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The Paris Climate-Change Agreement: Hold the Champagne

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Ban Ki-moon called it “a monumental success for the planet and its people.” Secretary of State Kerry said it was “a tremendous victory for all of our citizens—not for any one country or bloc, but a victory for all of the planet, and for future generations.” And President Obama said it was “a turning point for the world.”

Certainly, the Paris accord gives us something to celebrate—a serious undertaking by virtually every country, rich or poor, to commit to reducing carbon emissions such that our warming planet does not rise another 2 degrees Celsius, and if possible no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. The hope is that the combination of global commitments, technological advances, and business investments will literally turn the tide on climate change.

But of course the devil is in the details, and in the each country’s politics. The Paris agreement raises the usual questions about government pledges: Will countries fulfill their commitments, and what if they don’t? More specifically, can and will governments, especially those of highly industrialized countries, take steps to stop and reverse reliance on coal and other fossil fuels? Will they scratch existing energy and economic growth plans in favor of plans based on renewable energy sources? Will business investments follow suit? What will happen to the economies of oil and gas producing countries, to the Big Oil companies and their multibillion-dollar exploration projects, and to the airline and automobile industries (among many others)?

If politics tells us anything, it is that self-interest, not high-minded rhetoric, will carry the day. In the US, Republican climate deniers and their corporate-controlled allies in Congress will be going all-out to prevent funding of the Paris agreement. They will be joined by critics who say they believe in climate change but don’t like the details of the agreement: the absence of a common way to measure national commitments on carbon emissions; the obligation of developed countries to help fund developing-country carbon-reducing programs; and the fact that the Paris deal doesn’t really take effect until 2020.

You thought the battle over the Iran nuclear deal was a tough slog for Obama? (Remember that plenty of Democrats didn’t like the details of that deal either.) Wait ‘til you see this one over climate-change policy. Now we know just how crucial is the 2016 election, because plenty of climate deniers who are running for election or reelection can make the difference between sense and nonsense when the votes are counted on the environment.

Domestic politics will be no less determining everywhere else. Fossil fuel-based energy ministries and lobbies are not going to give up without a fight, whether in China, Russia, or Saudi Arabia. Auto industrialists in Germany and Sweden may not readily accept switching assembly lines to hybrids and battery-powered vehicles. Nuclear power advocates in Japan, France, China, and South Korea will demand top priority for their “clean, cheap” electricity. If all these naysayers have their way, we won’t have a ghost of a chance to fulfill the wonderful objectives of the Paris agreement.

In sum, I think Justin Gillis, writing in the New York Times, said it best: “The deal, in short, begins to move the countries of the world in a shared direction that is potentially compatible with maintaining a livable planet over the long term.” The operative words are begins to move and potentially compatible. You and I won’t be around to actually witness whether or not Paris accomplishes its goals, though if Bill McKibben is correct, we’re already 20 years too late. All we can do now is try to spur truly bold action—with our votes and direct action—as well as make personal efforts to reduce our carbon footprint.

Speaking of votes (and election contributions), my friend Dr. Larry Kirsch has put together a short list of upcoming US Senate races that give Democrats an opportunity to ride the crest of the Paris agreement and take the fight to climate-change deniers. Here’s his list:

Alaska: Lisa Murkowski, chair of the Senate Energy Committee and therefore in a strong position to put the kibosh on good climate policy, versus Mark Begich, who may be the Democratic challenger and is outspoken about climate change.

Wisconsin: Ron Johnson, climate denier, versus Russ Feingold, who is excellent on climate.

Pennsylvania: Pat Toomey, a climate skeptic and strong advocate for carbon production, versus Katie McGinty (who has a strong environmental record) but is opposed for the Democratic nomination by Joe Sestak.

Illinois: Mark Kirk, climate denier (as of Jan. 2015), versus Tammy Duckworth or Andrea Zopp.

Missouri: Roy Blunt, consistent opponent of sound climate policy, versus Jason Kander, who is very strong on climate issues and an exciting candidate.

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Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.

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