So near and yet so far?

by Mayank Vikas

In Detour de France: An Englishman in Search of a Continental Education, Michael Simkins famously wrote that “Paris is a place in which we can forget ourselves, reinvent, expunge the dead weight of our past.” For the last two weeks, diplomats and world leaders from over 190 countries met in Paris precisely to reinvent and expunge, working diligently to reach agreement on a comprehensive, global plan to respond to climate change. These leaders hope that the agreement — adopted earlier today — will help humankind move away from fossil fuels, reinvent our energy economy as a green one based on renewable resources, and usher in a sustainable new world for generations yet to come. Even as the Paris Agreement is being finalized, however, environmentalists are split on the verdict. While some have welcomed the momentum towards a green economy, others have said the deal offers ‘too little, too late’.

Eight students and two faculty members served as University of Michigan’s official observer delegation to the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The student delegation included myself; Nicole Ryan, a dual-degree master’s student in mechanical engineering and SNRE; Benjamin Morse, a dual degree student at the Ford School of Public Policy and SNRE; Lizz Ultee, a Ph.D, candidate in Climate & Space Sciences; Brian La Shier, an Environmental Policy student at SNRE; Matt Bishop, an MPP candidate at the Ford School; Roxana Galusca, a Masters student at the School of Information; and Matt Irish, an undergrad senior at Climate & Space Sciences. The delegation also comprised Avik Basu, who teaches at SNRE, and Paul N. Edwards of the School of Information.

Paul believes that we might already be late in combating the effects of climate change. He said, “Global warming is a catastrophe unfolding in slow motion, with the potential to drastically disrupt human societies, destroy economic progress, and play havoc with natural systems upon which all life depends. We are the proverbial frogs in the pot that’s slowly coming to a boil. It’s been over 35 years since scientists began warning us about the long-term consequences of unrestricted fossil fuel use. During that time, most of the world’s nations delayed taking real action on climate change. It is already too late to stop some consequences of climate change, but we still have a narrow window of time in which we could avert truly catastrophic warming.”

Brian wanted to attend COP21 to study the treaty negotiation process and international relations first-hand, and to be able to hear the perspectives of other attendees working on environmental issues, and learn as much as possible about potential solutions to climate change impacts. One thing that surprised him was how clued in people from the rest of the world were about American politics. He said, “I learned that actions taken at home can carry weight abroad.  For instance, I had multiple French citizens ask me (out of concern) about a certain Republican primary frontrunner winning the election and how that might affect U.S. environmental policy and the agreement expected from the COP.  There is a surprising amount of attention paid to U.S. politics and policy, which shapes how the country is perceived on the world stage.”

Paul also attended the infamous fifteenth COP, held in Copenhagen in 2009, as part of the first University of Michigan delegation. He recalls, “That was a moment when it seemed that world leaders might unite, for the first time, behind a binding pledge to stop climate change. Now, six years later, another such moment has finally arrived. COP-21 reached the first-ever truly serious agreement to attack the problem on the global scale. The agreement isn’t enough; it stopped far short of what’s really needed. But even an agreement that is merely good, not great, will provide a huge boost to the tens of thousands of initiatives already underway in cities, states, regions, and nations all over the world. And it will send a signal to energy markets that the door is starting to close, once and for all, on fossil fuels.”

For Lizz, working on climate issues is almost her life’s mission, and attending COP was a great opportunity. She considers attending COP21 an ‘eye-opening’ experience that allowed her to explore the justice implications of scientific work more fully, and gave her insight into the related work of thousands of people worldwide. She said, “I feel it is important to dedicate my life’s work to something of human consequence, and climate science certainly fits that bill. My research focuses on modeling glaciers as they ‘calve’ icebergs into the ocean. We hope to use this work to clarify how much sea levels are likely to rise in this century.  Over the past few years, studying glaciology, I’ve found it impossible to ignore the differential impacts of climate change and the associated justice implications of climate policy. That is, many effects of climate change will be most severe for those already poor or marginalized. Major sea level rise, for example, threatens to swallow the homes of millions of Bangladeshis, Pacific Islanders, and others — who themselves contributed very little to the change in climate. That strikes me as seriously unjust.”

I myself am cautiously optimistic about the Paris Agreement, but I do not share the bonhomie being displayed by many others. The text of the agreement has accommodated some key demands of various human rights groups, which is an encouraging sign. For example, the preamble recognizes the rights of indigenous peoples and climate migrants, and enshrines the concept of intergenerational equity. It is also encouraging to see biodiversity being considered, as “Mother Earth” has been explicitly included in the text. Although these rights are not mentioned in the substantive part of the agreement, their recognition is a positive first step.

However, the text is not perfect and will need major revisions, in the future, to achieve its goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. It is ironic that an agreement that seeks to combat climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions does not even name fossil fuels, coal, oil or the shipping and aviation industries. Even the aspirational 1.5 degree warming limit appears to be a mirage, given that without more ambitious emission cuts, we are headed towards global warming of 3 degrees or more.


Mayank Vikas is a second year Masters student at the School of Natural Resources and Environment and was a part of the UM delegation to COP21.

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