A Unique Perspective of Earth

Sometimes you have to step back and see the big picture to be able to get the proper perspective. Only then can you realize the best path forward in a particular situation.

In tackling our carbon emissions and the problems of global warming and climate change those emissions create, there’s no better way to step back and see the bigger picture than to be an astronaut and leave our planet. And what’s interesting is that among astronauts, there is a consistent perspective that this issue of climate change is real and requires urgent attention from all world leaders. You don’t find too many astronauts who use the same soundbites that deniers and skeptics use, soundbites like “global warming isn’t real” or “the science isn’t settled.” In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

This video was created with a number of astronauts including two who are currently aboard the International Space Station. They implored the world leaders at COP21 to come up with a real commitment to reduce global emissions. I don’t know how much it may have contributed to the final outcome, but I can’t imagine anyone watching this and not considering that the unique perspective of someone who has seen our planet from space is worth listening to.


The Paris Agreement: Should It Have Been Legally Binding?

“If the people cannot trust their government to do the job for which it exists—to protect them and to promote their common welfare—all else is lost.”
Barack Obama

Many people around the world, myself included, are hailing the recent agreement in Paris as a significant victory. Finally the leaders of the nations on our planet have taken a major step toward tackling global warming and climate change.

But I’ve had friends express concern that it wasn’t a binding agreement. In that regard, doesn’t that give nations free reign to actually do what they want and ignore what they pledged to do? All of these nations have stated they’ll try to reduce emissions and will report their progress along the way, but there’s no penalty if they don’t succeed. So is that really a victory?

Although it’s true that there isn’t a formal mechanism of dealing out punishment for those countries that fall short of their commitments, there can be other detrimental effects those nations will feel if they aren’t successful. In this case, social pressure and participation within an international community will have an impact. Since most international agreements rely on countries maintaining good relationships with with each other, the risk of looking badly compared to peer nations is substantial. Unless every nation ignores what they’ve pledged to do, those that do actually fall short will look poorly on the word stage. Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School puts it this way:

The leaders of the world recognize that the consequences of noncompliance are disastrous. We are looking at a wholesale transformation of our global climate. The main incentive here for compliance is not the threat of some civil penalty — non-compliance would mean environmental disaster.

Given how much transparency and reporting the agreement requires, concerned citizens like you and me along with environmental groups will help play the role of watchdog and enforcer. Public opinion will matter. If it didn’t, these heads of state would never have reached this agreement in the first place.

And keep in mind: if it was legally binding, each nation would have had to ratify it in their respective governments. Imagine how supportive Republicans would have been for that! No, I think in this case COP21 got it right. It’s not perfect, and there will be hurdles to overcome, but I think it’s as much as we could have hoped for given the stagnancy and resistance we’ve experienced to date.

Just you wait: this agreement will mark the turning point in the history of our civilization. This will be the time that future generations will look back to and say “That’s when they finally started to take this seriously.”


COP21 Reaches an Agreement

It’s taken more than 20 years but we can finally be thankful that the government leaders around the globe have listened to what the people they represent have been telling them: we want something done about global warming and climate change.

There will be a lot to digest in the coming days, weeks, and months about this historic agreement but for a brief summary, watch this short video. And realize that future generations will look back to this event as a major turning point, even if many people don’t yet realize it.


Canada Rocks!

“This is an incredibly promising signal that Canada really is ready to lead when it comes to ambition and securing a strong global climate deal.”
—Steven Guilbeault of Montreal’s Équiterre in Paris

This past Sunday, Canada surprised everyone at COP21 in Paris by showing its resolve about tackling this problem and endorsing a much stronger and more ambitious target for reducing greenhouse gases than the United Nations summit has officially been aiming to achieve. Canada’s Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna announced that she wants the Paris agreement to restrict global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius rather than the two degrees most have been setting as an upper limit. And Minister McKenna’s spokesperson confirmed on Monday that this was no mistake: Canada truly wants to flip from one extreme to the other. As the spokesperson put it:

Canada wants an agreement that is ambitious and that is signed by the greatest number of countries possible. The most important thing is that each country should be legally required to submit a target. And to report on progress on that target on a regular basis.

Not surprisingly, Canada’s Green Party leader Elizabeth May was ecstatic:

I am over the moon. It’s fantastic news! It creates a very ambitious trajectory for reduction of emissions, but it’s what’s required. If we’re going to keep low-lying island states from going under water, that’s what’s required. If we want to have a reasonable prospect of not having the Greenland ice sheet create five- to eight-metre sea level rise, it’s what’s required. It’s a safer zone than two [degrees], which represents a lot of irreparable, irreversible damage to large parts of the world. So 1.5 is good.

This is consistent with Prime Minister Trudeau’s attitude as he promised the world in his recent UN climate speech that climate change would be a “top priority” for Ottawa. And environmentalists like me are very happy with this new attitude form their new Canadian government. As Steven Guilbeault of Montreal’s Équiterre in Paris put it:

This is an incredibly promising signal that Canada really is ready to lead when it comes to ambition and securing a strong global climate deal. Now Canada has a chance to leverage this leadership across key pieces of this agreement and this is what we hope to see over the coming days.

We’ll have to wait to see if other nations around the world will agree to Canada’s urging to curb global warming at 1.5 C. But whatever the outcome, at least I can once again be proud of Canada as a leader in taking global problems seriously.


Week One of COP21: Where Are We So Far?

[Future generations will be] “very strict when they judge what was done by heads of state here.”
—French President Francois Hollande

After a week of discussions and negotiations, the final draft of the Paris Climate agreement from COP21 was released this past weekend by the United Nations and will be taken up for further discussion at a high level this coming week.

French President Francois Hollande said that a review mechanism to monitor how compliant nations are on their own carbon emissions and the transfer of technologies that are more climate-friendly to developing nations continue to be hurdles, but he’s optimistic that they can be resolved.

India has been outspoken that rich and poor nations should not be treated in the same way. For example, India doesn’t have the ability to measure emissions from vehicles the way other countries can.

Many are keen to see what the final outcome of COP21 will be. Governments care but so do businesses. The outcome could allow for significant investments in renewable energy by recognising plans that cover 94 percent of our planet’s emissions in 184 countries. The insurance industry is also paying attention because intense weather events caused by our emissions lead to significant payouts they have to plan for.

One goal from Paris is to maintain a global temperature rise to either “below 1.5°C,” or “well below 2°C,” but there are many issues that need to be resolved in the current draft for that to be possible. These include long-term emissions reductions for a new 2050 target, financial support for developing countries dealing with the crisis, and explicitly stating the responsibility of developing vs. developed countries. On the issue of reaching the peak in greenhouse gas emissions, the thought is that we have to achieve this “as soon as possible,” but it’s appreciated that this will require deeper emissions cuts coming from the developed nations and longer periods allowed for developing countries. Achieving zero emissions growth by 2060-80 is proposed. Hopefully that will be quick enough.