I care about climate change and I don’t care that President Trump left the Paris deal.
In fact, I’m happy he left it.
Trump’s leaving the deal (supposedly to protect American workers/businesses) is finally raising some questions about what climate benefits would’ve actually come from the Paris agreement (some, but not nearly enough).
And it comes in time for us to actually figure out what we all need to do – from the individual level up – to really take action on climate change.
The media lined up Trump with the two other nations that haven’t signed the deal – Syria and Nicaragua. Thankfully, a reporter looked into why Nicaragua was against the agreement and found out the reason was the deal was too weak.
The Paris Agreement wouldn’t have kept the global average temperature rise at a safe level. Scientists agree that rise needs to be kept below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-Industrial levels. To be on the safe side, 1.5 C.
The Paris deal has us on track for between 3 and 4 C.
I was a reporter for Al Jazeera covering climate during the last few years of setting up the global treaty – the culmination of 20 some years’ diplomatic efforts (and lots of carbon emissions from flying everyone around the world for fancy United Nations negotiations).
In 2014, I began interviewing the vice president of the Marshall Islands, Tony DeBrum. The Marshall Islands are a tiny atoll nation of dozens of low-lying islands smack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Their average elevation is 3 feet – and according to conservative predictions, we’ll get at least 3 feet of sea level rise by the end of this century.
That’s a death sentence for the Marshall Islands.
DeBrum didn’t accept that. He was the country’s climate negotiator in the UN process and was trying to convince everyone to aim lower than 2 C. DeBrum wanted the goal to be keeping the rise below 1.5 C as that would have a chance at saving their islands, while a rise of 2 C would surely swamp the atoll nation.
One end of Majuro had to be abandoned because it kept getting flooded.
Small, poor, and developing nations seem to be bearing the brunt of climate change effects while not having contributed much to the problem.
Wealthier, developed nations have been spared the super typhoons that have battered the Philippines. Even if they were hit by a strong storm, they have better equipped emergency services to deal with it – preventing the high death tolls seen in other places.
Climate change is still seen by the most powerful countries as something that might bite us in the future. Meanwhile, the Marshall Islands faces permanently evacuating an entire island because of persistent flooding, building bridges over sections of road that have gone underwater, and lining up sandbags around their airstrip.
Largely thanks to the tireless campaigning of the Marshall Islands and other small island states who joined the effort – the goal of limiting temperature rise to 1.5 C made it into the final Paris Agreement. The exact words were: the deal would put the planet on a pathway to keeping the global average temperature rise above pre-Industrial temperatures to “well below” 2 C while “pursuing efforts to limit temperature increase to 1.5 C.”
If it was my country that was literally drowning because of climate change, I would hope the international community would do more than “pursue efforts” to save my country, along with my entire heritage, culture, and history.
The reality was even worse though.
According to analysis of countries’ individual pledges of what exactly they were going to do in terms of cutting carbon emissions or stepping up carbon sequestration through planting forests and other activities, the deal wasn’t even going to keep the rise under 2 C.
Actually, it still puts the world on a path to a 3 or 4 C rise.
A few months ahead of the signing of the Paris deal, high-level officials admitted that the agreement wouldn’t be the definitive answer to climate change, but just “one step” in the right direction.
Since global efforts combined weren’t strong enough to keep the rise under 2 C, they’d have to continue meeting every 5-10 years to ratchet up those pledges, officials said.
With the U.S. – one of the top carbon emitters in the world – dropping out of the agreement, the goal of limiting the global average temperature rise to 1.5 C seems even more far-fetched.
So what does a 3-4 C hotter world look like?
The last time the Earth was that warm was 3 million years ago and sea level was almost 65 feet higher (of course, that kind of rise takes centuries so it’s not going to happen overnight), scientists said.
Food production would be down, urban heat waves more common, more droughts, wildfires, and massive disruptions to business-as-usual from things like massive climate migrations and refugee crises.
Still, 3 C doesn’t pose an existential threat (unless we set of feedback loops that continue raising the temperature on their own in a snowball effect) and it’s a lot better than the 5 C rise we’d likely get from not doing anything at all.
So, even with all the failings of the Paris agreement, it shouldn’t be abandoned.
Government is important because they can set economic policies – like getting rid of oil subsidies that artificially float that market, and putting in place a carbon tax – that can shift things in the right direction.
The thing is, we have to do more. A lot more. Changes need to be taking place at more than just the national level. They need to be happening at the individual, neighborhood, community, city, regional, state levels.
Everyone has to be involved (except Trump).