A climate change agreement was reached. Now what?

Representatives from 196 countries left the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris this weekend after agreeing on a historic accord to address climate change head-on.

The 31-page agreement, adopted after two-weeks of negotiations, includes a number of objectives, the most significant of which is limiting the rise in the world’s average temperature to below 2 degrees Celsius—and possibly even below 1.5 degrees Celsius. The agreement also sets out to bring an end to fossil fuel use.

We asked two Northeastern faculty members to share their thoughts on what about the agreement works, where it falls short, and what’s next.

nisbet150Matthew Nisbet is an associate professor of communication studies who has written extensively on climate change and studies the role of communication in debates over science, technology, and the environment, and is the editor-in-chief of The Oxford Encyclopedia of Climate Change Communication.

Brian HelmuthBrian Helmuth is a professor of environmental science and public policy with joint appointments in the College of Science and the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, and is an expert on envi­ron­mental policy, eco­log­ical fore­casting, and sus­tainability.

Essentially the world has just publicly declared that climate change is an existential threat that can’t be solved by only one or a handful of nations.”
—Brian Helmuth

The good

Nisbet: The ambitious commitments agreed to by countries as part of the historic Paris accord may mark a major paradigm shift in how we think and talk about climate change. We may look back at Paris as the turning point when government funding agencies, private investors, and engineers took the baton from environmental groups, climate activists, and scientists, embarking on a massive research and development race to create a new generation of clean energy and carbon-trapping technologies.

This new paradigm shift has been several years in the making, as a network of courageous experts and journalists have slowly but effectively countered longstanding claims by many environmental groups and activists that solar, wind, and other renewables are all the technologies we need to combat climate change.

Persuaded by these arguments and recognizing the limits to what can be done with existing renewables, to kick off the Paris meetings, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, the Obama administration, and more than 20 other billionaires and governments promised to double their financial investments in research on advanced energy technologies.

The announcement marked a new approach aimed not at making fossil fuels more costly, but at making a broad portfolio of clean energy technologies less expensive and more powerful.

Helmuth: This is an important step forward, but we are still far away from a lasting solution to the challenge of climate change.

The first step in any negotiation is to find some common ground, and to acknowledge that the problem being tackled is and should be of importance to everyone at the table. Essentially the world has just publicly declared that climate change is an existential threat that can’t be solved by only one or a handful of nations.

It is frustrating that it has taken so long to get to this point, but there have been some very determined efforts to stall climate change legislation, and they have been very effective in preventing the U.S. from engaging. As part of the scientific community that has recognized the threat of climate change for decades, it is amazing to see the world finally pay so much attention to this issue, and I hope that this is just the beginning of an new, invigorated conversation.

If we are going to quickly ratchet up global emissions reductions, in the U.S. we will also have to quickly ratchet up public engagement with the issue.”
—Matthew Nisbet

Where the agreement falls short

Nisbet: In laying an important foundation for progress, the Paris accord may have promised too much by pledging to keep global temperature rise “well below” 2 degrees Celsius and as low as 1.5 degrees Celsius. Achieving such a goal will only come through the rapid development and deployment of advanced clean energy and carbon-trapping technologies.

That’s one reason why at a press conference in Paris, James Hansen and other leading climate scientists urged an all-of-the-above technology approach that combined investments in renewables with an accelerated worldwide deployment of advanced nuclear reactors.

Social protest and political mobilization can create some of the pressure and incentives needed to mobilize society at a scale not seen since World War II, but ultimately we will also have to depend on the ingenuity of engineers, corporations, and capitalists including those in the fossil fuel and nuclear energy industries.

Helmuth: The U.S. entered the convention making it clear that the end result could not be a treaty, which by law would need to be ratified by Congress. One of the biggest acid tests of whether this agreement will make a difference is whether nations like the U.S. can put teeth into the accord, so that the “should”—in terms of what will be done to cut emissions—can become “shall.” How developing nations—those most vulnerable to climate change—will fare in coming decades is also unclear.

Next steps for participating nations

Nisbet: If we are going to quickly ratchet up global emissions reductions, in the U.S. we will also have to quickly ratchet up public engagement with the issue. The problem is not so much public denial, but public ambivalence.

Research that I have conducted along with several colleagues suggests a portfolio of related communication strategies can help shift the conversation about climate change, building broader public demand for government action.

These actions include correcting public beliefs about the overwhelming level of consensus among climate scientists about the problem; re-framing climate change in terms of public health and other dimensions that convey personal relevance and connect to issues that a broader segment of Americans care about; and working with a diversity of opinion leaders across societal sectors who can connect with difficult-to-reach audiences.

Helmuth: No one likes regulation, but until we reach a point where we as a society recognize just how close to the precipice we are standing, it may be our best way of slowing down the train of climate change.

There will always be some—including some very prominent political figures—who will continue to cast doubt on the very existence of climate change, but we can’t wait for them to see the light before we as citizens demand action.

Boston and the commonwealth of Massachusetts are, thankfully, leading the nation in preparing for climate change and we need to keep that momentum going and not become complacent until the next big storm. No government is going to fix this problem alone, and so we need all hands of deck.