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The View from Sapsucker Woods: The Paris Climate Agreement

By John W.Fitzpatrick
Gulls fly at sunset. Photo by Jay Diaz via Birdshare.
Gulls fly at sunset. Photo by Jay Diaz via Birdshare.

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On December 13, 2015, Ithaca, New York, experienced a re­cord 62°F. The following day’s high temperature of 64°F broke the 1927 record by 8 degrees. These are weather anomalies, presumably caused by a record-breaking El Niño building in the Pacific. Longer-term climate patterns are on a parallel course: 2015 will likely beat 2014 as the earth’s warmest year since record-keeping be­gan in 1880, and the 10 warmest years on record have all occurred since 1998. This year the global concentration of carbon dioxide exceeded 400 parts per million, a level not previously experienced on earth for millions of years. Effects of the high-carbon energy diet of 7 billion people are now certainly upon us.

In Paris, on the day preceding Itha­ca’s record highs, representatives of nearly 200 countries concluded a historic assembly convened under the auspices of the United Nations Frame­work Convention on Climate Change. Delegates at this 21st session of the Conference of the Parties (“COP21”) signed an unprecedented document of monumental importance. The Adop­tion declaration is 19 pages long, and the Paris Agreement itself is an addi­tional 12 pages, drafted as 29 Articles.

These documents present a fasci­nating study in global policy and com­promise. Some people complain that the Agreement is non-binding, but I find this naïve because the alternative (200 countries signing a legally binding document) was impossible. The Agreement is powerful as a unani­mous, aspirational statement, and its headline-grabbing objective (Article 2) is disarmingly clear: “Holding the increase in the global average tempera­ture to well below 2°C above pre-in­dustrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, rec­ognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.” Article 4 also begins clearly: “Developed country Parties shall con­tinue taking the lead by undertaking economy-wide absolute emission re­duction targets.”

Climate scientists project that to stay below a warming of 1.5°C, fos­sil-fuel emissions must peak no later than 2020 and the world must be en­tirely free of fossil-fuel use by 2050. These targets raise enormous ques­tions about what the alternative-en­ergy landscapes of the future will look like. In the United States we have our work cut out for us, as greenhouse gas emissions (about 6.5 billion metric tons in 2013, mainly carbon dioxide and methane) have fallen only slightly since their 2007 peak. The technolog­ical and environmental challenges are gargantuan, but we must face them.

Of special importance to Cornell Lab programs, Article 5 begins, “Par­ties should take action to conserve and enhance, as appropriate, sinks and res­ervoirs of greenhouse gases…includ­ing forests” and specifically advocates conservation and sustainable man­agement of forests as global carbon stocks. In other words, retention and restoration of forests are essential for planetary health and human well-be­ing. Our work and partnerships in for­est conservation—such as agroforestry programs with shade-grown coffee farmers and reforestation on working landscapes for Golden-winged War­blers—will advance these goals. Arti­cle 12 states, “Parties shall cooperate… to enhance climate change education, training, public awareness, public par­ticipation and public access to infor­mation.” This goal is in lock-step with the Lab’s commitment to science com­munication and public engagement. Article 14 prescribes a periodic “global stocktake” to assess progress toward achieving climate stability. With birds as key barometers of environmental health, the Lab’s leadership in global bird monitoring will be vital in assess­ing how natural systems respond to future climate scenarios.

Paris 2015 represents a new “line in the sand.” As individuals, commu­nities, organizations, industries, and countries, all of us must now identify how we will respond to this unprec­edented call to action. Whether and how we do so may constitute the de­fining character of human society over the rest of this century.

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