The Environment and Elections

In a recent TED talk by Al Gore, he outlines clearly the challenges we face if we do not address climate change, but also gives hope by articulating the positive initiatives that are currently taking place to address the issue. He asks three questions. The first is “Do we really have to change?” He begins with the startling statistic that the amount of heat generated daily by manmade greenhouse gas pollution is equal to the same amount of heat energy that would be released by 400,000 Hiroshima-class atomic bombs. This trapped heat, he notes, is the cause of warming oceans and the increased water vapor and energy in the atmosphere which have led to stronger storms, extreme floods, and longer droughts. Extreme temperature events used to cover 0.1% of the Earth. Now they cover 14.5%. Fourteen of the fifteen hottest years on record have occurred since 2001 with 2015 being the hottest year ever. January of 2016 was the hottest January on record. The answer to that question given the data is unequivocally yes.

His second question is “Can we change?” and here he shows how change is already taking place on multiple fronts. Renewable energy sources are growing exponentially. The cost of solar energy alone has come down almost 10 percent every year for the past 30 years. Scientists tell us that enough solar energy reaches earth every hour to fill all the world’s energy needs for a full year. In the United States alone during 2015 sources for new electric generation capacity came from wind (38.2%), solar (32.8%), hydro, biomass and geothermal (2.3%), coal (0.01%) and oil (0.07%). Yet the government continues to subsidize the fossil fuel industry 40X more than renewables. Change can certainly happen if the political will is there.

The third question is “Will we change?” This question is up to us. In December of 2015, the United States was one of 195 countries who approved the Paris Agreement on climate change and agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It is now our responsibility as citizens of a democracy to see that we keep our commitment to the world community.

The United States Department of Defense has issued the following statement: “Climate change will likely lead to food and water shortages, pandemic diseases, disputes over refugees and resources and destruction by natural disasters in regions across the globe.” In other words, climate change has geopolitical consequences. Syria, where 1.5 million people moved to the cities because their land was no longer capable of sustaining crops and livestock, is an excellent example of this. Those 1.5 million people crowded into cities doubling the population in a very short time creating conditions for the violence and unrest we see today.

Pope Francis in his encyclical Laudato Si’ states that “Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.”  He goes on to say that “What is needed is a politics which is far-sighted and capable of a new, integral and interdisciplinary approach to handling the different aspects of the crisis…if politics shows itself incapable of breaking such a perverse logic, and remains caught up in inconsequential discussions, we will continue to avoid facing the major problems of humanity.

We have not only the privilege, but also the responsibility to vote. Following are some of the questions to consider when reading about or listening to candidates for public office:

How does each candidate talk about climate change?

Does he or she have any policies for addressing this issue?

What is his/her position on transitioning from dependency on fossil fuels toward clean energy alternatives?

Does he/she plan to honor the emissions-reduction commitments our nation made at the UN Conference on Climate Change in Paris (the Paris Agreement)?

Will our nation honor its commitment to assist developing nations – who are least responsible for climate change but most impacted by it – in coping with threats such as increased droughts, floods, and sea-level rise by sharing clean energy technology and other support?

As Pope Francis has reminded us climate change is no longer open to debate. It is a reality which is “affecting millions of people daily and requires an examination of our lives and an acknowledgement of the ways in which we have harmed God’s creation through our actions and our failure to act”.

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What is the Paris Agreement?

More than 170 countries signed the Paris Agreement at United Nations Headquarters in New York on Earth Day, April 22, 2016. According to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, “Paris will shape the lives of all future generations in a profound way – it is their future that is at stake.”

The Paris Agreement is a result of the 21st meeting of world leaders designed to address environmental sustainability. The four key points of the agreement are as follows:

  • To peak greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible and achieve a balance between sources and sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of the century;
  • To keep global temperature increase “well below” 2 degrees C (3.6 F) and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5 C.
  • To review progress every five years; and
  • To provide $100 billion a year in climate finance for developing countries by 2020, with a commitment to further finance in the future.

One of the most significant outcomes of the Paris meeting is that the debate on climate change has shifted from whether scientific evidence is strong enough to warrant making aggressive cuts in greenhouse gas emissions to accepting the science and exploring how cutting emissions can be achieved without hurting economic growth. The world is now united on this issue and recognizes a moral imperative to act.

Prior to the Paris Meeting (also known as Conference of the Parties (COP) 21) 187 countries submitted Intended National Determined Contributions (INDCs). The INDCs are what each country has committed to in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Some of the key points are legally binding within the United Nations framework. The regular review and submission of emission reduction targets will be binding. So too will the $100bn fund from developed economies to help emerging and developing nations move away from burning fossil fuels to clean energy sources. What won’t be legally binding will be the emission targets. These will be determined by nations themselves. Since fiscal policy shapes economic activities, it is imperative that citizens hold their governments accountable for promises made.

What occurred in Paris at COP21 was the “adoption” of the Paris Agreement by the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).  Adoption is the formal act that establishes the form and content of an agreement. 

In addition to adopting the Paris Agreement, the Parties made a number of key decisions about what’s necessary for the Agreement to enter into force.  They also agreed on a process for how countries will finalize their current national climate plans and shift them from being Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) into Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).  

The Paris Agreement will be in full legal force and effect when at least 55 Parties to the UNFCCC that account for at least 55 percent of the total global greenhouse gas emissions have deposited their instruments of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession. At this point in time, it is not possible to accurately predict when this will occur, as it depends on how quickly individual countries are able to complete their domestic approval processes. Once the Agreement enters into force, the first meeting of the Parties to the Agreement will occur in conjunction with the next COP.

It is now in the hands of the people in each country to make sure that their governments honor the commitments they have made to the world community. This requires contacting national congresspersons to tell them we want them to honor the commitments the U.S. has made. It also requires asking questions of prospective Presidential candidates about their position on the Paris Agreement. In the words of Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and a senior adviser to the U.N., “If the next President does not honor this agreement they would have to blow off the whole rest of the world and I don’t think the United States would find another partner to do that. You’d have to just be the renegade state.”

April 25, 2016

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