How to Think About the Paris Climate Deal

Over the weekend, the world agreed to a new climate deal. Brad Plumer explains it well.

Global CO2 Emissions and COP21 Paris Commitments

Reactions range from celebration to dismissal of it as a fraud. It’s rare to see James Hansen (a tireless campaigner for addressing climate change) and Bjorn Lomborg (one of the climate confusers in chief) roughly in agreement. I won’t dignify Lomborg with a link.

Here’s what both miss.

Paris isn’t the beginning of progress on climate change. Nor is it the end. It’s another step, in a long chain of steps. To dismiss it as meaningless is to ignore that further steps will follow. Indeed, Paris sets up a process where every five years, nations will come together and agree to new carbon emissions reductions. A process that is likely to lead to a progressive tightening of emissions with each successive meeting. To ignore that is to pretend that Paris is the final action the world will ever take on climate change. It’s to think that across government, business, and technology, we’re done. This is it. This is all we’ve got.

Nope. We’ve got lots more. And as the price of clean energy drops, and they scale further, politicians and voters will be more willing to take more stringent steps. That, in turn, will continue to push down the price of clean energy, making it easier to take further steps, and so on.

Here’s an analogy:

You’re in a car, headed at breakneck speed towards the edge of a cliff and a long drop.

You turn the steering wheel. The car starts to respond as you do so, but it’s not instantaneous. Even turning the wheel isn’t instantaneous. You put your hand on it and pull hard around, and then replace your hands for another full rotation.

That’s us, right now. We’re spinning that wheel. We don’t have it hard over yet. There are more rotations to complete. And the car…the car has only just begun to respond to our rotation of the tires. It’s turned a bit, but you’re still looking out the windshield at that drop. But you know it’s going to turn, it’s going to respond to your hands on the steering wheel, and you reach out to turn it harder.

That’s us.

Paris (and all the events of the last two years that have led up to it) was maybe a half rotation of that steering wheel. Now, we have to take our other hand, put it on top, and get ready to turn that wheel some more.