Paris Climate Agreement Is the Start Not End of Action | Omega

The euphoria of the COP21 climate talks' conclusion has passed. Replacing that is a sense that the tough work is really in front of us.

COP21 Was Either a Historic Success, or Massive Failure

Bill McKibben wrote, in an opinion piece for the New York Times, “We need to build the movement even bigger in the coming years, so that the Paris agreement turns into a floor and not a ceiling for action.”

Naomi Klein, the Canadian activist and author, was vocal in her displeasure. In an interview with Huffington Post UK, she said the COP21 agreement is akin to saying, “I acknowledge that I will die of a heart attack if I don’t radically lower my blood pressure. I acknowledge that in order to do that I need to cut out alcohol, fatty foods and exercise everyday. I therefore will exercise once a week, eat four hamburgers instead of five and only binge drink twice a week and you have to call me a hero because I’ve never done this before and you have no idea how lazy I used to be.”

Renowned climate scientist-turned-activist James Hansen said, “It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises.”

Another equally-renowned climate scientist was more measured in response. In the hours once the details of the agreement became known, Stefan Rahmstorf, of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, took to Facebook to write, “To those who expected more from a UN consensus agreement…you live in la la land. [This agreement] is a good foundation for everyone to turn to their own governments and business leaders and demand concrete steps that will help to stop global warming near 1.5 °C.”

Indigenous groups have been particularly outspoken about being essentially ignored in the climate negotiations. Though language seemingly recognizing indigenous rights is in the agreement text, Alexandra Karambelas points out, in a piece for EcoWatch, this language “resides in the preamble, a completely non-binding portion of the text…The decision was made in part by pressure from the UK, Norway, the EU, and the US, who fear the legal liability that would follow a mandated recognition of indigenous groups.”

Whatever reading of the outcome you personally favor, closing the gap between current emission pledges and the target of 1.5-2°C above pre-industrial levels requires action. We already have the tools needed and at the ready to radically and rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It is a question of how quickly and widely we can implement them and mustering the will and creating the policies to do so. 

Climate Action Has Always Been About Transformation

There are so many parts to this transformation. We can start by putting a price on carbon, through some form of tax or fee and dividend, as has been proposed by environmentalists, economists, and scientists alike. Clean, renewable energy, deployed at scale is also key, made easier when the cost of pollution is incorporated in prices. Creating a carbon-neutral transportation system and divesting from polluting industries are both practical and symbolic steps forward in aligning our values with our vision for the future. Transformation of our diets, with an eye on reducing carbon, ecological, and water footprints, is a powerful aspect of the solution and revitalization of the commons as a means of managing resources is another. Beginning to pay closer attention to more holistic economic measures such as the Genuine Progress Indicator or, as Bhutan does, Gross National Happiness, rather than paying sole attention to Gross Domestic Product is another means to achieve a climate transformation. And, establishing these values in future generations through educating for sustainability lays a solid foundation for future generations to continue the transformation toward a more regenerative, ecologically sustainable, and socially just society. 

We Need to Take Carbon Out of the Atmosphere, Too

All of these actions, and much of the dialog surrounding climate action more broadly, focuses on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which are directly responsible for warming the planet. But we must also start thinking of going beyond simply being carbon neutral and reducing emissions if we are to keep temperature rise below dangerous levels. We need to also start deploying methods to take carbon out of the atmosphere. 

Fortunately to do so doesn’t require some of the fanciful and potentially dangerous methods of geoengineering you sometimes hear about (ocean iron fertilization, atmospheric seeding, etc). Instead, we have methods that are both effective and consistent with sustainable values.

One method is carbon farming, using perennial crops and regenerative farming to increase the amount of carbon stored in the soil. Eric Toensmeier describes how this works, “In perennial plants [carbon] is stored or ‘fixed’ in their woody parts and below-ground roots. In no-till systems where the soil is not turned over, substantial quantities of carbon can be stored as organic matter in the soil.” Such methods can sequester some 200-250 gigatons of carbon, Toensmeier estimates, enough to get atmospheric CO2 back to a safe level of 350 parts-per-million. 

Change Is Inevitable, What Shape It Takes Is Not

Beyond the hard work it will take to achieve the goals of the Paris climate agreement, there resides a powerful possibility. “The opportunity in front of us is to create a less polluting, more sustaining and sustainable, more fair, and more secure society,” said Omega Chief Executive Officer Robert “Skip” Backus. 

© 2016 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies