Sunday, December 13, 2015

We Met the Moment: "One of the Great Triumphs in History" (Updated)

It's never been "the top story" for long, and already what was accomplished on the day that future generations may well remember among a handful of significant dates in human history is gone from the headlines, supplanted as usual by shootings and partisan politics.

But in the immediate aftermath, there were many stories related to the Paris climate agreement.  The Guardian was among those with stories on how the agreement was reached.  The Atlantic was among those that analyzed and evaluated what's in the deal in easy to digest nuggets.  PBS Newshour interviewed an expert on the deal in specific relation to the US.

Articles in the Washington Post and New York Times focused on President Obama's role.  The Times:

"Six years ago, President Obama came away from a round of global climate talks bitter and frustrated, having been reduced to personally chasing other world leaders around a Copenhagen conference center and bursting uninvited into a meeting with them to salvage a pact that left many disappointed.

On Saturday, Mr. Obama strode triumphantly into the Cabinet Room of the White House to declare victory in his quest for an ambitious climate agreement, after 195 nations reached an accord in a Paris suburb that commits them to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“We met the moment,” Mr. Obama said. “Together, we’ve shown what’s possible when the world stands as one.”

For Mr. Obama, the agreement represents a legacy-shaping success, destined to join his health care law in the annals of his most lasting achievements."

The story quotes an unnamed senior administration official who said that after Copenhagen, the President “deliberately and ambitiously pushed the envelope on climate.” And on Saturday, Mr. Obama said the Paris agreement had been possible in large part because he had done so.

Former White House official David Axlerod was quoted in the Washington Post to the same effect: Obama “felt a moral obligation to do something about” climate change, Axelrod said. “This is not just a cosmetic item on his list. This is core stuff for him.”

The Post lists the many ways that President Obama seeded this moment, beginning with substantial money in the Recovery Act for clean energy, and getting higher fuel efficiency standards in return for bailing out the US auto industry.

The moral obligation is to the future.  The President made that specific (though perhaps overselling the time frame a bit) in his remarks announcing the agreement (the video above), in words quoted in the Post piece as well: The president also said that he imagined walking with his grandchildren watching a “quiet sunset” and “knowing . . . that our work here and now gave future generations cleaner air and cleaner water and a more sustainable planet. And what can be more important than that?”

The Post summarizes:

Although the international agreement reached in Paris on Saturday still leaves the world perilously vulnerable to global warming and rising seas, Obama has significantly advanced the global climate agenda and has established a mechanism that would enable countries to exploit new technology to cut greenhouse-gas emissions and, if possible, tighten existing pledges to reduce those emissions...

The completed agreement, the Post said, owed much of its success to the willingness of the U.S. president to take on both congressional Republicans and fossil-fuel-industry executives on an issue that consistently ranks among the lowest priorities for American voters."

It is because of these efforts begun by President Obama that USA Today could conclude that the deal will not mean any radical changes for US citizens: "Americans need not brace for a raft of new onerous regulations, laws and restrictions imposed as a result, environmental activists say."  Goals of the agreement will necessitate further steps in years to come, that other administrations will face.  But President Obama has set the course and moved America onto it.

This analysis says that Republicans can be obstructive but they've lost the argument, partly because they're tilting against an international consensus and a set of programs that (like Obamacare) will be difficult or impossible to reverse.  But partly because they've lost their best arguments--that other countries won't address the climate crisis and put the US at a disadvantage, and that it will cost US jobs.

I wouldn't underestimate the GOPers ability to be destructive and self-destructive, but the USA Today piece says:

Such Republican opposition is unlikely to touch many of the initiatives already going on, Stavins says. "Even if that happens, I don't see them rolling any of these (initiatives) back."

That's partly because Americans are discovering there's little trade off between protecting the environment and creating jobs, says Alden Meyer, strategy director for the Union of Concerned Scientists. The drive toward reducing greenhouse gases has created new technologies and industries to support them.

The Paris agreement "sends a powerful message (that the) smart money ought to be betting on the clean-energy future," Meyer says.

Update: Jonathan Chiat's Monday essay: "Climate Deal is Obama's Biggest Accomplishment." Chiat's conclusion: "It is hard to find any important accomplishment in history that completely solved a problem. The Emancipation Proclamation only temporarily and partially ended slavery; the 13th Amendment was required to abolish it permanently, and even that left many former slaves in a state of terrorized peonage closely resembling their former bondage. The Lend-Lease Act alone did not ensure Great Britain would survive against Nazi Germany; the Normandy invasion did not ensure the liberation of Europe. Victories are hardly ever immediate or complete. The fight continues and history marches on. The climate agreement in Paris should take its place as one of the great triumphs in history."

New York Magazine also collected some skeptical analysis. (Yes, Bill McKibben, activism played a part but Obama did not "forget" about the climate crisis after his Inauguration. Your colorful marches probably weren't as important to this agreement as his efforts over the years.) And the Guardian has a fascinating piece on how the Obama negotiators and cooperating world leaders (including Raul Castro) made the agreement Republican-proof.  Official White House photo below was taken just after President Obama's announcement of the agreement.

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