What can Alaskans learn from the Paris Climate Agreement? A lot.

The deal is in. On Saturday night, December 12, 2015, nearly every country in the world signed on to an agreement that aims to take action to address climate change - the first international agreement to garner such universal acceptance.  Some praise the deal as a solid framework for nations to work together to reduce their emissions, and are expressing optimism that it represents a turning point in keeping warming below a dangerous threshold.  Others are criticizing the shortcomings of the new Paris Agreement and worry it does not go far enough to protect the climate and the rights of people around the world.  The action this deal brings about could be an important step towards protecting Alaskan coastal communities and the health of our fisheries. But will it be enough?  


European and UN leaders celebrate the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement on December 12, 2005.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the details of the Paris Agreement.  As expected, it includes the binding goal of keeping global warming under 2°C.  But it goes even further. Due to pressure from people across the globe, the deal encourages nations to act to keep the temperature rise below 1.5°C.  To do so, national governments will need to drastically cut carbon emissions, and find other ways to reduce atmospheric carbon levels, such as preserving and rebuilding the world’s forests.  This agreement does not bind nations to any specific goals.  Rather, each country has made its own pledge, outlining the steps it will take in the coming years.  While nations aren’t legally bound to meet their pledges, they are required to report their emissions - and to submit a new, more ambitious plan every five years.  This ‘ratcheting mechanism’ is important - as the pledges stand, the world would be on course for 2.7-3.7°C of warming by the end of the century - a level that would lead to disastrous effects for people and the planet. Communities like Newtok and Kivalina are already suffering from the dangers of climate change induced coastal erosion.  Unless this ratcheting mechanism leads to far stronger pledges, more Alaskans will risk losing their homes.


The permafrost that Newtok rests on is melting. Strong fall storms continue to wash away parts of the community and rising temperatures prevent necessary protective sea ice from forming. The whole village could be washed away in a decade.  Photo: Charles Mason

Many had hoped the deal might set a timeline for a phase out of fossil fuels and the transition to a clean energy economy.  While following through on this deal will likely mean shift towards a clean energy world, no language in the deal specifically requires an end to the use of fossil fuels.  The agreement is worded to call upon nations to work to peak global greenhouse gas emissions “as soon as possible”, while aiming for “balance between anthropogenic [human-caused] emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century.”  To reach such emissions neutrality, the energy sector will need to be decarbonized - meaning economies like Alaska’s will need to move away from reliance on oil exports.  This will be a challenge for the state to face, but one that will need to be tackled anyways to rescue the flagging economy.  By moving away from oil, Alaska can move to ensure fiscal security and do its part to avoid the terrifying consequences of climate change that threaten this beautiful state and its people.  

The Paris Agreement recognizes the “loss and damage” that climate change is and will continue to inflict on communities across the world.  Developing nations pushed for this language to be included, to acknowledge what is at stake for them.  The Agreement also states that developed nations should bear a significant part of the cost for both mitigating climate change through sustainable development worldwide, and adapting to it in places that are most affected.  However, the Agreement falls short in that there is no legally binding requirement for how much aid nations must give.  Also missing is any discussion of liability for the damages brought by climate change - an omission major polluters like the U.S. worked hard to secure.  While developed, industrial countries are agreeing to help bear the financial burdens of climate change, they are refusing to legally acknowledge their responsibility for creating the problem.

The deal has come under further criticism from Indigenous people for failing to do enough to protect their rights and their homes.  Indigenous people - who are among the most affected by climate change - did not have a seat at the table in Paris, and no language discussing their rights ended up in the legally binding parts of the agreement.  An official release from the environmental group Indigenous Rising denounced the Paris Agreement as not taking serious action to protect the climate.  Many are also concerned that the deal fails to ensure gender equality by lacking any acknowledgement of the ways that climate change disproportionately affects women.  


Indigenous delegates make a final plea to the United Nations to recognize their rights in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. Photo: APTN

The Paris Agreement is surely not without its flaws, but it is also something the world has never seen before: a universally accepted agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and take seriously the problem of climate change.  People across the world have known climate change is a problem for decades.  The people of Alaska, experiencing rampant wildfires and melting glaciers, understand the severity of what’s been going on.  International cooperation has finally produced an agreement capable of drastically cutting back emissions from all nations.  But the Paris Agreement won’t protect the climate by itself.  Further action is needed at all levels - from the global down to the individual.  Towns like Sitka have a role to play in this - from the way we treat the Tongass to the way we use and manage our natural resources what we do here will have global implications.  Living and studying in Berlin this past semester, I was able to take part in a Global Climate March, in which tens of thousands of people took to the street to demand firm action in Paris.  Such demonstrations are beautiful ways for the people to express to their representatives that climate change is an issue not to be taken lightly.  As the conference concluded, people united together in Paris to make their voices loud and clear: to protect communities across the world, we need to ensure a safe climate future.

The full text of the Paris Agreement can be read here

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