President Barack Obama and leaders from nearly every country are in Paris today to begin international climate talks that are widely expected to produce an agreement to cut global greenhouse gas emissions. Such an agreement will represent a huge step forward in the race to avert a climate crisis, even if the race will not have yet been won.
The insufficiencies of what's being discussed are clear. The agreement is likely to be composed of voluntary pledges by each country, not a legally binding treaty. And the pledges countries have been making in the run-up to the talks fall short of cutting enough greenhouse gas to limit the rise in global temperature to the scientist-recommended amount of 2°C.
Nevertheless, the pledged actions beat inaction. As CNBC reports, "the climate change damages that would result from the 2.7 to 3.7 degrees Celsius of warming these initial cuts would provide, while severe, are still much lower than would result from the 4 to 6 degrees Celsius of warming expected without them."
And no one expects that targets to emerge out of the Paris talks will be etched in stone. The Wall Street Journal explains, "The U.S., Europe and other countries want the Paris accord to require countries to renew their emissions targets every five years or so, helping shift the world toward the 2-degree goal over time."
In effect, what Paris hopes to achieve is an initial framework of global action: a game plan that can start to be executed, and improved over time.
Demanding a legally binding treaty has known pitfalls. Recall that the last time we tried that, the 1998 Kyoto Treaty, President Bill Clinton didn't even bother with sending the treaty to the Senate for ratification. So certain he was that the Senate would overwhelmingly reject it, he kept it on the shelf.
Obama is looking to avoid that embarrassment and keep the Senate Republicans out of the deal. His Environmental Protection Agency has already circumvented Congress and created the climate regulations that help Obama meet his pledge, giving him leverage at this week's negotiation.
Pressuring other countries too hard to cut substantially more emissions also presents a political risk. The United Nation's point person on climate, Christiana Figueres, told the Guardian, "If you define successful as assuming that the Paris meeting is actually going to solve climate change, that it is going to be a one-off deal, then no ... If I have one person in Paris who says, 'And you didn’t get down to 2C,' then I will chop the head off of that person … I have been saying for at least a year that that is impossible."
We also don't know how far India, a nation dependent on fossil fuels to grow, is willing to go. While the U.S. and China have made bilateral agreements, setting the stage for a global deal, India has made no such deals in advance. BBC reported that "India plans to open a mine ... every single month until 2020 as part of its strategy to double coal output to a billion tonnes a year." Convincing India to give the climate as much of a priority as growing the economy will be a major hurdle.
What these developing countries really want is money from historic polluters, such as the U.S., to help pay the cost of cutting emissions. But Obama could never get any money from this Republican-led Congress.
So Obama is trying another workaround: enlist Bill Gates and other private sector titans to invest $1 billion in clean energy technology. (The New York Times reports that the Gates fund is designed to persuade India to join to the agreement.)
Getting 150 countries to agree on something – anything – is an excruciating endeavor. Expect any initial agreement to be aggressive enough to tackle the entire problem, and you are bound to be crushed by disappointment.
The question for us is: Are we prepared to build on this initial agreement, and push our country and others to demand more greenhouse gas cuts until the crisis is behind us?
Get ready to celebrate at the end of the talks next month, and get ready to fight for deeper cuts the day after the agreement is signed.