9/22/2014 3:48:42 PM

The Path to Paris

Last weekend, nearly 400,000 people gathered in New York City for the People's Climate March. Bearing signs and banners, a flood of ordinary citizens—from moms with strollers to students, business leaders, and clergy—paraded through the streets of Manhattan in a powerful show of support for bold action on climate change by our world leaders.

The peaceful demonstration was the largest ever for climate, with more than 1,500 organizations, including PBI, taking part. Hundreds of events around the globe further boosted participation, showing that people from all walks of life want our leaders to take the actions needed to avoid locking in dangerous climate change—specifically, to limit warming to no more than  Celsius (3.6°F) relative to pre-industrial levels.

The march was timed to take place just two days before the opening of an emergency Climate Summit at U.N. headquarters. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon organized the summit with two goals:

  • To mobilize political will for a meaningful universal agreement at the climate negotiations in Paris in 2015
  • To catalyze ambitious action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and strengthen resilience to the changes that are already being felt

Along with over one hundred other leading scientists, policy experts, and practitioners, I have signed a letter calling upon the world's leaders to take the actions necessary to limit global warming to less than  Celsius (3.6°F). That letter was presented to world leaders at the Climate Summit on September 23, 2014.

At this writing, the Summit is still in session. But our leaders received the message, loud and clear, that there's a broad groundswell of support for greenhouse gas reductions that are deep enough and swift enough to avert a climate disaster. 

Why is it necessary to act? The recent series of reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are a sobering reminder of what lies ahead if we don't.

Among the findings and predictions:

  • Climate change already is negatively affecting every part of the globe—through more intense floods, more extensive droughts, more frequent heat waves, more devastating forest fires, and other impacts.
  • The frequency and severity of extreme weather will continue to increase as long as greenhouse gas levels rise and the warming of Earth continues.
  • Global average temperatures have already risen almost 2°F since the dawn of the industrial revolution.
  • CO2 concentrations are currently just below 400 parts per million in the atmosphere. At the current rate of fossil fuel burning we will likely exceed 450 parts per million—levels that will likely lock in "dangerous" warming of 3.6°F—in just a couple decades
  • Under business-as-usual fossil fuel emissions, temperatures could well rise another 8°F by the end of the century.

The good news is that, while the panel concluded the world cannot afford inaction, it emphasized that we still have time to stop the worst effects of the manmade warming. By so doing, we'll not only help polar bears and the arctic ecosystem, but we'll help preserve the conditions that have allowed humans to flourish.

So where do we go from here? The emergency summit is a critical step on the path to Paris, where the world's nations will meet for the 2015 U.N. Climate Change Conference. Another key step is a meeting in Lima this December that will lay the groundwork for success in Paris.

The goal of the Paris conference is to forge an agreement on climate among the world's nations, the first in over 20 years of U.N. talks. There's reason for optimism that the Paris conference will succeed:

  • The 2009 conference set forth a realistic time table that was further refined in 2011
  • The U.N. now has a functioning reporting system
  • Poor nations can lower their emissions through grants from the Green Climate Fund
  • Individual nations have started taking aggressive action on their own
  • The U.S. and China—two of the biggest greenhouse gas polluters—now recognize that large-scale cooperative action is needed by the world's nations. Both are addressing their personal emissions and investing in green technology.

What will success look like? Five U.K. nonprofits recently released a report with the following vision:

  • Ambitious action before and after 2020
  • A strong legal framework and clear rules
  • A central role for equity
  • A long-term approach
  • Public finance for adaptation and the low carbon transition
  • A framework for action on deforestation and land use
  • Clear links to the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals

With so much at stake, it is imperative that we all speak up for meaningful action. Through demonstrations like the People's Climate March, letters to our elected officials, and other actions that put pressure on our policymakers and business leaders to act, we must demand our leaders take the actions necessary to preserve a livable planet. If they act, we will mitigate the worst impacts on people, we will likely save polar bears and numerous other threatened species, and we will preserve the health of our planet for our children and grandchildren.

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