Gushes of praise have poured over the Paris climate accord. Speaking for the world’s political elite, President Barack Obama asserted that it shows “what’s possible when the world stands as one.” Speaking for everyday men and women, Paris street performers celebrated the accomplishment with the drama and costuming for which they are justly famous. The media overflowed with superlatives. New York Magazine identified the agreement as “Obama’s biggest accomplishment.” The New York Times labeled it a “big, big deal.” The Guardian went still further, declaring it “the world’s greatest diplomatic success.”
A reading the agreement suggests, however, that all this goes well over the top. To be sure, any agreement looks remarkable against the frustrations of the past. But aside from that singular achievement, the accord can claim little that will combat climate change. It leaves any call action begging, demanding nothing of the signatories or even outlining what they might do. Quite the contrary, it exhibits a remarkable lack of commitment and a keen eagerness to finesse and postpone hard decisions. It is, in fact, a commitment to avoid commitment. If the fight against climate change depends on what has come out of Paris, people had better hope that the skeptics are right.
The text is entirely aspirational. It sets a goal to keep average world temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial averages, maybe only 1.5 degrees. But a planet in urgent need would seem to require something more. Yet, the accord neither tells the world how it might cool things down nor does it bind any signatory to anything more than a vague promise to try really hard to find ways to reduce carbon emissions, emphasize renewables, and otherwise contain greenhouse gas emissions. It fails even to spur that weak effort on by refusing to impose any penalty on those who fail to do their part, which in any case it has not defined.
There are plans for firmer commitments at a later date. But these will wait five years at least, and the record of Paris offers little hope of anything stronger then either. To be fair, binding provisions were never likely. President Obama knew that anything definite would have turned the agreement into a treaty, and he could never have pushed that through the Senate. China, India, and other developing nations have always refused to promise definite actions, claiming that their first obligation is to the alleviation of poverty. India, in the past and in Paris, pointed out that it can hardly be expected to cut back when the developed nations enjoyed the freedom to emit while they amassed their current levels of wealth and income. It and other developing nations might have yielded, if offered assistance, but the suggestion that rich nations transfer $100 billion a year to help developing nations with their efforts hardly tempted when it, too, was made entirely voluntary. (It is probably just as well, since such monies, if they really were to move, would do more to enhance the military capabilities of the recipient nations or raise London real estate prices than to cut greenhouse gas emissions.)
Without binding the signatories to action, the effort in Paris does nothing more than let them look like good global citizens while carrying on with their domestic agendas, regardless of their impact on the environment. India and China, even after signing, still plan to build new coal-fired power stations at a rapid clip. None of this is to say, of course, that the next few years will fail to see progress on the climate change front. China, for instance, will almost surely take steps to control pollution and so also greenhouse gases, but for public health reasons not because of anything that happened in Paris or “to stand as one” with the other nations of the world. The Environmental Protection Agency in the United States and equivalent bodies in Europe, Japan, Canada, and Australia will continue their efforts to encourage the use of alternatives and otherwise cut back on the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere or at least slow its growth. But these efforts, too, would have taken place without the show in Paris.
To the practical man or woman, the diplomats in Paris look like nothing so much as college seniors promising each other to avoid the sins of past generations and seek fame and fortune by making the world a better place. None of those students ever bothers to outline exactly how he or she will achieve what eluded past generations. None promise to make amends should they fail. Still, it is encouraging to all that young people have such noble goals. Everyday men and women, when they hear about such vows, remember their own youthful ideals, and that warms them. The media gives such aspirations honorable mention, while the political class takes credit for having instilled such desires in the nation’s youth. Perhaps that is what all the hoopla over Paris is about.