Years ago the acerbic Oregon senator Wayne Morse had a solution for the Vietnam war: declare victory and come home. Cynics may see the Paris conference ending the same way. Certainly there is a certain false ring to the triumphalism in the official statements. But is this a hollow victory?
In some ways yes: the language on emissions reductions is alarmingly weak ("as soon as possible"), and the ambitious target of 1.5 degrees C in temperature rise is only aspirational. In fact none of the concrete measures, individual or collective, are binding in any legal sense. This weakness has led James Hansen to call the agreement a "fraud" and The Guardian's George Monbiot to call it a "disaster."
The only objective rebuttal would be to invoke the periodic reviews (starting as early as 2018, and officially every 5 years from 2020) with the intention of 'ratcheting up' what everyone recognizes are inadequate proposals. One could also cite various funding commitments, though the overall accounting for the 'Green Fund' and related projects will take a lot of sorting out before we know what's real.
But I believe there is a positive reality in the way it feels this time: a greater sense of cooperation and compromise than was possible 6 years ago, a broader recognition even among the reluctant nations and interests that this problem can't be ignored. Starting with a US president more adept at working around a neanderthal Congress, and state governments like California's that have moved ahead on their own; including a more capable and cooperative leadership cadre in China; building on years of achievement in Europe and new resolve in emerging powers like Brazil; and yes, drawing the attention of financial and corporate powers, who feel the need to get on board in some visible way--these represent subjective but real changes in the global landscape. Paris was the occasion for these many parties, governmental and non-, to reorient to the new realities. Not altogether, not enough yet, but substantially.
The danger is that anyone might think the job is done. It has barely started. The challenge? To keep the momentum, both among governmental policy makers and advocacy groups, that Paris has accelerated. Particularly among advocates: any relaxation of pressure would allow the actual agents to take the easier road of limited compliance. My perception is that advocacy in the US falls way short of what would be needed even under a Clinton presidency, much less the nightmare of a Republican administration, to keep the renewable energy transformation moving forward. We need to do better.
At the top of my wish list? A movement for a global carbon tax. Next? Massive capital transfers to India and the other members of the 'global solar alliance' it brought to Paris. Third? Technology transfers between China and the US, and then all over the world, following the lead of the Chinese-American city to city partnerships that began this fall. There are thousands of great ideas out there for energy efficiency and conservation as well as clean energy generation, but we need to speed up the pace of trial and innovation. Local interventions--like persuading the Massachusetts legislature to stand up to the utilities and continue supports for domestic solar installation--may be the most important--and winnable--battles.
Was Paris a turning point in this great human drama to avert our own destruction? We will only know the answer in retrospect. Let's hope it's 'Yes.' Better yet, let's resolve, starting today, to make it so.