The climate talks taking place in Paris won’t result in sweeping new policies — or a real plan to slow Earth’s warming. But, that doesn’t make them meaningless. The most important outcome of the international conference will be a reaffirmation that individual countries must set goals and take action — and that their progress will be monitored.
The consensus among scientists has long been known: Earth’s surface, generally, is warming; sea ice and glaciers are melting, contributing to rising ocean levels; oceans are warmer and more acidic; plants and animals are becoming extinct at alarming rates, often replaced by invasive species. Droughts, floods and other natural disasters will continue to displace people, contributing to political instability and fighting, the Pentagon reiterated in a report this summer.
Despite clear evidence of a problem, many countries — most notably the United States — have been too accommodating to skeptics (many of whom are funded by industries, such as fossil fuel companies, that benefit from the status quo) and too timid to make overdue policy changes.
Take, for example, the Clean Power Plan. Realizing that Congress was not up to the task, President Barack Obama had the Environmental Protection Agency release rules this summer that — for the first time in the United States — put limits on carbon emissions from power plants. This, of course, is not the preferable course of action, but when the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s response to climate change is to throw a snowball on the Senate floor, the president and EPA had little choice but to bypass Congress
Predictably, Republicans in Congress are trying to stop this needed action. Sen. Susan Collins was one of only three Republicans in the Senate to vote against a Republican move to block the regulations last month. Sen. Angus King, an independent, also voted against the move, which passed but will be vetoed by Obama. More important, five fewer senators voted to block the plan than did in March. In the House this week, Democrat Rep. Chellie Pingree voted against a similar measure; Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin voted to block the pollution reducing rules, which will also reduce instances of asthma and other lung ailments by improving air quality.
The rules are far from draconian. Fourteen states are on track to surpass the Clean Power Plan’s 2020 targets, according to an analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Maine and the eight other northeastern states that participate in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the regional carbon credit trading program, are among them.
Maine, for example, is on track to surpass its 2020 emissions reduction goal by 123 percent, mostly because of energy efficiency improvements and the remainder from the development of renewable energy. States that are reliant on coal will have a harder time meeting their goals.
Because they are so modest, efforts such as the Clean Power Plan won’t stop climate change, but they are important steps. The Paris talks can ensure that these steps continue by cementing a global commitment to reducing emissions and putting in place an aggressive system that requires review and upgrading of national pledges to reduce emissions.