New Year's resolutions for a 1.5° world


Fabius with French President Francois Hollande, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon

French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, master of heroic diplomacy

I’ve been watching videos of COP21 panels and press briefings I missed or couldn’t get into in Paris, and the shift in tone—from something like grim determination early in the conference to relief and euphoria at the end—is really striking. Everyone knew that holding global warming to 2°C. would be painful and deadly, but that was the stated and restated goal early on. I can’t put my finger on when people began to talk seriously about 1.5°, but the momentum built as the “high ambition coalition” stepped up to argue for a target that would avoid many of the most horrific effects. Although Secretary of State John Kerry and chief negotiator Todd Stern had been working with the coalition since July, they announced on Tuesday of the final week that the US had joined the EU, Norway, Mexico, and the bloc of 48 “most vulnerable” nations calling for a binding agreement with regular checks on countries’ progress and a uniform tracking system. That may have been the tipping point.

The significance of 1.5° is greater even than the difference between the “2° world” we’ve been contemplating and a more livable future. There was a kind of grim, slogging complacency around 2 degrees, which everyone understood to be a catastrophic amount of warming. 1.5 is completely different, because it offers real hope of less ice-sheet melting, less inundation of island nations…a much more livable planet. This is a goal we can embrace with joy and determination, which is what we saw in the hall the night the agreement was adopted in Paris. And the difference in the psychological environment can make a tremendous difference in the outcome.

Most important in the short term, it’s a game changer for all of us working on our little pieces of this big-as-the-earth problem. With 1.5° in our sights we need to re-evaluate everything we thought we were going to be doing, change our timelines for emissions reductions to reach peak fossil fuel use sooner and substitute alternatives quicker. And that should be our New Year’s resolution: Take a hard look at our plans and goals, and step it up!

A few more semi-random observations from Paris:

• California is a major player on the global stage, and we’re lucky to be working here. What we accomplish here can make a real difference, because we’re leading and the world is watching.

• It’s pretty much the world against the fossil fuel companies. Coal especially, and also natural gas wells and fracking causing methane leaks are the immediate problem, and no one was sugar-coating the fact. At least in Europe, the fossil fuel industry got the message.

• Divestment is not only a phenomenon—having spawned a global movement that has taken off far beyond expectations—it’s an essential tool that large investors and fund managers must use if fossil fuel companies don’t do the right thing, i.e., change their business practices. This most interesting press briefing (where Kevin de León is applauded for his remarks) includes a discussion of funds’ potential legal liability if they hold on to fossil fuel stocks as the risk of stranded assets grows.

• The role of business, and of innovation, in meeting the 1.5° goal can’t be overstated—and in fact this is the variable that we can’t quantify. Governments are going to lay the foundation by regulating fossil fuel industries, subsidizing alternative energy sources, and providing essential funding for the developing world as well as “loss and damage,” but the global business community (intransigent fossil fuel companies excepted) are going to get the job done. In this context, listening to motivated billionaires (Branson, Musk, Gates, Steyer, Bloomberg, etc. etc.) is pretty exciting. If you didn’t watch the video I linked to an earlier post, here again are Michael Bloomberg and Mark Carney ready to rip.

• CalPERS and CalSTRS were well represented in Paris, but they seemed to me to be far behind their northern European counterparts. After a riveting kickoff introduction by Al Gore, CalSTRS CEO Jack Ehnes spoke on one investors’ panel about the importance of electing good company board members, and was promptly called out by a union leader for not going further, and asking the companies to change. In another panel, where fund managers and insurance executives from France and Scandinavia explained that they are divesting from fossil fuels because their beneficiaries deserve a livable future, CalPERS global governance director Anne Simpson could only talk about “proxy access” and apparently interminable shareholder engagement with the companies that continue to invest in the destruction of our human habitat.

1 Comment

  1. Anne Marie Tipton on January 2, 2016 at 9:30 am

    Let’s step it up!!!!