A Moment of Hope on the Climate

Republican politics especially the party’s growing separation from science-based reality remain a major obstacle to a global consensus on climate change, but the Paris agreement shows that the world is capable of overcoming these “climate deniers,” as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar describes.

By Paul R. Pillar

The principal significance of the Paris agreement on retarding climate change is its universality: the concurrence of all the nations in the world regarding the need for action to slow and then reverse the man-made heating of the planet.

Continued differences of view based on differences of economic and developmental status have taken a back seat, more than they ever have before, to enlistment in the common cause to protect the planet’s livability. The agreement will function as a bright reference point affirming not only that the fact of man-made climate change is undeniable but also that the importance of doing something about it is undeniable as well.

Image of Planet Earth taken from Apollo 17

Image of Planet Earth taken from Apollo 17

The credit for an achievement with worldwide buy-in must be shared very broadly, but several credit-worthy contributions stand out. One is that of France, the host of the conference, and its political leaders and diplomats. At a time when that country could have been dwelling on the recent terrorist attacks in its capital, it instead responded with focus and skill to produce an achievement in the finest tradition of French diplomacy.

Another pre-conference development of major importance was the redirection of climate policy of China, the world’s single biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, under Xi Jinping, especially as reflected in China’s accord with the United States on curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

Another major contribution was that of the President of the United States, the country that is the second-biggest emitter of CO2. Barack Obama’s leadership on the issue has contrasted starkly with the all-too-prevalent tendency among politicians in his own country to exploit whatever polls show to be scaring people at the moment.

Or as Washington Post reporter Steven Mufson aptly put it, the Paris conference “owed much of its success to the willingness of the U.S. president to take on both congressional Republicans and fossil-fuel-industry executives on an issue that consistently ranks among the lowest priorities for American voters.”

The Paris agreement is still essentially an exhortation, however universal the exhorting has been. And the exhortation is about not only the need to do something now but to do even better in the future. The agreement itself recognizes that current pledges to curb emissions would be insufficient even if all the pledges were completely implemented. Such implementation would not be enough to meet the frequently cited goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees centigrade, let alone the more ambitious aspirational goal adopted in Paris of 1.5 degrees.

So the hard part is just beginning. That does not mean technically or even economically hard; rescuing the planet does not need to be either. It is politically hard, given the extent to which politics rest on attitudes that are selfish and/or short-sighted. Accomplishing the needed political task requires the simultaneous use of several strategies.

One is naming and shaming. Much of the Paris agreement implicitly rests on this approach at the international level, with its provisions for periodically accounting for how well or how poorly each country is doing in reducing harmful emissions.

But naming and shaming also ought to extend to how the issue is handled in domestic politics, and certainly in the United States. Anticipation of the response of the Republican-controlled Senate was the main reason the Paris agreement was structured as an extension of an existing international convention on climate change rather than as a new treaty. Opposition within the United States to action on climate change now, post-Paris, sticks out like a sore thumb even more than it did before.

The Republican presidential candidates either deny the science of climate change or come up with excuses for not taking governmental action on the subject. This pattern is both damaging and an embarrassment, and those who sustain the pattern ought to be made to feel even more embarrassed.

To oppose necessary action to reduce global warming because of some immediate pecuniary interests is irresponsible. To deny scientifically-based reality is a pre-Enlightenment attitude that would look less out of place in the Middle Ages than in the Twenty-first Century. Outrage is an appropriate reaction to the first. Ridicule may be one of a number of appropriate reactions to the second.

And any politician who likes to talk about the need for U.S. leadership should be forced to explain in the same terms any resistance to the consensus demonstrated in Paris, resistance that is the antonym of leadership.

Another element of political strategy should be persistent education on how economic and environmental well-being are not mutually exclusive alternatives but instead go together. This is true on a large scale, in that many of the economic implications of a significantly warmer planet are devastating.

It also is true at a smaller scale, at the level of jobs and of path-breaking industries that are engines of prosperity and growth of national economies. With the right stimulus and nudge from government, the market and technology in the private sector respond, and they can respond in growth-inducing and job-creating ways. We already have seen some of this with advances in renewable energy sources.

Economic growth and development always have been a matter of creative deconstruction, in which newer industries and technologies supplant older ones. This process at times can be painful at the micro level but unquestionably has been for the greater good.

Writing this article on a computer rather than a manual typewriter reflects advances that are widely accepted as very much to the general economic benefit, even though there must have been, somewhere and at some time, workers laid off at a typewriter factory. People whose lives revolve around their cell phones don’t think twice about the people at Western Electric who made land-line dial telephones.

There is no reason the process of beneficial construction and deconstruction should stop at the fossil fuel industry, even if the environmental consequences were not so great.

Given that short-sighted attitudes are bound to continue, another part of the political strategy should be to link immediate happenings that are more visible to the longer-term and less immediately visible process of global climate change. Care needs to be exercised in doing so, to preserve the distinction between weather and climate and to avoid the silliness of climate-change-denying politicians who try to make a political point out of every winter cold snap and start tossing snowballs inside the Capitol.

But the longer-term warming effects have gone on long enough that there is no shortage of more meaningful and immediately visible symptoms to point to, from increased flooding of low-lying coastal cities to the devastation of forests by northward-moving destructive insects.

The climate change issue also can be linked effectively to prominent phenomena that are not strictly speaking symptoms of climate change itself. In China, the regime has been able to gain support for action on climate change party through public disgust and despair over the horrid air pollution in Chinese cities.

Pollution with airborne particulates in particular localities is actually a different problem from the global warming effects of greenhouse gas emissions, but the two issues have become linked in much of the public mind. They both do involve human activity damaging the atmosphere. And in this case some of the same activity contributes to both problems.

Demands to reduce use of coal-fired power plants, as a response to urban air pollution, also improves the political atmosphere for a step necessary to curb CO2 emissions. Some of the same linkage may be politically useful in India, where the capital of New Delhi has been giving Chinese cities stiff competition for the distinction of having the most unbreathable air and where the future of a coal-powered economy is one the biggest question marks about meeting emission goals.

The Paris agreement is a landmark in defining one of the most important interests mankind has ever defined. Successfully acting on behalf of that interest will require sustained and vigorous political efforts, worldwide but certainly in the United States.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

12 comments for “A Moment of Hope on the Climate

  1. Anton
    December 20, 2015 at 17:25

    Which scientific evidence that the Republican candidates supposedly deny is the author referring to? That the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is a mere 0.038%? Or that there is yet to be a scientific experiment that can prove CO2 is actually warming the air? Or that there were times in the earth’s history with warmer temperatures but LOWER CO2 and times with colder temperatures but MORE CO2? If CO2 were to warm air then shouldn’t it be the same temperature at night, as the amount of co2 surely does not become less in darkness? And how exactly can CO2 “scientifically” warm anything? It would have to carry energy in itself. In order for any gas to heat up something energy has to be transferred to the matter that is heated by that gas. But CO2 is produced for example by the burning of fuel. Hence it is a product OF a chemical reaction, it is not a catalyst FOR a chemical reaction. So energy has already been used up in this chemical reaction in order to produce this CO2 which is then blamed to produce even more energy to heat up something else. I am no expert but this seems to be a “scientific” impossibility. Or maybe I have just not yet seen the “scientific evidence”.

  2. Zachary Smith
    December 17, 2015 at 23:35

    It looks like former NASA scientist James Hansen was on to something when he called the Paris climate agreement, known as COP21, a bullshit PR exercise. The lack of enforcement mechanisms for emission targets is already proving to be problematic.

    On Monday, just days after India and over 190 other countries signed the Paris agreement, a senior official in the India Coal Ministry named Anil Swarup revealed that India plans to double coal output by 2020 and plans to use coal for decades into the future. Coal is one of the dirtiest carbon emitting energy sources and diminishing its use was a major goal of the Paris agreement.


    It’s like passing a law setting speed limits, but announcing at the same time that the new limits are “voluntary”.

    From a current google news story:

    The scientists found that from 1900 to 1983, the Greenland ice sheet lost about 6,233 gigatonnes of mass. Then from 1983 to 2003, the sheet lost about 1,475 gigatonnes. And from 2003 to 2010, the ice sheet lost 1,305 gigatonnes.

    The phrase “speeding up” applies with a vengeance. And it’s going to get worse – fast. Just look up reports about how the methane in the far north is becoming free at accelerating rates. For those who didn’t already know, methane is a greenhouse gas which is more than 25 times as ‘active’ as carbon dioxide. Yeah, the methane has a “half life” of only 7 years, but it’s a potential ‘runaway’ process because during that brief time the warming effect melts even more permafrost and liberates even more frozen methane from the oceans. People living on seacoasts need to be reviewing their “refugee” planning.

    Hell on earth is probably going to happen even sooner than I’d imagined in my worst nightmares.

  3. Lolita
    December 15, 2015 at 15:51

    “…but the Paris agreement shows that the world is capable of overcoming these “climate deniers,” as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar describes.”

    I cannot believe someone as careful with wording as Robert Parry would let this kind of nonsensical prose print on Consortium News. What is a “climate denier”? Literally, someone who denies the climate. Has there been on Earth any human educated of not who would ever deny the climate? Of course not, never and never will.
    Insult is no policy. But when it doubles with ignorance, it is self defeating.

    • Mortimer
      December 15, 2015 at 19:52

      Grand promises of Paris climate deal undermined by squalid retrenchments

      George Monbiot
      13 December 2015

      Until governments undertake to keep fossil fuels in the ground, they will continue to undermine agreement they have just made

      By comparison to what it could have been, it’s a miracle. By comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster.


    • David Smith
      December 16, 2015 at 15:44

      What took you so long, Lolita? Here in Toronto, nine days before Christmas I have the windows open with the heat off, it is raining outside. Just five years ago I would have needed a winter coat before October, and snow began in November, not to melt till April. So what happened? Al Gore must be very busy with his propane torch. I do not need a climate scientist to tell me global warming is not a hoax.

  4. December 15, 2015 at 15:38

    Welcome to Planet Hell the next generation around. For the Climate Change Agreement will do nothing in reality, as there is a far greater force in the world destroying it, other than saving it. A force that can never be beat other than by the eventual death of our planet.

    ‘The Destroyer of Worlds…the present Globalization ‘model’ – http://worldinnovationfoundation.blogspot.co.uk/2014/10/the-destroyer-of-worldscapitalism-and.html

    Until the sheer greed of the few and the insane thinking of our political elite changes to sustainability, planet Earth is literally destined to its own destruction, no matter how many climate conference the world has. Strange although this is fact and not fiction, things just get far worse by the decade. Are we really an intelligent species, it has to be asked. Apparently not based on all known parameters of common-sense and intelligent reasoning!

    And what about the EU’s double talk? So much for the EU’s hypocrisy and transparency, just look at what they really say behind closed doors about the Climate Change Agreement that the EU has signed up to through EU28.

    “Leaked TTIP Document shows EU hypocrisy at COP21” – http://www.sinnfein.ie/contents/37656

    Who would believe the EU, apparently a great deal of people who take what the EU says at face value.

    The US is not that good either and look what the House of Representatives think about COP21 and trade deals, that create huge global pollution through industrial activity.
    ‘House backs bill to exclude climate change from trade deals’ – http://wtop.com/politics/2015/12/house-backs-bill-to-bar-climate-change-from-trade-deals/

    Or Japan for that matter, ‘ Japan will not sacrifice growth in combating climate change: Abe’ – http://asia.nikkei.com/Politics-Economy/Economy/Japan-will-not-sacrifice-growth-in-combating-climate-change-Abe

    Basically COP21 is a load of useless hot air and where the world’s people are being totally conned by their politicians and the ‘Global 2000’ corporations.

  5. December 15, 2015 at 13:20

    given the bellicose atmosphere created by “the powers that be” which rule the talking heads in washington, can we really afford to divert our attention. obscure bureaucrats in key positions are the ones writing our history, by narrating our present. such as evelyn farkas, who wrote “Russia’s challenge is so fundamental to the international system, to democracy and free market capitalism that we cannot allow the Kremlin’s policy to succeed in Syria or elsewhere.” it has no basis in reality, yet it is a statement which could be cited by those who decide policy, in promoting a bellicose politics.
    let us focus on identifying who is being appointed to these key positions which give the crazies an opportunity to make their narrative official.
    leave climate change aside until we can guarantee their will be future humans to worry about.

  6. David Smith
    December 15, 2015 at 13:02

    At a slaughterhouse they use something they call a Judas Goat.

  7. Zachary Smith
    December 15, 2015 at 11:57

    I’d like to point out to Mr. Pillar the comments of James Hansen.

    A leading climate scientist has denounced the Paris climate change agreement as a “fraud” – saying there is “no action, just promises”.

    Professor James Hansen – credited as being the “father of climate change awareness” – told the Guardian the talks that culminated in a deal on Saturday were just “worthless words”.

    Speaking as the final draft of the deal was published on Saturday afternoon, he said: “It’s just b******t for them to say: ‘We’ll have a 2C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.’ It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises.

    “As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned.”


    I agree with Mr. Hansen, and regret to add that Obama’s “leadership” is as worthless on climate as it is on everything else.

    • Bart
      December 15, 2015 at 22:17

      Hansen wants to build a whole lot of nuclear reactors.

      • Zachary Smith
        December 17, 2015 at 09:47

        Hansen is a good climate scientist. That he has a blind spot or is many years out of date regarding energy sources – for that I can forgive him.

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