Progress is possible in Paris, but not victory

Progress is possible in Paris, but not victory

As we watch the United States join nearly 200 other nations this week in Paris to work to reach a consensus on how world powers will respond the advancing climate crisis, we should keep in mind the fundamental difference between “progress” and “victory.”

A victory over climate change would be what we could declare if we were able to limit emissions enough in the coming decades to prevent an additional rise in global temperatures of anything more than 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius; the threshold that the scientific community agrees is necessary to fall below in order to prevent irreparable harm to the planet.

Such a victory, heartbreakingly, is not even on the table in Paris. Despite widespread consensus among world powers that the results from falling short of 2 degrees of warming would be catastrophic, it is widely acknowledged that leading nations, most significantly the United States, lack the political will to take the admittedly drastic steps necessary to meet this goal.

Until the U.S. Congress is no longer controlled by members such as Maine’s Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin, who dismisses the entire notion of human-influenced climate change as a process that even exists, and who appears more afraid of alienating interests from the fossil fuel industry than confronting the devastating impact of climate-related ocean acidification on Maine’s fisheries and working waterfront, victory will remain elusive.

The best a watching world can hope for from Paris in the face of such willful ignorance then, is “progress.”

At the current rate in which the United States and the rest of the world is burning fossil fuels, we are on track to see an unimaginable rise in average temperatures by 2100 of roughly 4 degrees Celsius. By any reliable account, this rate is unsustainable to the point that we would see a sea level rise of between 13 and 39 feet, enough to literally drown coastal population centers around the world. If the proposed accords are enacted at Paris, temperatures would likely rise by around 3ºC– significantly less than our current path, but still nowhere near that 2ºC threshold that keeps us in a relatively safe temperature range.

In a way, the negotiators in Paris are doing an admirable thing in working within a framework of political possibility, rather than rehash the better-on-paper but unenforced Kyoto Protocols of the 1990’s. Their work is a clear eyed attempt to do anything possible to put us farther down the path of climate progress is absolutely better than doing nothing. World leaders are essentially telling us, though, that until the political landscape changes, true victory for ourselves and future generations is impossible.

It is imperative that we as environmentalists acknowledge that these political changes will not occur unless we continue to fight for them, everywhere. If we don’t continue to build a dynamic and inclusive movement to hold those in power accountable for the consequences of their willful inaction on climate change, progress today will still mean failure to protect the planet from future catastrophe.

Photo via Flickr/Jeanne Menj

About author

Grady Burns
Grady Burns 43 posts

Grady Burns is an activist on issues involving young Mainers. He serves on the Auburn City Council and is president of the Maine Young Democrats.

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