Paris climate accord: Victory for people and wildlife

Climate change is destroying the coral reefs and forests that harbor so much of our world’s biodiversity.Saturday, December 12, 2015 may go down in history as the day that prevented global catastrophe.

All eyes were on Paris, France, where delegates from 195 countries had gathered to hammer out an accord that would prevent the worst effects of global warming. In a vote that was decades in the making, the countries unanimously agreed to drastically cut emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, and to provide funding to developing nations that are already struggling with the damaging effects of climate change.

The terms “climate change” or “global warming” are oddly sterile; they imply little about the impacts that make this process so disruptive and an existential threat to wildlife including elephants, whales and many other species we’ve worked so hard to protect from more traditional threats.

As IFAW CEO Azzedine Downes, wrote last week, we are still learning what we need to do to safeguard these animals, but by prioritizing “ecosystem integrity planning” (such as IFAW’s work in Malawi and Zambia) we can help ensure that humans and elephants can withstand the greatest dangers of climate change. Dr. Jane Goodall, a UN Messenger of Peace, joined Azzedine on stage in Paris to drive home the message that all communities must act decisively, and their appeals were answered in the final vote just days later.

And not a moment too soon: Scientists warn that we have already reached the tipping point for irreversible upheaval of the planet’s weather systems, a fact starkly illustrated by the vanishing polar ice caps, surging oceans, and massive droughts that have devastated large swaths of the globe from California to Brazil to Syria. Climate change is destroying the coral reefs and forests that harbor so much of our world’s biodiversity, and is disproportionately affecting the poorest human communities, particularly in low-lying coastal areas and island nations.

Despite the scientific consensus and a growing recognition of the danger by the political establishment and the public, the Paris Agreement was far from a predetermined success. In the run-up to the talks, hedging by some of the biggest polluters – including China and India – and the uncertain ability of the United States to commit to a binding accord, led some observers to predict that these meetings would fall apart without consequence, as so many others had in years past. In the end, however, delegates from every nation shouldered responsibility for changing the status quo, a remarkable spirit of collaboration that resulted in a game-changing pact and set the stage for more action in the years ahead.

In very broad strokes, the Agreement has four key outcomes:

  •  Development of a mechanism to keep global temperature rise "well below" 2°C (3.6°F) – the point at which recovery may be impossible – and "endeavor to limit" them even more to 1.5°C (2.7°F).
  • A commitment to limit human-caused greenhouse gas emissions to the levels that trees, soil and oceans can absorb naturally, beginning at some point between 2050 and 2100.
  • A binding requirement that countries regularly submit emissions reduction targets, and review these targets every five years so they gradually scale up to the challenge.
  • A commitment from rich countries to help poorer nations by providing "climate finance" to help them adapt to climate change and switch to renewable energy.

Here in the United States, we have much work to do.

Embarrassingly, roughly half of the U.S. Congress is on record as saying that humans have little to do with global warming, arguing instead that we should proceed with business as usual – pumping offshore oil wells, digging coal seams, and using new, risky technology like “fracking” to bleed every last ounce of hydrocarbons from the Earth’s crust. The Obama administration, to its credit, has worked hard to avoid the congressional logjam, but with the White House up for grabs next year, it’s crucial that both parties carry forward the momentum from France and continue to assert American leadership.

As the world’s richest nation and its second-biggest emitter of carbon pollution, we have both the opportunity and the responsibility to do so, by prioritizing solar and wind power, modernizing our electrical grid, restoring our natural landscapes so they can avoid the worst impacts of climate change, and, crucially, by providing poorer nations with both climate financing and technology.

Paris was the starting line, not the finish.

But the race has finally begun.


For my European colleagues point of view, read here

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Azzedine Downes,IFAW President and CEO
President and Chief Executive Officer
Beth Allgood, Country Director, United States
Country Director, United States
Cynthia Milburn, Director, Animal Welfare Outreach & Education
Senior Advisor, Policy Development
Faye Cuevas, Esq.
Senior Vice President
Grace Ge Gabriel, Regional Director, Asia
Regional Director, Asia
Jason Bell, Vice President for Conservation and Animal Welfare
Vice President for Conservation and Animal Welfare
Jimmiel Mandima at IFAW
Deputy Vice President of Conservation
Executive Vice President
Executive Vice President
Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
Director, International Policy
Patrick Ramage, Program Director, Whales
Program Director, Marine Conservation
Rikkert Reijnen, Program Director, Wildlife Crime
Program Director, Wildlife Crime