Going into the Paris climate talks, world leaders faced a do or die moment. Strong action in Paris would offer a chance to avoid devastation. Weak commitment meant a ravaged future, and an abandonment of our moral responsibility to protect the vulnerable, our children, and our common home.
So it was blessed news when an agreement was reached, and we should celebrate both the public activism and the political leadership that made this possible. Now, as the ink dries on the accord, it's important to look clearly at what it means.
Paris enshrines a goal of keeping us under two degrees Celsius warming by urging countries to increase their climate commitments over time. Because scientists have shown that existing national commitments will get the world only half-way towards this goal, these upgrades are vital.
Complacency is not an option. But make no mistake - the writing is on the wall. There's a crack in the fossil fuel industry fortress, and the light that's shining through is renewably powered.
Encouragingly, the agreement called for countries to aspire to limit temperature increases to 1.5 degrees instead of two, a far safer goal. This half-degree of difference would lessen climate impacts and prevent over 100 million people from losing their homes and becoming refugees. It would also increase the likelihood that major ice sheets would stay intact, stopping rising seas from destroying some of the world's largest coastal cities.
The agreement affirms countries' prior goal of $100 billion annually by 2020 to help poorer nations deploy new, clean energy systems. It's sad that the $100 billion figure is a goal, not a commitment, especially when the fossil fuel industry receives $600 billion annually in government subsidies worldwide. Fortunately, over 800 cities, states and companies globally have begun pouring investments into clean tech and pledged to do their part to live up to the promises made in Paris.
For the first time, the agreement recognizes that vulnerable countries will suffer climate-related "loss and damage." Though the agreement dodges how this will be addressed, the simple affirmation of this concept opens the door for progress. It's a cruel reality that the long delay leading up to Paris means that many island nations and coastal areas that millions of the vulnerable call home will be submerged before the climate is stabilized. If that's not loss and damage that requires compensation, I don't know what is.
Over the long term, the agreement calls for net zero greenhouse gas emissions during the second half of this century. Meeting this necessary goal will be like the Industrial Revolution and Marshall Plan rolled into one. Success will require an unprecedented commitment to energy efficiency, renewable energy, reforestation, and more at every level of society. Managed properly, this transition will create huge numbers of jobs and universal access to clean energy, saving millions of lives. Hard work certainly, but the result can be sweet.
Complex issues such as climate change are not solved overnight or by a single accord. From this perspective, Paris represents a solid start. At the same time, much remains to be done. The agreement lacked commitments to protect human rights, gender equality, and displaced workers and to train a labor force for this huge shift to a clean energy future. NGOs and, to a growing degree, faith communities are doing vital work to ensure that this massive transition is done fairly and includes everyone. Cities have also begun taking the lead, developing long term plans to make the deep cuts necessary to maintain a safe climate. Through the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance framework, metropolitan areas are working together to do their part to live up to the promises of Paris.
Now, as the emotional energy from Paris fades, leadership is more important than ever. We need political leaders who can steer their countries through energy transformations while withstanding pressure from the fossil fuel industry, which spends $400,000 daily to lobby Congress. Because two thirds of known fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground to keep the climate within the two degree limit, we need politicians who can just say no to new oil and gas projects (and to accepting corrupting fossil fuel industry campaign contributions) and instead greenlight initiatives that bring clean power to market. For those of us fortunate to live in wealthy countries that are responsible for most past greenhouse gas emissions, we need leaders who recognize our moral obligation to protect those who contributed next to nothing to our current crisis and who lack the means to protect themselves from climate change's destructive impacts.
We need leaders from all sectors of society who make decisive action on climate change a new normal. Finance leaders who accelerate the growth of efficiency and renewables. Educators, faith leaders and artists who make responsible use of energy a cultural and moral norm, and who mainstream the concept of climate justice. All of us nurturing the collective belief that by working together, we can create a safe passage to a renewably-powered future with cleaner air, good jobs, strong communities and an earth back in balance.
The Paris agreement is not the beginning of the end of our reckoning with climate change. But it is the end of the beginning of this long journey, and it is the beginning of the end of fossil fuels.