“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.”
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.”