Column: Paris Summit is our last chance to tackle climate change

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Centre, in Paris, on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015. Obama discussed the COP21 climate change summit, and the threat of terrorism from the Islamic State Group. (AP)

“The hope of all humanity rests on your shoulders.” As melodramatic as this statement by the French president may seem it is true. We have reached a critical point in human history. For years, the world has struggled to put together a cohesive plan to address the imminent threat of climate change. Over the next two weeks, however, nearly 200 countries with 30,000 diplomats and numerous heads of state will attempt to strike an agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions and take the first step towards reversing climate change.  

The consensus of the scientific community (excluding the scientists that go on Fox News and point at snow) is that the global temperature increase from pre-industrial levels needs to be limited to 2 degrees Celsius (3.2 degrees Fahrenheit). Currently, the increase in global temperatures has reached just over 1 degree Celsius.  

More than 170 plans for combatting climate change have been submitted by nations for the Paris talks. Several independent and academic analyses have determined that these individual plans would still allow the planet to heat as much as 6 degrees Fahrenheit. With this level of warming scientists say that food shortages and extinctions of plant and animal life are still likely to occur. However, without these policies the temperature could increase as much as 8 degrees, which would be incredibly devastating.

These talks are a turning point, not an endpoint. The current agreements will lower emissions, but not enough to avert dangerous changes to our climate. The countries present, however, understand that trying to lower emissions too quickly to the necessary levels would not be economically feasible for some and would lack the unanimous support that is required for such a pact.  As a result, the U.N. plans to reconvene every  five to 10 years to set new goals with the intent of improving upon their Paris commitments.  

There is no guarantee that any agreement will be passed, however. One obstacle is that many developing nations want to continue burning fossil fuels to grow their economy. They see the problem as being primarily created by the developed countries of the world. As a result, many developed nations, including the U.S., have pledged to collectively send $100 billion annually to developing countries to help their transition to cleaner energy and pay for the effects of climate change.  

Sadly, another major obstacle is the United States. Forty nine U.S. senators voted “no” on a resolution earlier this year that claimed human activity was a significant contributor to climate change. This lack of acceptance of science is one of the primary reasons that the U.N. is not trying to pass a formal treaty. Treaties require two-thirds approval from Congress so there is not chance the U.S. could ratify one. Instead, the Republican denial of scientific fact has forced the entire world to avoid the legal definition of a treaty during negotiations and rely on a form of “international peer pressure” to make sure all countries abide by the agreement.

Moreover, because Republicans apparently felt they hadn’t done enough to hamper the people trying to save the planet they have told other countries to not trust any deal that Obama makes because they will fight against it. Many are taking steps to nullify the efforts the president has made in the U.S. to cut emissions. Republican presidential candidates have vowed to undo the president’s regulations on power plants, which are critical to cutting emissions by the 26 percent to 28 percent that he has promised.

We are beginning to see the effects of climate change. 2015 is almost guaranteed to be the hottest year on record. 2014 is the second hottest. Scientists don’t make up facts; they report them. It is imperative that we heed their warning and take this opportunity to make a real change. Even if the countries reach an agreement in Paris, there will still be a ways to go to avoid more damage to our planet. But no agreement at all would be catastrophic.  

This is an issue that unites us all. It is our duty to take action before we lose control over the situation, before we hand over a broken planet to the next generation. In 50 years we can look back on this moment as the one where humanity took a stand and united against a deadly threat. Or we can look back and regret that we didn’t take action when we had a chance.


Jacob Kowalski is a contributor to The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at jacob.kowalski@uconn.edu.