The climate news last week came out of Paris, where the world’s nations signed off on an agreement to finally begin addressing global warming.
Or, alternately, the climate news came out of Chennai, India, where hundreds died as flooding turned a city of five million into an island. And out of Britain, where the heaviest rains ever measured over 24 hours in the Lake District turned picturesque villages into lakes. And out of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, where record rainfalls flooded atolls.
In the hot, sodden mess that is our planet as 2015 drags to a close, the pact reached in Paris feels, in a lot of ways, like an ambitious agreement designed for about 1995, when the first conference of parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change took place in Berlin.
Under its provisions, nations have made voluntary pledges to begin reducing their carbon emissions. These are modest — the United States, for instance, plans to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 2025 by 12 to 19 percent from their levels in 1990. As the scrupulous scorekeepers at Climate Action Tracker, a nongovernment organization, put it, that’s a “medium” goal “at the least ambitious end of what would be a fair contribution.”
And that’s about par for the course here. Other countries, like gas station owners on opposite corners looking at each other’s prices, have calibrated their targets about the same: enough to keep both environmentalists and the fossil fuel industry from complaining too much. They have managed to provide enough financing to keep poor countries from walking out of the talks, but not enough to really push the renewables revolution into high gear. (Secretary of State John Kerry, in a fine speech, doubled America’s contribution — to $800 million, which is more than Congress is likely to appropriate, but risible compared to the need.)
So the world emerges, finally, with something like a climate accord, albeit unenforceable. If all parties kept their promises, the planet would warm by an estimated 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit, or 3.5 degrees Celsius, above preindustrial levels. And that is way, way too much. We are set to pass the 1 degree Celsius mark this year, and that’s already enough to melt ice caps and push the sea level threateningly higher.