“The Promise of Paris”: Looking Forward After the Climate Conference

By Janette Rosenbaum — Five Madison-based delegates to the recent Paris climate conference reconvened for a panel discussion on February 9. The event, titled “The Promise of Paris”, was hosted by the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, which also hosted the December 3 webcast from the conference.

The event opened with an introduction by Jane Elder, executive director of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters, followed by a video of conference highlights. Moderator Rick Keller, the associate dean of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s international division, opened the discussion with a series of questions following up on comments the panelists made at the December webcast. The responses set the tone for the evening.

The agreement that emerged from the conference “exceeded expectations, but did not meet all of my hopes,” said Jonathan Patz, director of the Global Health Institute at UW–Madison. Or, as Sumudu Atapattu, director of research centers at the UW Law School, put it, “Considering what it could have been, it’s a miracle. Considering what it should have been, it’s a disaster.”

On the positive side, Patz pointed out the unanticipated agreements to hold global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, and to review each country’s contributions to that goal every five years. Atapattu praised the decision to have countries commit to greenhouse gas reductions ahead of the conference, while Jeff Thompson, CEO emeritus of Gundersen Health System, was encouraged by the number of nongovernmental conference attendees who expressed determination to move forward regardless of what their heads of state did.

On the negative side, Atapattu was disappointed that references to the link between climate change and human rights, present in early drafts of the agreement, did not survive into the final version. However, she notes, countries are already bound by other human rights agreements, the terms of which will apply to the Paris agreement and any other international climate change action that emerges.

Climate change and health

Similarly, Thompson was sorry to see mentions of human health disappear from the agreement. The elimination of these points was due to questions about who would pay to address health issues. Wealthy countries, which have contributed most to climate-change-related health problems and thus are logically responsible for the cost of fixing the problems, don’t want to foot the bill.

Right now, Patz added, the United States is the country most responsible for the climate change we are currently experiencing. He mentioned a report, just released by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which concluded that the Clean Power Plan — the US’s strategy for meeting its commitments under the Paris agreement — would result in substantially fewer asthma attacks and missed school days among children. Unfortunately, in other recent news, the Supreme Court has put a temporary hold on the Clean Power Plan, while it reviews challenges from the states.

Back in the realm of good news, the Clean Power Plan is not the only means by which the United States can reduce greenhouse gas pollution. Thompson again emphasized the contributions of mayors and business leaders in addressing climate change. Nathan Schulfer, professional programs coordinator for UW-Madison’s Nelson Institute, named “higher education, cooperation, and training” as important components of a successful strategy for meeting pollution-reduction commitments.  

Altogether, said Clay Nesler, vice president for global energy and sustainability at Johnson Controls, the commitments submitted by countries attending the Paris conference are estimated to lead to 2.5 – 2.7 degrees Celsius of warming. While that’s more than the 2-degree cutoff above which scientists say climate change will become increasingly disastrous, it’s far better than the expected results of a “business as usual” scenario.

The discussion ended on a positive note, with questions on how citizens can help fight global warming, and on how to explain the Paris agreement to children. A video of the event will be available soon on the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery’s website.