Something important happened in Paris this weekend which could change the course of history. For the first time, the entire world, all 195 countries – literally everyone – came together to agree to take united action on climate change. They agreed to make this legally binding and took a step together to save our planet. It was the result of many years’ negotiations, tireless campaigning, many prayers and many false starts. But they finally did it.
This sense of history was evident in the speeches made and in the emotion that pervaded the normally reserved conference halls. On Saturday, there were extraordinary scenes of big smiles, warm hugs, kisses, tears, singing, cheering. It was a triumph of unity over division, global solidarity over national interests, hope over despair. Witnessing those scenes of euphoria, you could not fail to get swept up in the emotion and believe in the power of what was happening. History weighed heavily in the air and the spirit of Nelson Mandela in particular seemed to hover: “Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great – you can be that generation.” He urged us all, “Let your greatness blossom”. It was a rare, sweet moment of global celebration and he would have been smiling.
Some will call me naïve for lauding the Paris Agreement. Many are already decrying its failure to deliver, saying it is a fraud and that any attempts to talk it up are propaganda. I disagree. The world desperately needed this moment. It goes beyond the fine detail of the agreement itself. The agreement is nowhere near perfect. In fact, it falls down on many key aspects which would ensure that the world is saved from the worst impacts of climate change, especially the poorest countries. But those dismissing it as hype miss the bigger picture: its very existence is little short of a miracle. In fact, just last week I was deeply doubtful myself whether a meaningful agreement could be reached. And yet we now have a universal, equitable (of sorts) and legally binding agreement which is the outcome of a peaceful, negotiated political process. It is the result of the most complex and protracted negotiation in history.
Just imagine the alternative. Imagine we woke up on Sunday to a repeat of Copenhagen in 2009, where the talks collapsed amid bitter rancour, back room deals and profound mis-trust. Who would have been the victors? The only victors would have been those who deny climate change and use their mischief to manipulate the media. Those who have most to benefit by delaying action would have been delighted. It may have spelt the death knell for multilateralism with UN at its’ heart. It would have set back any climate action momentum by years, perhaps indefinitely. Given the turbulent global context moreover, the long shadow of political failure would have deepened divisions and conflicts. It would have spelt disaster, or in Pope Francis words “collective suicide”.
The Agreement has many flaws. It is long on vision and ambition – stating the need to keep temperatures below 1.5 degrees – but it is short on action. The words “fossil fuels” don’t even appear once! Human rights are absent in the legal text. Many things are still pushed into the long grass. Mechanisms for financing are still to be worked out. However, it sets in train a transparent process of raising ambition. This requires all countries, even the oil producers, to make increasing commitments to reduce emissions over the coming years.
Tackling climate change is going to be a long road and will require global collaboration – a commodity which has been sorely lacking in multilateralism in recent years. National self-interest has dominated. Overcoming this short-sighted, narrow-minded political world view has been the biggest obstacle and led the world to the cliff. Like a person trying to wean themselves off a lifetime of addiction, shifting this has required a determination and a commitment to change direction, to see the bigger picture. The COP experience of forging collaboration and unity, which required immense skill and patience, has a value in itself. Nothing is more infectious than the taste of success. The fact that Paris sends a signal to the world that success = caring for our planet can only be a good thing. It has the power to change the global zeitgeist: the terms of the debate will never be the same.
There is absolutely no doubt that the hard work really starts now. No stroke of a pen, no single agreement, no one action can get us out of the hole of climate change which we have dug for ourselves. At least now we have a ladder. As Pope Francis reminds us, the change we need will not come from only one direction. It requires the convergence of many different perspectives and different viewpoints. It requires us to see that the “whole is bigger than the sum of the parts” and believe in our collective action. In Paris, we glimpsed that whole. The signal has been sent out that the world is determined to tackle climate change – now the challenge is to implement it and build on the momentum in the coming years. In a world so dogged by sadness, division and conflict, in many ways it is a miracle.