“Everyone talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it,” said Mark Twain (or Charles Dudley Warner).  Last month in Paris, 195 nations agreed to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C, and hopefully as little as 1.5 °C, above pre-industrial levels. After years of failing international discussions about what to do about climate change and much fruitless finger pointing, this agreement is truly a turning point in the international debate and worth celebrating.

However, will the agreement be enough to stem the recognized “superwicked” problem of climate change and the myriad related natural and human disasters around the world? In and of itself, it will not.  Although the agreement is a great step forward because nations around the world—including “troublemakers” United States and China—for the first time recognized the need for everyone to step up to the plate and take at least some action, more is needed.  For one, the agreement itself has not entered into force yet.  It only will do so if at least 55 countries producing at least 55% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions ratify or otherwise accept it.  Under the current political climate in the United States, we as a country will undoubtedly not do so.  But I have hope that enough others will.  Few, if any, other countries than the United States take such a recalcitrant attitude to this problem as we do as a nation.

What I am more concerned about is this: Only some provisions are legally binding.  Others are simply aspirations of what nations have stated that they think should be done.  Whether they will actually do so is another matter.  Each nation will in between now and 2020 submit their “nationally determined contributions” (“NDCs”).  These are bottom-up promises of what each nation thinks it can do about the problem while also, in the case of many, developing their economies, eradicating poverty, and so on.  Every five years after 2020, countries will renew their obligations to reach the ultimate climate goal by 2100.

A lot of things could, however, happen in between now and 2100; even in between now and 2020.  Many things could also not happen.  Although this agreement is historic in nature, it is thought-provoking that 24 years ago, with the development and adoption of the 1992 United Nations Framework Conference for Climate Change, the very same nations promised to do all they could to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would “prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” That goal has since been recognized by the IPCC and many other scientific bodies and authorities to be 2 °C.  I hope I am wrong, but in a way, it seems as if the new agreement may just be the “emperor’s new clothes.”

What might be different this time around?  Thankfully, a lot of things.  The world community has become much more aware of the dangers than was the case in 1992.  A very large amount of scientific information is available demonstrating the dangers of climate change and presenting some potentially viable technological solutions to the problem.  Criminal charges are being brought against government officials who deny the problem and continue with “business-as-usual” models.  For example, a French court sentenced a former mayor and his deputy to prison for ignoring flood risks and encouraging development in their Atlantic Coast town before aging sea walls collapsed in a 2010 storm that killed dozens.   In Holland, private citizens won a lawsuit against their government brought to force it to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25% within five years and not just 17%, as the government had said it would do.   Although the case is currently being appealed by the government, it caused ripple effects around the world and may well set precedent in similar suits around the world, including in the United States.  Here, a 2015 lawsuit asserts that, in causing climate change, the federal government has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.  

Extreme weather events seem to have become the “new normal.”  Let us hope that instead of desensitizing us, they will inspire us to demand more from our world leaders.  Let us hope and demand that they this time take the action that will be necessary to stem climate change.  This may be controversial to some – think the fossil fuel industry.  But in 2016, no one truly doubts that smoking cigarettes may truly kill you.  But not so long ago, that line of thinking was controversial too.  We must accept reality and face it head on.  We can do so as a nation and a world. According to President Obama in his recent State of the Union address: “Sixty years ago, when the Russians beat us into space, we didn’t deny Sputnik was up there … If anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it. You will be pretty lonely, because you’ll be debating our military, most of America’s business leaders, the majority of the American people, almost the entire scientific community, and 200 nations around the world who agree it’s a problem and intend to solve it.”

Let’s hope that this problem is solved soon.  We ought to do so for the sake of future generations of peoples and animals around the world.

Featured image courtesy of Pixabay.

About The Author

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After a successful first career in international communications and university instruction on two continents, Professor Dellinger graduated from law school at the top of her class at the University of Oregon School of Law (Order of the Coif). Professor Dellinger is an Associate Professor of Law with the University of South Dakota School of Law where she teaches Sales, Secured Transactions, Public International Law and International Business Transactions. She researches and writes extensively on the intersection between international business and environmental law with a particular focus on climate change. Professor Dellinger is a regular contributor to the ContractsProfs Blog, where her blogs often address how to protect the weaker constituents of society as well as environmental issues that intersect with business aspects. She started and hosts the popular Global Energy and Environmental Law Podcast on iTunes. Professor Dellinger is the Chair of the International Environmental Law section of the American Branch of the International Law Association and a co-vice Chair of the Teaching International Law Interest Group of the American Society of International Law. She has visited 36 nations for business and pleasure.