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Editorial: Despite Trump, there’s still hope for the climate a year after Paris

Oklahoma Atty. Gen. Scott Pruitt, a staunch ally of the fossil fuel industry and President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to run the Environmental Protection Agency, arrives at Trump Tower in New York on Dec. 7.
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

A year ago today, representatives from nearly 200 countries agreed in Paris that, yes, as the vast majority of scientists have been telling us for decades, human-propelled global warming is indeed leading to potentially catastrophic climate change.

Having acknowledged what virtually all rational observers already knew, the participants then promised to take specific steps to address those changes, which already are increasing sea levels, imperiling species, altering agricultural stability and setting the stage for mass human migration and even wars over basic needs in the years ahead. The Paris agreement came with nation-by-nation plans for curbing greenhouse gas emissions; the overall target was to limit global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, though it is generally accepted that those national plans are insufficient to meet that goal and will need to be revised and tightened if they are to do so. The developed nations also pledged to bankroll an international Green Climate Fund to help poorer nations develop in an environmentally sustainable way.

Where are we a year later? On uncertain ground.

It was, as this page noted at the time, “a document built on hope” whose success depended on the signatories not only keeping their promises but agreeing to even more significant and painful terms in the future.

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So where are we a year later? On uncertain ground. With the rise of nationalist populism in Europe, which is making state sacrifices for the global good more politically difficult, and the election in the United States of Donald J. Trump, who is naming fossil-fuel backers and climate change-skeptics to key positions, commitments from the developed world seem less reliable than they were a year ago. As is President Obama’s initial $3 billion pledge to the Green Climate Fund, which has an overall target of $100 billion by 2020.

China, the world’s largest emitter of carbon, pledged to hit peak greenhouse gas emissions before 2030 as it more than doubles power generation from wind and solar, but it has recently increased coal production to meet power demands, raising questions about whether it will meet its goal. And China also is investing in coal-fired power plants in other countries.

India, another major — and growing — emitter has promised to cap its emissions, but the transition from a coal-dependent power-generation system to a sustainable one will be hard to accomplish.

But there has been progress, both within and outside the Paris framework. World nations agreed in October to cap and reduce hydrofluorocarbons, a greenhouse gas used in air conditioning systems. While the world generates fewer HFC emissions than carbon dioxide, the gases are about 1,000 times more potent and the promised drop in reliance on them could shave .5 degrees Celsius from the predicted rise in global temperatures.

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Climate experts say meaningful change isn’t out of reach. If Trump does the expected and ratchets back, or repudiates entirely, the Obama administration’s commitments to reduce emissions, the work will become that much harder. But much of the private sector already has bought into the reality of global warming, and as the price of generating energy from alternative sources continues to drop, reliance on coal and oil will too, experts say — especially if the rise in use of natural gas (less polluting than coal) is used as a temporary bridge to renewables rather as than a replacement for coal. Even the big oil and gas companies, which cynically planned for global warming in private even as they denied publicly that it existed, have begun to recognize that the future of the energy sector involves investments in carbon-capture and other methods to counter emissions, and in renewable sources — though they still plan to keep drilling and say they expect oil consumption to rise.

The big question is whether the world can change quickly enough to make a sufficient difference. Over the past couple of centuries, transitions from wood to coal to oil to nuclear and solar have taken decades, but this time we don’t have the luxury of decades. Government policies can speed up the calendar, and the Paris Agreement sent a strong signal to the market that the world must rely much less on fossil fuel. Consumers, too, have a crucial responsibility, from reducing their own personal energy use to pressuring governments and corporations to change. In that sense, the fight is just beginning, even if there will be an ostrich in the White House come Jan. 20.

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