As I was driving home the other night in my carbon dioxide releasing vehicle, I caught the tail-end of an interview on NPR. The speaker was touching upon President Obama and how, at the end of two terms, he wishes to leave a legacy that assures the people he is did everything in his power to protect our planet. Say what you will about Obama, but our President has proven that he understands the devastating effects of global climate change. In a recent interview with The New York Times, the President stated,
“What makes climate change difficult is that it is not an instantaneous catastrophic event. It’s a slow-moving issue that, on a day-to-day basis, people don’t experience and don’t see.”
Anyone who has done research on the issue of climate change can attest to this statement. Climate change is not an “in-your-face” type of issue; it does not bang down your door, screaming and hollering, demanding attention. Not like other issues, such as gun violence or the economic collapse. Climate change awareness on a global basis is a slow process, one that creeps in through the back door, cloaked in mist. Because of this, it often feels as though not enough is being done to stop, or otherwise slow down, the catastrophic effects of global climate change. As an American citizen, I feel the burden of climate change resting heavily upon my shoulders. All American citizens should, because combined with China, the United States is responsible for roughly 40 percent of CO2 emissions on earth.
There is, however, some good news. On Sep. 3, President Obama and China’s President, Xi Jinping, officially conceded to take part in the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference Paris Agreement. The goal of the Paris Agreement is to reduce global climate change and keep the world under 2 degrees Celsius of warming by placing restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions and setting national targets in order to minimize their GHGs. As of Sep. 7, 179 states and the European Union have signed the Agreement, but it is little wonder why China and the United States are the most significant.
While the topic of climate change has been prominent over the last week, there is still uncertainty as to whether all angles of the problems associated with climate change have been adequately examined. One of the issues being brought to the surface is whether environmental leaders are actually thinking up new, innovative solutions to the global climate crisis or whether they are relying on the same old tactics that have yet to solve anything? However, as of right now, things are looking pretty good. 26 countries representing 39 percent of global emissions have officially joined the Agreement. Countries must equal 55 percent of global emissions before the Agreement enters into force, hence the joining United States and China- who make up 38 percent of global emissions- are such a big deal. There isn’t far to go and climate analysts anticipate the Agreement will going into effect by the end of this year.
We mustn’t get our hopes up too high, though. Despite this monumental moment, the 2016 summit gave no indication as to when the Agreement must be finalized, thereby leaving it somewhat in limbo. India, for instance, claimed it would not be ready to concede to the Agreement by the end of 2016 and given the loose deadlines, the country will not be penalized if their statement proves to hold true. This does not mean the Agreement cannot be finalized though; there are ways to finalize the Agreement without India. However, India is still one of the world’s top emitters of GHGs and in order for there to be a significant change on our planet, all major countries must sign the Agreement.
There are reasons why critics are skeptical of the Agreement, mostly because it’s redundant. Leaders of past climate change summits attempted to create top-down climate treaties where countries conceded to reduce their GHGs, but on a very vague basis. Out of these agreements came treaties such as the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, in which first world countries were ordered to reduce their GHGs. Unfortunately, the United States did not participate in this agreement, while other countries, like Canada, agreed to the protocol but paid little to no heed to its laws. In 2009, the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference gave countries the chance to revisit the topic of climate change and agree upon a treaty that would actually reduce worldwide emissions. The conference was disorderly, however, and developed countries, such as China, rejected the agreement.
Why is the Paris Agreement different than other GHG regulation agreements? Because instead of tackling environmental issues using a top-down approach, the Agreement will address issues using a bottom-up approach. What this essentially means is looking at all environmental issues in countries throughout the world and building a system that works for everyone and from which each country can than make decisions. This is quite different than previous top-down agreements which have always focused on the “bigger picture” before honing in on the smaller issues of individual countries. It’s left a lot of leeway in how environmental regulations are approached. A bottom-up agreement will instead work from the “inside out”. Governments will create plans to reduce GHGs based on what they feel is logical for their own country. The Paris Agreement will hold them to a legal outline in order to make sure countries stick to their word.
Even with the United States and China agreeing to sign the Paris Agreement, the fact still remains that in order for these regulations to make a significant impact, all major countries- and smaller ones as well- must agree to play their part in protecting the environment. The Agreement occurs at a time when scientists are telling us that climate change is more serious than ever before and to act now is imperative for the future of this planet. With so many other things going on in this world, it’s easy for environmental issues to fall between the cracks, but it would be wise to remember that without a healthy environment, none of these other global issues will matter since the human species will cease to exist. The empires we’ve built will be for nought and issues we deem critically important right now will disappear in the blink of an eye. The protection of the environment should be at the forefront of all our minds. It’s an “all in or nothing” type of deal.