Mock is a staff reporter at Citylab.com. He has written about climate justice for Grist and voting rights for Colorlines.