The Paris Agreement Isn’t the End. It’s Just the Beginning.

PARIS — It was December 13, and I was finally getting just one day away from the 18-hectare converted aircraft hangar at Le Bourget, after two weeks involved with the United Nations climate summit.

I’ve been finding such relief in small, important, normal things, like getting outdoors during daylight hours and walking slowly.

The contrast between the real world and the UN summit has been excruciating.

Not for the first time, I’m thinking about the daily reality we’re up against and the change we’re trying to create. Not just for people like you and me. But for people in the Marshall Islands, Vanuatu, the Horn of Africa, Syria, the Canadian Arctic, and all the other nations, regions, and communities where climate change is already ripping away any sense of normal.

The Marshall Islands, where high ground is just a few metres above sea level and 2°C means a whole country disappearing beneath the water.

Vanuatu, where a climate-fuelled cyclone earlier this year wiped out houses, infrastructure, food sources, entire villages, and 65% of the country’s GDP.

Horn of Africa countries like Ethiopia, where drought is a daily reality, economies that depended on coffee farming are in tatters, the number of orphans has reached crisis proportions, but the country is only receiving about one-fifth of its request to a desperately underfunded Global Climate Fund.

Syria, where a sustained drought drove the rural-to-urban migration that fuelled the protests that triggered over-reaction by government that launched the country’s brutal, seemingly endless civil war.

The Arctic, ground zero for the fastest warming on the planet, where centuries-old ecological webs are in danger and reducing indigenous people's ability to feed their families with traditional foods, where whole communities are due to be relocated because of melting permafrost and eroding sea coasts, and other communities lack urgently-needed supplies because the ice roads they depend on are so slow to freeze and quick to melt.

On Saturday, the world’s political leaders declared victory with the signing of the Paris Agreement. Within a limited world of negotiation and accommodation, that victory was an absolutely essential milestone on the road to a low-carbon future.

Ever since, I’ve been struggling to try to imagine how a compromise agreement, developed through an impossibly complex sequence of hardball negotiations, can connect with the vivid, often alarming and heartbreaking reality all around us.

The only plausible link I can see is the grassroot research, analysis, and day in, day out pressure that brought us this far in the first place.

It was civil society organizations that mobilized to make the Paris Agreement a reality. Governments just sealed the deal.

All of us—you and I and everyone on this list—had a hand in making that happen. By doing our homework, raising the alarm, raising our voices, and just. Refusing. To back down.

But after all that, the Paris Agreement is both a stirring victory and a desperately inadequate compromise. The world of Le Bourget was warped enough and surreal enough that both of those statements can be true.

It’s the beginning of the end for fossil fuels, in a global climate deal with no enforcement mechanism to guarantee good behaviour.

It commits most of the world’s governments to setting a 1.5° limit on average global warming by the second half of the century, though their carbon reduction plans to date set us on track for catastrophe in a 2.7° to 3.4° world.

It recognizes the crucial importance of “pre-2020 ambition” to reduce the carbon pollution that causes climate change, but doesn’t mandate a “facilitative dialogue” on those existing, inadequate promises until 2018.

It finally recognizes developed countries’ duty to help the most vulnerable in the world cope with the impacts of climate change, but contains no binding commitment to fund that work.

So after all that, there’s still much more to be done.

There isn’t time to wait for negotiators to find the right moment to rein in emissions (and relentless greenwashing) from international shipping and airlines that still fall outside the bounds of the Paris Agreement. To tie down exactly how much carbon we can hope to sequester through improved soil practices. To find practical ways to reduce the carbon impact of the global food supply chain (an issue that I know is particularly close to the heart of SCCF Interim Executive Director Diane Beckett).

To begin absorbing, then doing something about the astonishing reality that the biggest single source of end-use emissions, the world’s military institutions, falls outside the scope of global climate reduction efforts.

And crucially, in Canada, to begin the 90-day sprint to a national climate change framework that begins putting depth and detail behind Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna’s blockbuster commitment to a 1.5° degree limit on average global warming. (Because it’s 2015, at least for a little while longer.)

So, yes, Paris is a milestone. Yes, it’s an achievement worth celebrating. Yes, it absolutely gives us the hooks and future “political moments” we need to carry on the fight.

But it’s going to be up to all of us to get this done. Every single one of us, and anyone else we can bring onboard to help.

Same as it ever was.


Mitchell Beer,
Sierra Club Canada Foundation
Observer, COP21

One Earth • One Chance

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