By Fr. Bud Grant
The Paris Climate Summit resulted in the most important international agreement in history. This is no hyperbole: threats posed by climate change dwarf all other issues of our age combined. At the dawn of a new year — new epoch — it’s worth reflecting on this triumph of global cooperation.
It mightn’t have happened: Paris terrorist attacks 17 days before the summit cast doubt about the safety of leaders, delegates and climate activists. This would not have been the first time that immediate and local crises — obviously tragic — would have distracted the global community. The 2009 Copenhagen Summit failed in part because of U.S. domestic issues (notably the recession and health care reform). Cancelling this summit would have been terrorists’ greatest victory over civilization.
The structure was innovative. Imagine acquaintances going out for a meal. In prior summits the restaurant bill was split proportionally, but some complained that they’d eaten less; that their meal hadn’t arrived, even that others had eaten off their plates. The bill was left unpaid. This time each diner determined for herself what she owed. When they tallied up and didn’t have enough, they asked people to pitch in more. In the end, there was even enough for a tip: instead of paying for a ceiling of 2.0 degrees above pre-industrial global temperatures, delegates agreed to “substantially under” 2.0. (Most scientists think it must be 1.5.)
Achieving this goal relies on nascent technologies. Normally, I’d call this the “magic wand” solution: trust in some future miracle to solve our problems. But this feels different. Before the summit began, global political figures and many of the world’s wealthiest entrepreneurs ponied up. Together, tens of billions are pledged by private and public investment to develop new technologies. For context, the U.S. invests $70 billion in defense research. But still.
Governments see climate change as an issue of national security, multinational companies see it as a threat to economic stability. If businesses are confident about future regulations, even if they don’t like them, they can begin to incorporate them into their models. Even Saudi Arabia signed on, so did Exxon (which famously buried its own research on climate change for decades). Further, there are surging green business opportunities. If the world meets its breathtakingly ambitious ends, we will be weaned off of oil by mid-century … imagine the end of oil conflicts (ISIS, the world’s richest terrorist outfit, is funded by illicit oil sales).
Infrastructure transformation has to begin from the ground up. Thirty-five years is not a long time to shift from a fossil fuel automobile economy. But that’s less than it took to shift from the horse to the car. In 1908, Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion, drove his car to the rural south. To do so there had to have been decent roads, gas stations and repair shops. This was five years after Henry Ford made the first Model A. Never underestimate human ingenuity.
The pope’s role in all of this is hard to measure. Reuters, Time magazine, Ecowatch, the Guardian and the Washington Post, among others, claim that he “impacted the discussion.” There is even a rumor that, in the final hours of the Paris summit, Pope Francis broke a log jam with a tactical call to the intransigent president of Venezuela. He deliberately issued the encyclical in the run-up to the conference. He explicitly appealed for international cooperation. By October climate denial was dramatically down to 16 percent in America (by far the most “denialist” country). The politicization of the issue is mending: majorities of Republicans (56 percent), independents (69 percent), and Democrats (79 percent) now accept “solid evidence” of global warming.
And finally, vigilance is needed: nothing has changed since Paris, and nothing will for another 20 years or so. Global consensus is achieved; now it is up to us to support leaders who will have to make difficult choices in our name to convert pledges to progress.
(Father Bud Grant is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)