Catalyst Winter 2016

[FIRST PRINCIPLES]

Making History in Paris

UCS President Ken Kimmell

Europe—and Paris in particular—has a symbolic place in my heart. My father was an army sergeant in World War II and my mother served as an intelligence officer, and they would talk proudly about the war years as the defining time of their lives, when, in small ways, they participated in the making of history.

I have often wondered whether my generation would have a comparable opportunity to define itself. What would we accomplish that historians might look back upon as a turning point? What great cause would we be able to tell our children about?

Now, having been in Paris for the signing of the international climate agreement, I may have my answer. Because if we make good on its promise, we will have changed the course of history and demonstrated, for the first time ever, the power of the entire world united in a common cause.

The agreement is the culmination of years of work by so many. Scientists who amassed data to prove to a skeptical world that the burning of fossil fuels causes grave harm to the planet. Faith leaders and activists who decried the immorality of leaving an overheated world behind for the next generations. Businesses that developed low-cost alternatives to fossil fuel energy. State and local leaders who experimented with policies like cap-and-trade and renewable energy standards, and proved that they work. And, I am proud to say, groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists, which has persuasively warned of global warming’s impending danger for many years, and successfully pushed for policies like the doubling of fuel economy standards and limits on power plant emissions that put the United States in a position to lead in the Paris negotiations.

A Historic Agreement

The agreement has many of the essential components for success. It establishes an ambitious long-term goal to limit global temperature increases by phasing out fossil fuels over time. To make a “down payment” on that goal, it compiles pledges by 195 countries (itself a historic first) to cut global emissions within the next 10 to 15 years. Because these cuts get us only part of the way toward where we need to go, the agreement requires countries to review their pledges every five years and raise their ambition level.

The agreement also calls for a common set of monitoring, verification, and reporting procedures. Countries that don’t meet their pledges can therefore be “named and shamed,” giving some teeth to what is otherwise essentially a voluntary agreement. Finally, wealthier countries that have benefited the most from burning fossil fuels are called upon to provide funds and technology to help poorer countries lower their emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change that are unavoidable.

In all these respects, it is a milestone to be proud of. But, as important as it is, this agreement only truly matters if it spurs action.

The Road Ahead

UCS will continue to play its vital role in making history, as we have for nearly 50 years. Ongoing U.S. leadership remains critical, so we will push for policies such as putting a price on carbon, ending fossil fuel subsidies, and doubling our investment in clean energy research and development at the federal level, while encouraging many new states to welcome cleanly generated electricity and vehicles that run on it.

We will put our scientists to work devising better policies to preserve and enhance forests and farms and their ability to absorb the carbon we emit. And we will demand change from those who stand in the way of progress, like large oil companies that cling to their fossil fuel reserves.

I heard many stirring speeches at the Paris negotiations. The best one was by Al Gore, who quoted these lines from a poem by Wallace Stevens:

After the final no there comes a yes,
And on that yes the future world depends.

In Paris this week, the world finally said yes. May that yes define our times.