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The Paris Agreement Is A Stunning Political Achievement, Miserable Scientific Failure

How to save the world when you can’t negotiate with physics

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hosted a signing ceremony for the Paris Agreement on Climate Change on 22 April at the United Nations. More than 165 Member States were expected to attend the signing ceremony, including an estimated 60 Heads of State and Heads of Government. UN Messenger of Peace Leonardo Dicaprio addresses the opening segment of the signature ceremony. UN Photo/Mark Garten

Nobody would question that the adoption of the Paris Agreement was an incredible feat of diplomacy. Getting 195 countries to agree on a 31-page pact that essentially demands a global, economy-wide transition from fossil fuels is absolutely an unprecedented political success. But as Adam Frank notes in a commentary on NPR about the Agreement, “Politics and science are two very different beasts.”

Frank is himself a scientist, and though he writes with cautious optimism about the world uniting for climate action, he frets over the many, many warnings that his colleagues in the scientific community have issued about the inadequacies of the Paris Agreement. One of the loudest critics of the deal was Dr. James Hansen, the former NASA climate scientist who has been right about climate change for longer than anyone in the field. Hansen, whose testimony to the Senate back in 1988 about the threats of greenhouse gas emissions holds up as solid science today, called the agreement “a fraud.”

“It’s just bullshit for them to say: ‘We’ll have a 2C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.’ It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises,” says Hansen.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]It’s just bullshit for them to say: ‘We’ll have a 2C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.’ It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises.[/quote]

Most of the dozen or so climate scientists I heard from in Paris and in the months since have agreed that the long term goals of the deal—to stay “well below” 2 degrees Celcius of warming and to “make efforts” to stay under the 1.5 degree target—were a positive step forward. They also agreed that the pledges that countries actually made through the Agreement won’t keep warming anywhere near those markers.

“The emissions cuts promised by countries are still wholly insufficient,” said Corinne Le Quere, who studies the carbon cycle at the the University of East Anglia’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. And Jason Box, one of the world’s best ice and polar scientists, warned that “we lose the ice sheets” if the emission reduction commitments in the current agreement aren’t clamped down.

To see just how far short of the 2 degree goal the current pledges falls, take a look at the Climate Interactive Scoreboard, which is updated regularly as countries submit and adjust their commitments (those INDCs I described in an earlier post) to the Paris Agreement. This week, Climate Interactive and MIT Sloan released new analysis showing that “full implementation of the current pledges would result in expected warming by 2100 of 3.5°C (6.3°F). Deeper, earlier emissions cuts are needed to limit warming to no more than 2°C.”

To put one real world impact on the numbers, at 3.5 degrees of warming—the most likely outcome of the current pledges to the Paris Agreement—the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets melt, and sea levels rise by at least 40-50 feet. That puts most of New York City, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. underwater. (Miami? Not even the most ambitious of cuts can save Miami.)

And that’s just sea level rise. Let’s not even get into the storms and deluges and droughts that will be supersized by 2 degrees and superduperterrifyingly-sized by the current 3.5 degree warming track. What the new Climate Analytics and MIT Sloan calculations tell us is, basically, with each year that countries wait to strengthen their pledges, it gets considerably harder and more costly to stay under that 2 degree target.

“It is like driving to an important meeting. You could get there safely if you leave now. Or you could wait, drive too fast and risk a horrible accident,” said Andrew Jones of Climate Interactive in a statement announcing the new analysis. “If we improve the Paris pledges now, we can limit warming below two degrees. If we wait and only ratchet up pledges post-2030, then we’d have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at a reckless and costly rate.”

If there’s any cause for some glimmer of optimism here it’s that the Paris Agreement does include a mechanism, the so-called “ratchet,” for countries to crank up the ambition of their pledges and clamp down harder and faster on their emissions. The data shows us that if this ratcheting is enforced, and if governments quickly bring tougher emissions plans to the table, then the long term 2 degree goal is in play.

So far, the UN climate negotiations have produced a stunning political achievement in the form of the Paris Agreement. But physics tells us that the window to achieve the deal’s goal is closing fast, and as Bill McKibben likes to say, “you can’t negotiate with physics.”

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