Tuesday, December 1, 2015

How We Doin' So Far?

So the long road has finally brought us to Paris, where all eyes rest on the shoulders of those delegates who hold the earth's future in their hands while they try to put it on life support. Let's at least hope for Metaphor Change before the rhetoric heats up beyond our human endurance.

Seriously, for all the problematic dimensions of this process, I have to think the conference has started well, due in no small part to our remarkable President. Burdened by an oppositional Congress and a field of absolute idiots who seek to ridicule and replace him, Obama managed to bring credibility and common sense with him to Paris. Most critically, he urged support for a binding process of review, transparency, and periodic reevaluation which would mean that the Paris agreement can serve as a platform for further advances in energy conversion. That's a reasonable way to frame the otherwise inadequate proposals on offer from the world's nations, and it's the best a US leader can do, given the Congress we have elected. Obama, whose political skills have often been questioned, has emerged as a wily and capable world leader at this crucial moment.

The other promising thing is simply the volume of discussion, attention, and even urgency that attends the start of this conference. Inviting 145 leaders of state and government to appear--and then sending them away after their 3-minute addresses--is a way to dramatize for all but the most obtuse how much consensus there is around the goals of COP 21--even though its particular propositions will draw plenty of disagreement. Inviting the world's billionaires and big corporations to pitch in, while it arouses my suspicions, is also a pragmatic and perhaps useful initiative, given the realities of wildly maldistributed wealth. If Bill Gates and his friends can raise billions for the Green Climate Fund, perhaps the failure of Congress to appropriate a dime won't matter as much. As scientists and policy wonks from all over find a venue for their ideas, perhaps some important innovations will come to the surface. There is an excitement in the air that makes me feel this event is almost living up to its world-historical intentions.

Problems around the bend? Sure. The question of financing new technologies for poorer countries that need and deserve them will not be easily resolved. India's INDC is not nearly good enough, Russia's is mendacious, China's promises may be hard to believe in, and our majority party in Congress is shouting to the world that the US proposals are even less reliable. Many, many advocates, including these distinguished economists and policy-makers, recognize the need for a global carbon tax, but there doesn't seem to be a political opening at the moment. Loss and damage provisions are viewed as essential by the most vulnerable nations, but any such proposal will send delegates from the developed nations screaming from the room. (That's a quote from one of them.)

So no, it won''t be a smooth path from here to utopia, but the progress since Copenhagen, or Rio, looks substantial. Let's hope the mood holds, and let's prepare to build, not rest, on the work being done in these next 10 days.

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