The Climate Talks outside Paris ended in what could be an historic achievement, an agreement backed by 196 countries to fundamentally change the way we human beings harness the energy we use. The accord is significant, most especially for its realism, which came in two forms, one scientific and the other political.
The scientific realism is the more obvious: What do the leaders of such vastly different countries as Russia and Togo, of Canada and Bolivia, of the U.S. and Uzbekistan, understand that Sen. James Inhofe does not understand? They understand that while science is always developing and is never exactly “settled,” there is sufficient scientific consensus at this point in time to recognize that if the countries of the world do not change its reliance on fossil fuels, and do so soon, we risk irreversible damage to the planet. The evidence is obvious to all except those who have been blinded by either ideology or interest or both. The agreement sets realistic goals to curb and then to diminish the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. If those goals are met, we could yet save our common home.
The consensus in Paris about the problem stands in stark contrast to the bizarre denial of the dangers of climate change witnessed in U.S. politics. Sen. Inhofe, who chairs the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works, is immune to data. For his denialism to be accepted, one must also accept that there has been some kind of nefarious worldwide conspiracy among scientists working in different laboratories, in different countries, all successfully manipulating the empirical data. Is that plausible? I suppose it is when your campaigns are bankrolled by the extraction industries. And, there are others who are willing to support denialism with their veneer of expertise, so called think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and groups like the Acton Institute, both of which also rely heavily on extraction industry donors, and CATO which is allergic to any government effort to do anything, let alone something as fundamental as address climate change. But, the market will not achieve the changes needed on its own. That is clear. And, it is certainly a perversion of Catholic social teaching to think that governments’ acting on behalf of the common good is somehow forbidden because it violates the pristine laws of the market.
The other realism at Paris was political, as the conference adopted the “bottom up” approach favored by the Obama administration, in which each individual countries develops its own goals, and its own programs to meet those goals, instead of signing a purportedly “legally binding” treaty with goals set from above. The United Nations is not able to enforce the provisions of its own charter, or of the Declaration on Human Rights, and it would scarcely have a better chance at enforcing goals that it devised and sought to impose. The “bottom up” approach invites every country to work through its own political and economic issues to devise a plan which, presumably, will have a better chance at being implemented successfully. It is an instance of subsidiarity in action.
Critical to the success of the agenda adopted at Paris will be the extent to which the rich countries help poorer countries adopt energy policies that do not involve fossil fuels. The U.S. should look at this as an opportunity, akin to the Marshall Plan: We plowed a lot of money into the rebuilding of Europe after World War II and, in turn, had a vibrant new market for our products. Poor countries lack the research universities and industrial capacity to produce the kind of green technologies we all will need if we are to meet the goals set in Paris. There is a huge opportunity for a renewable Rockefeller here, creating the 21st century version of Standard Oil, only without the oil, and with the focus not on the energy sources, for no one owns the sun and the wind, but on the technology that harvests those sources.
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It is impossible to prove a negative, but I have to ask myself if the Paris accord would have been attained without the leadership of Pope Francis. He provided a moral and spiritual language to the discussion that had largely been lacking beforehand. The climate change debate did not reach many people because it was too wonky, but Francis put the issue in terms that were readily understandable. And, at a time when the world stage has so few true leaders, Francis is a leader.
The denialists will continue their campaigns of disinformation. Some on the left will complain that the Paris accords did not go far enough, but they have no real alternative to the realism that governed the deliberations. The accords are an achievement of the first order, especially because they are realistic and require the countries to devise their own programs. I have grown suspicious on what international diplomacy can achieve but this weekend, I regained a bit of confidence: When good will, good science, and an attentiveness to the common good all come together, progress is possible.