It’s been interesting to see the different responses to the Paris agreement. James Hansen calls it a fraud (Richard Erskine thinks he’s wrong). Kevin Anderson is a bit more measured. Others are more positive and optimistic.

I find myself sympathysing with most of the views, both positive and negative, but leaning more towards thinking this is a positive step, at the moment at least. One obvious problem is that the agreement makes strong statements about limiting warming to well below 2oC, or possibly even 1.5oC. However, doing so would require getting net emissions to zero very soon, or relying on negative emissions sometime in the future, even though such technology is as yet largely undeveloped and may be potentially risky. Yet, there is little concrete discussion as to how we would do so, and little sense that we will see emission reductions in the immediate future. So, I can see why some are rather negative.

On the other hand, getting so many nations to actually sign up to such an agreement, and to endorse such strong statements, is quite impressive. It may not be as much as many would have liked, but it’s more than some were expecting. Scientists may have a strong sense of what is required to achieve the stated targets, but that doesn’t mean that it’s easy to convince everyone, or that it would be easy to achieve even if people did agree. Societal/political reality requires more compromise than scientists may be used to when discussing scientific issues. Just reaching agreement is a form of progress in itself.

Of course, we should probably have reached this kind of agreement 10 or 20 years ago. However, as all scientists should know, we can’t go back in time. That this agreement might, according to some, be 10 or 20 years too late, doesn’t really change that it is probably a positive step, given where we are now. It may still not be enough, and we may well regret not having done more, but I doubt any amount of gnashing and wailing will change anything. We have to start somewhere, and that so many nations have endorsed such a strongly worded agreement at least suggests that they recognise the issue, even if they haven’t really provided a clear way in which to achieve the targets. Even if it all seems a bit too slow, I probably agree with Joe Romm who says

Change happens slow, until it happens fast.

I hope he’s right, though, that we have indeed entered the fast phase.

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20 Responses to Pragmatism

  1. Magma says:

    My own view is that the Paris Agreement is very optimistic and unlikely to hit its target, long on aspiration and short on detail, says many of the right things but is toothless, and is still a hell of a lot better than any of the politically feasible alternatives on offer. When under current UN rules even a single holdout could scuttle an accord, you take what you can get. As the saying goes, perfect is the enemy of good.

    (I agree with Hansen and his support for a simple carbon tax. His suggestion about collecting duties on imported goods from non-carbon-taxing countries of origin is a sensible one, though current trade agreements and treaties might make that difficult unless amended.)

  2. Magma,
    I agree about the carbon tax issue too. It seems like an obvious step and it’s hard to see how alternatives can be competitive if we aren’t properly pricing carbon emissions.

  3. snarkrates says:

    Compare Paris with Copenhagen and tell me with a straight face that there’s no progress.

  4. A lot of the comments on social media criticise the treaty based on its lack of detail. I think that misses the point. The French were determined to get to as-small-as-possible document, yet with sufficient detail to establish a diplomatic way forward. As the leader on the Financial Times said today …

    “Paris is not the end of the matter. It is not even the beginning of the end. … The treaty does however provide a foundation for international cooperation…”

    To specify, for example, the mechanisms required to deliver an equitable (non regressive) carbon tax which Hansen is a strong advocate for would have meant a much bigger document with almost zero chance of agreement. Pragmatism in this case recognises that a carbon tax is emerging in countries like China, companies like Google, etc., that may get us to a global price.

    I think it is not so much the pragmatism or otherwise of the ‘ambition’, but of the expectations of the COP meetings themselves.

    It’s now the turn of national Governments; the investors in trillions of dollars (who say they will put pressure on Boards of the 80 companies responsible for over 50% of emissions); City mayors; you and me.

  5. numerobis says:

    The angry responses to Paris remind me of Voltaire’s “le mieux est l’ennemi du bien.”

    Up until now, officially, there was debate about whether to do anything about global warming. Kyoto said yes, but only among rich countries and with a modest goal. Rich countries used that to argue against fulfilling their promises.

    Now there’s universal agreement on decarbonization. This is actually quite powerful. International law actually affects the behaviour of diplomats and politicians. Now countries at least have to be *embarrassed* about violating their promises — and politicians tend not to like have to be embarrassed.

  6. anoilman says:

    I think you need to aim for the best you can do, and hope you get there. You’ll still be better off that if you don’t do anything.

    I think Andy’s article here explains where I’m coming from;

    The sooner we start, the easier it is.

  7. There might be no real detail or anything binding in the agreement but I sense a new seriousness. Take for instance this article in ‘The Economist’. Suddenly, people seem to have ‘got it’: not so much the authors, but I can’t imagine such articles appearing in this magazine a year ago. Let’s hope we’ve seen the end of ‘false balance’.

  8. John Paul says:

    i seriously have no idea how anyone can feel optimistic about COP 15 given our political climate.

  9. anoilman says:

    John Paul: Some days are harder than others. The real question is whether we’ve hit peak denial…

  10. COP21 also makes me wonder whether we have hit peak denial -in the sense that the WUWT variety will become more and more a fringe phenomenon. It seems to me that COP21 is a big win in the propaganda war, because it extends the social/political legitimacy of AGW.

    For example, the far-right faction of the Australian governing party is having conniptions, because they see the issue in terms of a culture war. But it is pretty noteworthy that the Aus minister for the environment, who a year ago was as hostile to climate science as any conservative politician, is now singing the environmental tune.

    I think the reason for the change is pretty straight forward. He can now say he’s on the right side of this historic issue -he can look like a hero -and the vagueness of the agreement lets him get this privilege virtually without giving anything away. He’s even announced that Australia will ‘easily’ hit its decarbonisation targets for 2020 and 2030…which is absolute rubbish.

    This is the tactical gift of COP21 which the right wing nuts can’t understand: you don’t need to argue against basic science, when you can instead just have ineffective actual policies, while announcing that you are fighting the good fight alongside the rest of the world’s leaders.

  11. BBC mood change? … Try this … Yesterday, Jeremy Vine BBC Radio 2 programme (which starts with an interview of an expert, followed by phone in comments) did a segment on how fast UK consumers can get off domestic gas. That’s is … talking about one of the 1000s of actions we need to get our heads around. This was followed by what felt like an interview with two shetland ponies! Where was the GWPF? Don’t tell me the BBC has got the message on ‘false balance’, or maybe they now feel emboldened post COP21 to talk about ‘climate action’ and move on from the now settled “debate” of ‘if / if not’ we have a problem.

  12. Richard,
    Don’t worry, Andrew Montford was on the BBC yesterday too. The false balance is still there.

  13. Not disguised as a Pantomime horse by any chance? Not expecting outliers like AM to shut up; just to get more desperate. But like their almost empty room in Paris, they will continue to look marginal and increasingly irrelevant.

  14. Michael 2 says:

    “getting so many nations to actually sign up to such an agreement”

    Well, some delegates to be more precise. John Kerry is hardly a nation all by himself.

  15. Delegates empowered to represent their nations, and hence ‘nations’ is an appropriate shorthand. As in any treaty that has ever been agreed. Or should be bus 7 billion people to the meeting!

  16. anoilman says:

    Bill McKibben said, “They said 1.5, and we’ll damn well hold them to it!”

    An import point here is that its easy to be complacent and say “we’ll finally get what we want”. Don’t be complacent. We have to hold our representatives to their agreements, and this is not going to be easy.

    FYI, I’m actually more of a pessimist myself…

  17. Marlowe Johnson says:

    you win the internet for the day with that one oilman. well done sir.

  18. Pete Best says:

    Surely the negative emissions option could be taken mean anything really. If they are saying they require negative emissions technologies from CCS to planting trees and better land management then I can only see a bit of a political future. Don’t think its going to be easy going or indeed emissions will start plummeting quickly any time soon. Its going to be a hard slog and not one we might all expect or hope for.

  19. Oilman, thanks for the pictures. I agree that graph says all we need to know. But despair and apathy are lazy and a waste of time.

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