By Stephen Schwartz
More than 70 percent of Americans now believe climate change is real and caused by human activity; however, this wasn’t always the case. While the first discussions of human-induced climate change date back to the turn of the 20th century, it wasn’t until the 1970s when modern scientists began outlining the potential consequences of failing to address this mounting global problem. Since then, public support for counteracting climate change has steadily increased due to the growing and now insurmountable amount of evidence which supports its existence. With the future viability of the planet at stake, ambitious international efforts to stall and eventually reverse the effects of climate change have recently gained substantial momentum.
1995 marked the beginning of the international discussion when the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) held its first Conference of Parties (COP) in Berlin. Two years later, the Kyoto Protocol, which sought to set baseline emissions for participating countries, was adopted in Japan. A COP has been held every year since its inception, and in 2015, negotiations between 195 countries around the world resulted in the landmark Paris Agreement.
The major goal outlined in this agreement is to keep the average global temperature from rising more than 1.5ᴼC, with 2ᴼC being the absolute limit. As Dr. Ankur Desai, associative professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences and faculty associate at the Nelson Institute Center for Climatic Research, explains, “It sounds like a small number, 2ᴼC, but if you think about it, the difference between the last ice age and the present is only about 5ᴼC, and so you’re talking about almost half an ice age unit.” According to Desai, raising the global temperature above this limit would amplify the consequences that are already beginning to take effect and would lead to a severe decrease in quality of life, particularly for those living in developing countries.
While there are many adverse effects attributed to climate change, perhaps none are direr than those pertaining to food security and agriculture. With increasing temperatures, virtually all land areas used to grow crops will experience a decrease in productivity. “[This] is a big deal given that population continues to increase and that is fundamentally linked to our ability to feed the world,” Desai says. Other critical repercussions include rising sea levels, which directly impact low-lying coastal areas and island nations, disappearing ecosystems and biodiversity and the intensity of extreme events such as flooding, heat waves and drought. Take hurricane Sandy for instance: “The slightly higher sea levels made [its] impact a lot more devastating than it would have been otherwise,” says Desai. With a majority of the world’s political leaders now listening to the scientific community and recognizing the manmade nature of these disastrous effects, the Paris Agreement provides hope that the sanctity of the planet can be preserved.
When Laurent Fabius, president of COP21, declared that the Paris climate agreement was adopted on December 12th, 2015, the world collectively rejoiced. This marked the first time in over 20 years that the UN has achieved a universal agreement which aimed to keep global warming under control through reducing emissions and investing in greenhouse gas sinks. Even more importantly, it had succeeded in getting every major country, including the two largest emitters (the United States and China, something the Kyoto Protocol lacked), involved. “The Paris agreement is much looser and the idea is that it gets everyone onboard,” says Desai, comparing this agreement to the Kyoto Protocol which established more strict regulations and placed the entire burden on developed countries. “The nice thing is there’s flexibility,” Desai says, referring to the fact that individual countries get to set their own emission targets under the Paris Agreement, “the negative thing is that it requires a lot of goodwill on behalf of the individual countries.” This is because it still relies on developed nations to provide significant financial support to developing countries, but it also requires all parties to continuously reduce their target emissions over time. This is critical as climate change experts currently estimate that based on the 186 action plans submitted by participating countries, the globe would still be on track for an average increase of 2.7 to 3ᴼC, well above the 2ᴼC limit.
While there’s clearly more work to be done, the Paris Agreement represents a large step forward in the right direction. The collective effort of so many different countries coming together to tackle this issue is unprecedented and represents a new era of international cooperation. With the ratification process already underway, it’s only a matter of time before the Agreement goes into effect and it will be exciting to see how the world reacts as it transitions away from fossil fuels towards a cleaner, greener future.