The road after Paris climate accord involves lots of local, hard work
by Allen Best
An agreement was struck at the Paris climate talks that may in the future be seen as a turning point in the effort to stall the worst of climate change impacts. But it wasn’t easy, as former U.S. Senator Tim Wirth illustrated in a story he told Tuesday in Denver.
Wirth has been engaged in climate change issues since 1974, when he was first elected to Congress, and then later, in 1997, was the chief U.S. negotiator at Kyoto.
Paris succeeded largely because of two reasons, he said. One was the decision to reach agreement with a bottoms-up approach, instead of the top-down approach used before, with the developed countries telling the developing countries what must happen.
Also crucial to success in Paris was the agreement struck between the U.S. and China and announced by President Barack Obama in November 2014. The United States and Chinese have “very real, very important” differences that cannot be understated, said Wirth. But in the vital issue of climate change, committed Chinese and American representatives put together the deal that showed commitment by the world’s two largest polluters.
As in a talk at the American Renewable Energy Day conference in Snowmass last August, Wirth singled out the work of Obama aide John Podesta. Wirth described Podesta as the most talented politician that exists today. He is now managing Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
But reaching an accord in Paris acceptable to 191 countries was still a challenge. Wirth’s story was about the demand made by Saudi delegates that their country be compensated for oil left in the ground. “It was amusing, but it gives you a window as to the difficulty of putting together a deal,” said Wirth.
Wirth was on a panel of four Coloradans who participated in the Paris negotiations at an event called The Road Beyond Paris. All four speakers, most with decades of engagement in the climate change issue, emphasized that the accord leaves much work to do. This is true at the international arena, but especially so at the state and local levels.
“You can be cynical about this,” said Hunter Lovins, founder and president of Natural Capitalism Solutions, a sustainability non-profit based in Boulder County. “What we got to is the starting line. This is not the finish line.”
Getting 196 nations to agree to lunch was a monumental effort, let alone climate change actions. “Did we get everything we wanted? Of course not. Will we ever? Probably not,” said Lovins. But, she said, the agreement does target measures that might allow warming to be contained to within 2 degrees Centigrade. Global temperatures have already increased slightly less than 1 degree C.
Lovins made the argument for divesting from companies invested in fossil fuels. “Don’t own the shit,” she told a standing-room-only audience of 200 people at the Alliance Center in LoDo. Wearing her trademark black cowboy hat and a black suit, a turquoise scarf around her neck, she said “every one of you has to think about your use of energy and where your energy coming from.”
Former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter said he heard Africans in Paris speaking in Bantu, a language he had learned while he and his wife, Jeannie, were Peace Corps volunteers in Zambia from 1987 to 1989. The Africans, he said, were talking about divestment.
Ritter emphasized the need to get behind the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which has a broad goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from electrical generation by 32 percent.
Bill Becker, who works with Ritter at the Center for the New Energy Economy, emphasized social justice as an element of adaptation. The issue of climate refugees was talked about frequently in Paris, he said, as the civil war in Syria is widely acknowledged as being, at least partly, the result of drought precipitated by climatic shifts.
Wirth divided the Paris negotiations into four elements: 1) mitigation, which means to reduce greenhouse gases, 2) adaptation, which means to cope with changes now occurring and those already locked into the climate, even if carbon emissions ended tomorrow; 3) technology; and 4) finance.
“How are we going to fund this? This stuff does not happen by itself,” said Wirth. “We need a price on carbon.”
Lovins rejected the idea of a carbon tax. Anything called a tax, she said, will not survive. “It’s dead on arrival,” she said. “That’s the reason Republicans support it.”
She argues for a cap-and-trade method of limiting carbon emissions. Emissions allowances can be traded, but there is a hard cap, she says. She cited a cap-and-trade system already in place in California and also the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI, a market-based cooperative effort among nine states in New England and the mid-Atlantic states to cap and reduce C02 emissions from the electrical sector.
To be effective, she said, the price of a carbon tax is crucial, if it is to induce changes. She said a tax of at least $60 per metric ton is needed. In contrast, British Columbia has a tax of $30 per ton.
Wirth said a crucial place to start on this road after Paris is to ask what rules need to change From coal companies to the homebuilders associations, embedded rules favor carbon emissions, he suggested. They must be changed, and officials at many levels need to get out of the way. “We have to get really good people at the PUC (public utilities commission) and (as an example) at the Boulder City Council.”
“This is the hard work, but it’s extremely satisfying when you can knock off some of these incumbents that need to get out of the way,” said Wirth.
Paris delivered a framework for international change, he said, but now the attention needs to focus on smaller and more local efforts.
“Now, a lot of specific hard decisions have to get made. We have to push, push, push.”