The Climate Deal: A Boon or Bust?

It was inevitable that the chattering classes would find a feast of disagreement about the importance of the climate agreement achieved last weekend in Paris. Was it a breakthrough of historic importance on the existential issue of our age? Or was it a collective whimper from the global community?


Questions like these are especially appealing to my former colleagues in journalism, where a good clean controversy is always better reading than a muddy middle ground. Ben Adler, a Grist blogger whose work I greatly admire, wrote a post-mortem this week that "There's a surprising large range of opinion among progressives, both advocacy groups and elected officials." The blog is headlined, "Green groups are deeply divided on whether the Paris agreement is a win or a loss."

Actually, the range of opinion is not at all surprising. The Paris outcome is a classic case of interpreting the glass as half empty or half full. It is less than many of us hoped and more than we've ever achieved before.

It is without question a historic accomplishment. To bring it down to street level, it can be best appreciated perhaps by those who have belonged to homeowners' associations, where a resident's sovereign property rights come into conflict with the collective good. Expand that scenario to 195 nations challenged to reach consensus on issues so fundamental to their interests despite their diverse politics, economic conditions, and obligations to their people. Think of all those nations working their way through emotional issues of fairness and equity, loss and damage.

The world's least developed nations were asked to agree with its biggest carbon polluters. Some countries at the table owe their wealth to the carbon-rich fuels that must now remain in the ground, yet by signing the agreement they acknowledged in effect that the era of fossil fuels is ending. Delegates to the talks represented democracies, monarchies and communist governments.

The wide cultural spectrum at the conference was visible everywhere with people wearing white dishdashas and black abayas, vividly colorful saris and ponchos, western-style business suits and other attire whose names I do not know or cannot pronounce. If the meeting between the old world and the new was not already obvious, we could see it in the indigenous South Americans wearing traditional feather headdresses who walked by while talking on their cell phones.

Yes, the agreement is weak in many important ways. The carbon-cutting commitments submitted by 186 of the 195 nations fall well short of keeping global warming at adaptable levels. There are insufficient commitments of financial help for poor nations to mitigate and adapt to climate change. There is no mention of fundamental and necessary economic reforms such as eliminating fossil energy subsidies or assigning a price to carbon.

Nevertheless, the product from Paris further marginalizes climate denial, breaks through a 21-year diplomatic impasse, contains unprecedented obligations for rich and poor nations alike, and ranks as the first-ever universal acknowledgement not only that we are all in this pickle together, but also that we must all do something about it, whoever and wherever we are and without much further delay.

We can think of the Paris agreement as a house under construction. It laid the foundation, clarified the architecture, drafted some blueprints and even constructed a few rooms. It is not yet sufficient to protect us from the elements, but in both material and symbolic ways, it makes the considerable amount of remaining work seem possible.

Could it have been much better? Certainly. Would we be better off without it? Absolutely not. So let's stop navel-gazing about whether it was a success or a failure and get on with the work at hand. After all, this house isn't going to build itself.