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.
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.)