We’ll only know years from now, but the climate summit opening today in Paris could prove to be transformative. It could set in motion a new dynamic among nations that, over time, will progressively strengthen the global climate effort.
Any agreement coming out of Paris will, by some measures, fall short. Countries’ nationally determined contributions move us closer, but not close enough, to the goal of keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius. And for those who believe legally binding emission targets are essential, the outcome will likely be disappointing.
But relying solely on those yardsticks would undervalue the potential of the deal taking shape.
For the first time in more than two decades of climate diplomacy, we are on the verge of a binding agreement that commits all countries to contribute their best efforts, holds them accountable for their promises, and works to build ambition over time.
Negotiators from more than 190 nations have the opportunity to work out an important and perhaps transformative international climate agreement in December in Paris.
But the work at the negotiating table has been preceded by countless steps taken by communities, states, companies and individuals across the globe to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are altering our climate. And long after the Paris talks have concluded, these actors will be crucial to building sustainable solutions to our climate and energy challenges.
Some of the world’s largest cities have been working to lower emissions by purchasing green power, introducing electric vehicle programs and policies, turning waste into compost and fuel, and improving the energy efficiency of buildings. Other cities have developed multi-tiered climate commitments through the Compact of Mayors. And many communities are assessing their vulnerabilities to the impacts of climate change that we’re already experiencing and will worsen.
With negotiators about to start international climate talks, you might have missed a notable climate effort at the state level: A new report from Maryland’s Department of the Environment shows the state is on track to beat its goal of reducing its emissions 25 percent below 2006 levels by the year 2020.
Since that goal was set in 2009, Maryland has implemented a range of programs to reduce emissions from the energy sector, transportation, agriculture and buildings. The state also benefitted from changes in energy markets as power generators moved from coal to natural gas, and changes in driving behavior, with Marylanders driving fewer miles than forecast.
Additionally, Maryland participates in the nine-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a cap-and-trade program that has generated revenues the state has used to help thousands of low- and moderate-income families and hundreds of farms improve efficiency and save money on their energy bills.
Maryland isn’t the only state that has set ambitious targets to curb greenhouse gases. According to our research, 18 other states have set targets over the past 15 years. Eight states, Maryland among them, stand out as leaders for setting targets by legislative action or executive order, requiring progress reports and updates of original climate plans, and aggressively pursuing initiatives to achieve the targets.
Why are states acting?
Already, Maryland and other states are experiencing the types of impacts -- excessive heat, droughts, heavy downpours -- expected to become more frequent and intense as a result of climate change. No one individual weather event can be attributed directly to climate change; climate is a pattern of events over time. However, it is clear that the costs to property, crops, and public health from impacts consistent with climate change are already significant.
A series of C2ES briefs explores key climate impacts and estimates how they might affect Maryland’s heat-related mortality, coastal property, labor productivity, energy expenditures, and agricultural output as well as its infrastructure, tourism, ecosystems, water resources and human health beyond heat-related mortality.
Climate scientists tell us that even deeper emissions reductions are necessary in the coming decades to avoid more serious and costly impacts. Recently, the Maryland Climate Change Commission, a government advisory board, unanimously recommended that the state set a new goal to cut its emissions 40 percent by 2030. The recommendation, supported by additional C2ES analysis, is likely to be taken up in the General Assembly next year.
Maryland cannot tackle climate change alone. But by working to reduce emissions today, setting strong reduction targets for the future, and growing a clean energy economy, Maryland is creating a powerful example other states will want to follow.
It is well known that climate change will alter the occurrence of extreme weather events like heat waves, droughts, and severe storms. But weather is unpredictable and naturally variable, so how can we be sure climate change is happening today?
Climate change attribution
Scientists have recently developed tools for so-called event attribution, to say (through the use of statistics) whether a particular extreme weather event is caused by climate change. The fourth annual report on event attribution was just published in the journal Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (BAMS). Researchers around the globe used different methods to assess 28 events that occurred in 2014. They found that some of these events probably would not have happened without climate change.
Any individual weather event is a part of a chaotic and complex system (yes, those are the technical terms). Because of this, it is theoretically impossible to predict weather over any meaningful timescale. So scientists turn to probabilities.
When your local weather forecaster tells you there’s a 30 percent chance of rain, that number doesn’t come out of a hat. The percentage comes from many weather models run over and over again. A 30 percent chance of rain tomorrow means that for every 100 model simulations of the weather tomorrow, 30 had rain.
Secretary of State John Kerry caused a bit of a stir with comments this week in the Financial Times suggesting that the Paris climate agreement will not be a legally binding treaty.
It appears Mr. Kerry has stepped somewhat inelegantly into a legal morass that doesn’t translate easily into sound bites.
There’s understandably a great deal of confusion about the finer legal points at issue here, in part because the term “treaty” means different things under international and U.S. law. The bottom line is that the Paris agreement will very likely be a treaty under international law, but probably not a treaty as that term is generally understood in the U.S. context.
To elaborate a bit (for a fuller explanation see an excellent legal analysis authored for us by Arizona State University legal scholar Dan Bodansky):