On December 12, an announcement from the COP21 conference in Paris grabbed headlines around the world. After two weeks of negotiations, 195 nations agreed on a plan to reduce carbon emissions and cap global warming at 2 degrees Celsius, or even 1.5 degrees, in the longer term.
However, the agreement was toned down as the US convinced other countries to adopt the word “should” (instead of the more powerful legal implications of the word “shall”) in order to bypass a veto by the Republican-controlled US Senate.
There were other compromises from previous hardline positions as well, but that was only expected given the negotiations of this magnitude.
That said, the slightly toned down agreement is not necessarily less powerful than it may seem. On the contrary, the moral significance of the agreement should not be lost on everyone. The world’s nations have finally put forth in a document that they agree with the promise of limiting carbon emissions to prevent dangerous climate change.
We should remember that when John F. Kennedy said in 1961 that “I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth,” the scientists and engineers of NASA did not even have all the knowledge and details of how to achieve the mission.
JFK could have said “I command” instead of the weaker “I believe.” But that belief, instead of a command, would turn into a powerful vision that would electrify the world. It would be achieved even after his death, because his words had been the moral force that propelled legions of men and women to achieve what seemed impossible a few years earlier.
The Paris COP21 is like JFK’s moon address. It should even have immense moral power to propel the world’s engineers, scientists, policymakers, businessmen, financiers, and others to achieve our new moon shot – to move our source of energy from fossil fuels into renewable clean sources in order to curb global warming.
Naysayers will always say that anything short of a mandatory commitment will not work. But that belief is borne out of a lack of trust in the human spirit. Mankind, if given the chance, can rise to the occasion and show why it was given the power of reason and action. We must believe in our own capacity to create change for good.
Policymakers should continue with their work of adding details to the agreement. Financiers and big business should lead the way towards the transformation of their enterprises into low carbon ventures. Scientists and engineers should continue to find means to make renewables and cleantech better and cheaper.
Governments should lessen the burden for firms that adopt clean energy while penalizing those who burn too much fossil fuel. The penalties can come in the form of carbon taxes or other means.
Individuals should exercise their power of choice, even if sometimes (though increasingly no longer true) that choice initially may turn out to be more expensive before it will become cheaper because of innovation and economies of scale.
The harder task is now up to us. If we continue with business as usual, and continue with our current path of using fossil fuels indiscriminately, then the words on the agreement forged in Paris COP21 will be just that – words.
But if we fit our actions to fulfill the moral imperative of that document, then perhaps by the end of this decade, we will have our own version of the impossible dream here on earth.
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