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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


March-April 2017

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Editorial - Putting the Paris Agreement to the Test

The Paris Agreement is a vulnerable triumph. Enabling all of the nations of the human family to agree to a long and complicated document involved diplomacy and negotiation of arduous bargaining and clever shepherding. Inevitably, the outcome was imperfect and manipulable. It is tempting to be curmudgeonly and to emphasize its weaknesses. We publish here two articles, by Steven Herz and Matthew Bach, who examine two aspects of the Paris Agreement from some of the danger areas. Herz assesses the scope for a more combative diplomacy where foreign policy and climate policy snuggle together more than heretofore. Bach looks at the commonly presumed “enemies” of the agreement, in the form of the oil and gas corporations, to enable him to judge the scope for them to play the Paris ball. Both admit that their commentaries are challengeable. Both authors persist with bravery and conviction in their overall belief that the Paris framework will steer the antagonists onto a common path that will ultimately vindicate the Paris vision.

Herz singles out three tests for Paris: committed participation, progressively achievable targets, and shared incentive and penalty. It is worth noting that he writes in advance of the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States. Trump has in his hands the scope for undermining or enhancing the first of the Herz tests. In a previous issue (Environment, Volume 58, Number 5, pp. 4–22), we published the impressive analysis of Riley Dunlap and his colleagues of the widening partisan division in the U.S. public, mirrored in Congress, between committers and unwilling bystanders. Thus, the Trump Presidency will surely test Paris to the full. It will also put to the fire Herz's second and third markers. These are the reliance on the quinquennial stocktake for increasing the nationally intended reductions of emissions, and the willingness to encourage the laggards through diplomatic deals and trade-offs.

It will be a while before we know for sure how the Trump Administration will play Paris. But if the three elements of the Herz tests are combined in a devilish embrace then Paris will certainly be challenged. The first examination of shared commitment is probably the most critical. The Paris Agreement entered into legal force on November 4, 2016. This is because the thresholds of the number of ratifying countries (50) with 55% of emissions in their total counts were met. If the rest of the Paris signatories ratify and hence coordinate their inducements for the new U.S. administration to hold the line, that will be a huge indicator of the diplomatic and political strength of Paris.

The linking element between the Herz and Bach essays lies in climate diplomacy. Here is another test for the new administration. President Trump has nominated Rex Tillerson, a former chief executive officer (CEO) of Exxon-Mobil, a corporation with a formidable antagonistic track record for bashing climate change science, as his Secretary of State and hence his key diplomat. Bach is at pains to show that there may be hope for the oil and gas industries to realize that their long-term profitability, in a Paris-committed world, lies in a non-carbon future. Yet again the Trump Presidency holds the keys. If Tillerson remains loyal to his fossil fuel corporate pedigree, then the chances of his cadre of diplomats leading the Herz charge on incentives and conditional deals over reductions pathways are slim indeed. But Tillerson is already revealing a pragmatic streak over climate change causation so there is still much to hope for.

There is no necessary reason to be gloomy. The ultimate test of Paris lies in its global solidarity. If this is genuinely strong, backed as it is by the evidence of science and costly weather events, then there is a good chance of the progressive success of Paris along the lines mooted by these two authors. China and India are linking fossil fuel reduction to improvements of urban air pollution, because they rightly note the impending huge public health dangers, especially for the next two generations who are filling their youthful lungs with toxins minute by minute, as being ultimately threatening to their democracies. The smart enterprise economies are beginning to realize that in the next generation of the microchip lies a plethora of energy-saving and carbon-removing technologies that can embrace minds and actions across the globe. None of this will be lost on Trump. How the others work with him and how he fares with them will reveal the underlying strength of the Paris Agreement.

This magazine wishes to be the voice of sustainability science. Making Paris work is ultimately the showcase of this fresh way of analyzing and believing. At its heart is the moral revelation that we all hold in our hands the scope for creating a future for our offspring. We can only be proud of such an achievement when we have been party to shaping it along with our young people. Putting the Paris Agreement to the test is putting all of us to the test.       

—Tim O'Riordan and Alan McGowan

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