The Paris accord won’t halt climate change, but it’s a step

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A view of the Blomstrand Glacier, June 16, 2016, in Ny-Alesund, Norway. REUTERS/Evan Vucci/Pool/File Photo - RTX2L5RI

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JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: The international climate agreement is set to take effect next month after enough countries pushed it past a key threshold this week. The European Parliament voted to ratify the accord. That means that more than 60 countries, accounting for at least 55 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, have ratified it.

The agreement, reached in Paris less than a year ago, aims to lessen the effects of climate change. But the commitments are voluntary.

President Obama, who pushed for the deal, hailed the moment in the Rose Garden yesterday.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Today’s a historic day in the fight to protect our planet for future generations.

Ten months ago in Paris, I said before the world that we needed a strong global agreement to reduce carbon pollution and to set the world on a low-carbon course. Now, the Paris agreement alone will not solve the climate crisis. Even if we meet every target embodied in the agreement, we will only get to part of where we need to go. But make no mistake, this agreement will help delay or avoid some of the worst consequences of climate change.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Hillary Clinton also supports the accord. But Donald Trump has said he would withdraw from it and he called it a bad deal.

In a statement, his deputy policy director wrote it — quote — “ignores the reality that it will cost the American economy trillions of dollars. It will also impose enormous costs on American households through higher electricity prices and higher taxes. More of our coal miners will be forced out of work.”

We look closer now at what takes effect under the treaty, the limits of what can be done, and what climate science says about carbon dioxide and warming.

Gavin Schmidt is a climatologist and he’s the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

Gavin Schmidt, welcome to the “NewsHour.”

What is the significance of this accord, when even the president of the United States, who’s a supporter, says it’s only going to get us part of the way we need to go?

GAVIN SCHMIDT, Climatologist: Well, like the old proverb says, a journey of 1,000 miles starts with a single global agreement.

And this is where we’re at. We have an agreement now that encompasses — that’s in effect that encompasses every country in the world. Every country in the world is thinking that this is something that they need to get behind. Every country has promised to reduce emissions to the level that they signed up for.

While President Obama is correct that, in and of itself, this is not going to stop global warming, that’s a much bigger task. But this is a step in that right direction. And what the hope is, is that, with experience, with seeing the best practices that other countries have adopted, great ideas, new technologies, that people will be able to increase their commitments under this agreement at each of the next update stages, which come every few years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But how do you — how confident are you, though, that you are going to be able to even take that baby step, when you still have critics out there saying things like, this is going to raise people’s electricity bills, fundamental costs of living, that it’s going to take jobs away in the fossil fuel industry?

GAVIN SCHMIDT: So, but then there are jobs going to be created in renewable fuels. There are going to be jobs created in new technologies that are more efficient.

There are many different things that are happening, both in building resiliency to future climate change, but also building the infrastructure of the future that is ongoing right now.

I think you can get a little bit caught up with the supposed balance between the economy or the environment. I think that these things actually aren’t opposed, for the most part.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, this week, Gavin Schmidt, we saw one of the world’s most important sites for measuring carbon dioxide levels tell us levels now recently have risen above a symbolically important figure of 400 parts per million. This was a site in Hawaii.

GAVIN SCHMIDT: That’s right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: They say it’s likely to stay that way for the indefinite future.

I guess my question is, how important is this? I mean, as scientists work on this issue, do you feel it’s just a constant uphill battle?

GAVIN SCHMIDT: So, you have to remember what the context is here.

The pre-industrial level, so where we were in the 19th century, was 280 parts per million; 400 parts per million is a 40 percent increase over that, and this is a level that hasn’t been seen in the climate since perhaps the Pliocene period, which was three million years ago.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, in other words…

GAVIN SCHMIDT: It’s a big deal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you’re saying it’s a big deal, but you can’t get discouraged about something like that?

GAVIN SCHMIDT: Well, so, what’s happening is that we are already a geological force on the climate.

You know, the fingerprint of human activity on the climate, not just in carbon dioxide, but in many, many other aspects, is very, very clear. The agreements like the Paris agreement and efforts that are going on not just at the national, but at the state and city and individual levels, are attempts to kind of make that not quite as large an impact as we have already had.

But it’s a tough road. I mean, to stabilize, so just to keep carbon dioxide levels at the same level in perpetuity, we would need to reduce emissions by 80 percent globally. That’s a huge task, and it’s not something that’s going to be accomplished today, or tomorrow or in one electoral cycle.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, at a time, Mr. Schmidt, when I think many of us certainly in the United States are focused on this big hurricane heading for the United States mainland, this has to give — and we know scientists have spoken about this, these big storms, the concern that they’re going to get even bigger.


JUDY WOODRUFF: How should Americans and others think about climate change in the face of something like this?

GAVIN SCHMIDT: So, one of the key things is sea level rise.

So, sea level has risen about 10 foot, is actually rising faster on the Eastern Seaboard than elsewhere. For every extra foot of sea level rise, a storm surge, even if the climate of storms doesn’t change, the storm surge has more damage.

There is many, many thresholds, that, you know, if the water rises five foot, you’re fine, but if it goes up six feet, then it overtops a levee, it over — it floods a subway. It has much greater damages.

So, sea level rise is one of those aspects of change that multiply the damages that are caused by just the natural variation of climate and the natural variation of hurricanes and storms that we see.

Plus, we have some expectation that hurricanes themselves and storms themselves will become more intense, perhaps less frequent, but more intense, and then that, obviously, adds to the damages as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it’s an occasion to think about all of this and to think about the interconnection.

Gavin Schmidt with the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, we thank you.

GAVIN SCHMIDT: Thank you very much.

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