Progress! The Paris climate accord.

summit

“How wonderful, how beautiful,

when brothers and sisters get along! It’s like costly anointing oil

flowing down head and beard,

Flowing down Aaron’s beard,

flowing down the collar of his priestly robes.

It’s like the dew on Mount Hermon

flowing down the slopes of Zion.

Yes, that’s where God commands the blessing,

ordains eternal life.” – Psalm 133. A Song of Ascents

The December 12-13, 2015 weekend news headlines touch on many subjects, but almost all make some reference to the U.N.-sponsored climate meetings that are wrapping up in Paris after two weeks of deliberations. Some 196 nations have signed onto the draft accord. The 31-page draft statement addresses a range of policy issues: shared international intent to limit warming to 1.50– 20C; reducing emissions due to deforestation and forest degradation; building the mutual trust and confidence needed for collaboration and implementation; anticipating and compensating for loss and damage resulting from climate change; and establishing and drawing upon a number of financial instruments to cover the costs of all this. Each of the signatories promises to update and communicate a new, more ambitious, nationally-determined contribution every five years.

Good news, especially to a beleaguered world that could use some cheer. Our global engagement as nations and individuals has lately been marked by war; terrorism; a world economy struggling to regain a bit of momentum following the 2008 meltdown; desperate poverty; religious schisms; mistrust, polarization, and willingness to forego truth in looking for shortcuts to sway hearts and minds on every subject imaginable; and millions of refugees on the move, fleeing violent hotspots. In the midst of all that dysfunction and clamor, how remarkable to find world leaders, governments, and publics in agreement on this complex, multi-faceted swarm of momentous challenges.

The accord is therefore heartening in two respects.

First, on its own merits. It represents a substantive good-faith effort to solve a major set of challenges often lumped together under the label of climate change: global warming; changes in precipitation patterns and especially in the location and intensity of extremes of storm, flood, and drought; sea-level rise; ocean acidification; accompanying impacts on ecosystems, food and water supplies, and human health; and more. A key component is reduction on fossil-fuel dependence, but other steps are required, encompassing forest and ecosystem management, and adaptation, especially to extremes. All agree that the initial measures to be taken globally will not attain the desired goal, but that stepwise improvements by all parties every five years just might get us there. To see nations setting aside their differences with respect to so many of 21st-century challenges and even their widely divergent views with respect to this one in order to settle on a course of action is by itself encouraging. It promises a better future for the planet and all seven billion of us. We haven’t seen such an improvement in our prospects since the end of the Cold War.

Second, because the policy approach can be extended to other global challenges. Important as the climate accord is intrinsically, it is far more encouraging in a second, broader respect. Nations of the world have tacitly reaffirmed their willingness to set aside differences in common cause. In the process, they’ve created (or adapted, depending on your point of view) a template for solving a number of the other ills that assail us. The key(s)? A list something like this:

  • reduce the emphasis on assigning blame
  • set a generally-acceptable global aspirational goal, no matter how low the bar (in this case, a maximum acceptable temperature rise)
  • don’t insist that nations conform to a cookie-cutter approach going forward; instead
  • articulate individual national perspectives on the problem
  • describe with some clarity and specificity what steps respective domestic in-country politics will allow, and commit to those individually acceptable measures; and finally,
  • commit to continuing, open dialog, and continuous improvement in performance nation by nation, to close the gap between the initial pace of progress, and the accelerated pace required down the road.

There’s probably not a single 21st-century problem that can’t be resolved using this approach[1].

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Three closing observations.

First, don’t mistake bumps in the road for failure. The 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Summit was widely viewed at the time as a step back from preceding conferences. But in fact the tumult and negotiations there contained the seeds of the new approach that after six years of discussion have led to this past week’s success.

Second, thousands of years ago, the Middle East knew only Judaism[2]; it had yet to be joined and extended by Christianity and Islam. Israelites who went up to Jerusalem to worship several times a year would sing songs of ascents as they made their climb[3]. The Pilgrims understood the transcendent importance of being in community with one another – brothers and sisters getting along. They didn’t see this as trivial. Instead they saw something fundamentally priestly about it, a dimension of ministry to one another, and respect for the sanctity of ministry reciprocally offered and received by all parties. Chances are they’d have recognized a similar spirit in Paris – made all the more remarkable by the terrible events of just a few weeks prior.

Third, Earth scientists still face great tasks ahead, but ought to allow themselves a measure of satisfaction from their contributions to the decades of deliberation and dialog leading up to the Paris Summit. All the field work and experiments and analysis and modeling – and yes, disputes and disagreements and flare-ups – have been needed to get the world focused on coping strategies for climate change. At the same time we might contemplate whether we can make greater contributions to future progress by getting along a bit better as we continue our climb.

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[1] In fact, J.F. Rischard proposed an approach very similar to this in his highly readable and prescient book, High Noon: 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Solve Them (2003)

[2] and variations of idol worship

[3] the songs of ascents are worth reading in their entirety. Eugene Peterson, in his 1980 book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction provides an excellent commentary; it’s drawn-from here.

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