COP21: How excited/angry should I be?

If you follow Air Alliance Houston, you’re probably also following COP 21, the climate change conference in Paris. Representatives from 195 countries around the world convened to discuss global solutions to the global problem of climate change. There are even representatives from Houston, including our good friends at Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services.

Depending on where you get your news, you may be hearing very different things about COP21. On the one hand, we have President Obama expressing optimism about the conference, going so far as to say about the issue of climate change, “I think we’re going to solve it.”

On the other hand, we have hundreds of people protesting the conference—sometimes violently—as an industry-led sham.

Who to believe?

My own personal view falls somewhere in the middle. Putting this conference into historical context, I think it is unlikely we will see a global solution to climate change any time soon. Perhaps the most famous global accord on climate change ever passed, the Kyoto Protocol, has not lived up to its promise. Passed in 1997, the Kyoto Protocol was never ratified by the United States, which dropped out completely in 2001. The Kyoto Protocol also explicitly exempted developing nations, including China and India. Today, China is the number one global emitter of greenhouse gasses.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has issued periodic reports on the science behind climate change and the need for swift and decisive action. The most recent of these Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports was issued in 2013/2014. Although they continue to bolster the scientific case for climate change, the IPCC reports are increasingly directed at a technical audience and are not doing much to move public opinion on the issue.

So, to make an apt analogy, the planet is moving glacially on this issue. It seems to me that it would be premature to declare any accord reached a “success” while the conference is still going on. Give the process some time to work.

On the other hand, many people have already declared COP21 a failure. Of course, when a group calls for nothing less than a global shift to 100% renewable energy by 2050, can we really expect them to be satisfied with anything that might potentially come from COP21?

Protestors run the gamut from North Dakotans concerned about the impact of fracking to citizens of the Maldives worried that their country will be literally wiped off the map. Is there any solution that would satisfy everyone?

Obviously not. And so, not in possession a global solution myself, I can only offer a few humble, personal thoughts about what I think a good solution would include.

First, while we can’t go as far as the Kyoto Protocol and exempt the entire developing world, we do have to recognize the debt we owe to developing nations. It is unreasonable for a country like the United States, which experienced its industrial revolution in the 19th century when climate change wasn’t a thing, to expect equal commitments from the developing world. The developed nations of the world should make the strongest individual commitments. They should also provide assistance to developing nations to set and meet their own particularized commitments.

Second, we have to manage our expectations. I am a pragmatist, and it seems to me that getting some deal out of COP21 would be better than getting nothing at all. I am not the sort who would attempt to scuttle a deal because it didn’t go far enough. We didn’t create this problem in a short time, or with one decision, and we won’t fix it that way either. No one has a better alternative process than the Conference of Parties (COP), so it seems to me that we should embrace the system and let it work. If the agreement we get out of it is no good, we can tackle that issue when we come to it.

Finally, we need to deal with the climate change impacts that are already coming, as well as the other present-day impacts of the global energy industry. In America, we have to help the fracktivists, the Alaskan natives impacted by melting ice and sea level rise, and everyone in between. It makes sense for these groups to protest COP21, but it doesn’t make since for us to expect 190+ countries to come up with a solution to a problem that is ours alone. It is America’s responsibility to take care of our own people, and by crafting localized solutions to these localized issues, we can take care of our own and demonstrate to the rest of the world that we will continue to be global leaders.

Just as we have a responsibility to help developing nations craft their own climate solutions, we have a responsibility to assist those in the developing world impacted by climate change and global energy production today. Many people believe that the first Climate Refugees can’t be too far off in the future. We should be prepared for them, and today we are not.

Despite this, my attitude remains optimistic. COP21 represents the entire world getting together to work on a global problem. To my mind, that is something to celebrate.