“We’ve reached the limit. We’re on the verge of suicide, to use a strong word. And, I’m sure that nearly the entirety of all of those in Paris for the COP21 have this awareness and want to do something.”
This is how Pope Francis recently described the seriousness of global climate change and the urgency of 21st session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), currently taking place in Paris (from November 30 to December 11). Francis had earlier voiced his support for the conference’s goals prior to the release of his encyclical Laudato Si’.
For the sake of all creation, both present and future, I sincerely hope that the COP21 negotiators “want to do something” to reach an international climate treaty and avoid runaway, irreversible climate chaos. At the same time, I believe that there are millions (billions?) of people around the world who also want to participate in the prevention of climate suicide, to use the pope’s apt-if-provocative metaphor. Given the nature of COP21, however, many people may feel unable to meaningfully advocate internationally for global climate stability. “What can I – an average citizen – do to influence high-level international negotiations?” many people might dejectedly ask.
In response to this question, it is helpful to remember the aphorism “all politics is local.” This axiom is especially helpful for persons of faith in the United States for whom climate change is a moral issue but whose Congress – both past and present – has threatened international climate policy. In particular, the maxim “all politics is local” can empower persons of faith in the United States to contact their Senators and Representatives and demand that Congress support – rather than undermine – domestic climate rules that can catalyze an international climate change treaty.
CONFERENCE OF PARTIES TO THE UNFCCC
In 1992, 196 nations met in Rio de Janeiro and agreed on a framework by which to address human-forced climate change. The framework, known as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, recognized that global climate change requires a global solution and thus sought to forge an international climate change agreement. The 196 countries that are party to the UNFCCC have met annually since 1995 to negotiate such an agreement, and 2015 thus marks the 21st time that the Conference of Parties has met to this end.
In 1997, the third COP meeting produced the Kyoto Protocol according to which “37 industrialized countries and the European Community have committed to reducing their emissions by an average of 5 percent against 1990 levels over the five-year period 2008-2012.” In order to take effect, the Protocol required ratification by “at least 55 countries, accounting for 55% of the world’s emissions in 1990.”
Although President Bill Clinton signed the Protocol on November 12, 1998, the administration did not send the treaty for congressional ratification. This inaction occurred because the Protocol exempted then-developing nations from the legally binding emission reductions that the Senate legislated as a requirement for Congressional ratification. Absent ratification by the U.S. – which ultimately never occurred – many scholars argue that the Protocol has failed to realize its climate change mitigation potential.
In view of the rapidly closing window of opportunity within which to avoid a tipping point of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, many observers – including Pope Francis, as evidenced by the quote with which this article began – believe that COP21 potentially provides a last chance for the world to stave off runaway and irreversible climate change (for additional commentary on the importance of COP21 from a Catholic perspective, see Anthony Annett’s article “Why the Paris Climate Talks Matter“). In order to avoid a situation similar to that of the Kyoto Protocol, the United States needs to instill confidence in international negotiators through demonstrable commitments to domestic greenhouse gas emission reductions.
On August 3, 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finalized the nation’s first national carbon pollution rules. Known as the Clean Power Plan, the rules will reduce carbon emissions from power plants more than 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Additionally, as the Brookings Institution observes, the Clean Power Plan serves “as a symbolic gesture that shows that after years of being a laggard, the U.S. is attempting to show leadership on climate change.” In other words, the Plan demonstrates U.S. commitment to climate change mitigation in a way that can catalyze serious, good faith international climate negotiations.
In response to the Clean Power Plan, however, the Republican-controlled Congress has repeatedly worked to oppose, inhibit, and nullify the Obama administration’s carbon pollution rules. Most recently, both the Senate and House used the Congressional Review Act to disapprove of the Plan. Although the President is expected to veto the legislation, the “vote[s] effectively signal to the world that Obama’s climate policies lack support among many lawmakers at home.” This reality could compromise the willingness of other nations to negotiate a strong international climate agreement or support whatever agreement comes out of COP21. As such, the United States Congress threatens to once again impede global climate stability.
ALL POLITICS IS LOCAL
Given the connection between the Clean Power Plan and an international climate change agreement, and in the face of Congressional opposition to the Plan, Americans of faith should embrace the adage “all politics is local” and urge their Senators and Representative to support the Clean Power Plan. The Catholic Climate Covenant has published an advocacy tool by which people can do so in connection with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ support for a national carbon pollution standard, and all Americans of faith can use – and share – this instrument. All politics is indeed local, and in the case of an international climate change agreement, local American advocacy can influence global policy about the fate of the world.