State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


From Copenhagen to Paris: Moving From Talk to Action on Climate Change

During the Copenhagen climate meetings in 2009, I posted a piece on The Huffington Post assessing the conference. At that time, I observed that:

“There is a broad consensus about the need for reductions in the emissions that cause global warming. Copenhagen is providing the entire world a crash course in climate science and policy. Over the past decade, the politics of national and global climate policy has shifted from the fringes of the public policy agenda to the center. The real story of Copenhagen is the maturation of this key issue of global environmental policy…Climate change is just the first global environmental problem we have come to understand. At Copenhagen we are barely discussing the other global environmental issues such as species extinction, the destruction of the oceans and degraded fresh water supplies. But we could.” 

For a number of months, many of us interested in sustainability have focused on Paris as the location of COP21, and Paris has been synonymous with climate talks. In the past few weeks, Paris, like New York after 9/11, has taken on a different meaning as the epicenter of the struggle against global terror. This post, while acknowledging this sad new reality, will nevertheless seek to return to defining Paris in December 2015 as the epicenter of global climate diplomacy.

As we enter COP21, the Paris version of these ongoing climate talks, it’s fair to ask: what has changed over the past six years; and, did Copenhagen stimulate any of these changes? What has changed is that the broad consensus on climate change has broadened; recent polls show that even some Republicans in the United States understand the nature of the problem. Sadly, that does not include members of the U.S. Congress who recently narrowly voted to stop EPA’s Clean Power Rule — the heart of America’s climate policy. Democrats from coal states and Republicans united to pass a Senate resolution blocking the climate rule, though interestingly, three Republicans joined with most Democrats to support the regulation. In the end, President Obama will veto the resolution and the courts will decide on its legality, but the power of coal producers to influence climate policy should never be underestimated.

Globally, individual nations have volunteered greenhouse gas reduction targets in anticipation of the Paris meetings. Unlike Copenhagen, where calls for mandatory reductions and transfer payments to the developing world caused the collapse of any potential agreements, the world community seems more realistic as it approaches the Paris meetings. An agreement that codifies the reductions already pledged seems within reach, even if its value is more symbolic than real.

There remains a possibility that the call for transfer payments from wealthy nations to developing nations could disrupt the effort at building a global consensus. Previous aid promises were not fulfilled and there is some political pressure to get the issue back on the global agenda. One of the major changes since 2009 is the clear perception that some nations, once classified as developing, such as China, Brazil and India, can no longer be thought of in that way. While this was starting to be the case in 2009, six years later they are clearly in a category of their own.

My own view of the Paris talks and the ones that have come before is that they have value, but it is important to understand their inherent limits. The climate issue is really an issue of the energy base of a nation’s economy. Modern economies require energy — and economic development depends on plentiful, reliable, reasonably-priced energy. The issue is so central to economic growth and the stability of political regimes that no nation-state will fundamentally limit its flexibility in delivering energy for any reason. It is central to sovereignty in the modern world. But communicating the dangers of fossil fuels and the need to transition to a renewable energy-based economy is something these meetings have achieved, and the importance of that achievement should not be underestimated.

The climate issue seems to generate a high level of ideologically-based politics, emotional rhetoric and political symbolism. It is time to move past symbols to pragmatism and political reality. We need to move toward an acceptance of nine fundamentals if we are to address the climate change crisis:

  1. Human-induced climate change is real, already underway, and will continue into the future.
  • We cannot precisely predict the future impact of climate change on human settlements and economic well-being.
  • Fossil fuels are the largest single generator of greenhouse gases.
  • Our economic way of life and therefore the political stability of our world are highly dependent on energy that mainly comes from fossil fuels.
  • The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is necessary but will take decades to accomplish.
  • Reducing the use of fossil fuels by raising the price of these fuels is unlikely to achieve mass political support or be supported by the world’s governments.
  • Reducing the use of fossil fuels by developing lower-priced, reliable and renewable sources of energy requires additional technological development.
  • Reduced energy costs will have great political appeal and positive economic impact.


  • The increased use of current renewable energy technologies will be facilitated by government policy to attract capital and reduce the price of energy.


In my view, the battles over oil pipelines, fracking, and divesting capital from fossil fuel companies are symbolic battles that serve to distract us from the operational solutions that will facilitate the transition to a renewable energy economy. One issue to engage in is the coming battle to renew the favorable tax treatment of renewable energy in the U.S. now slated to end in December of 2016. Ending that tax expenditure would slow down the growth of the solar and wind industry and have an immediate and dramatic impact on the production of greenhouse gases.

The Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation’s research budget for renewable energy technologies needs to be increased dramatically. The federal government should take the lead in purchasing electric vehicles and installing renewable energy. A federal fund to restore and build infrastructure will probably appear on the federal agenda during the next decade. Some part of that funding should be devoted to upgrading the electric grid to make it smarter and more efficient, funding public charging stations for electric vehicles, funding mass transit, and providing resources to make costal infrastructure more resilient and better able to adapt to the impacts of climate change.

The greatest danger to America’s transition to a renewable resource-based economy is not industry, which will make plenty of money off of this transition, or the public, which appears ready to move, but the anti-government ideology that continues to paralyze our federal government. The action required to transition off of fossil fuels and other single-use resources requires a sophisticated partnership between the public and private sectors. There will be some instances when the work that needs to be done — for example, basic research or infrastructure finance — will require federal funds. There will be other instances when the tax code or other incentives will be needed to attract private capital and companies into the market. And there will be even more instances when government action is not needed and the best thing government can do is get out of the way and let the private sector act. By “sophisticated partnership,” I mean one that is guided by results-oriented pragmatism rather than symbols and ideology.

The climate talks in Paris will focus attention on the climate issue and will increase understanding of the nature of the problem. Then the spotlight will shift to nations and cities and, hopefully, from talk and chit-chat to funding and action. There are many signs that the transition from fossil fuels has begun. The speed of that transition is at issue and will require creativity, consensus, and cash to be completed.

The global issue of climate change, the global economy, our global system of communication, and global terror are the outcomes of the technological revolution of the past two centuries. While business, information, terror and crime operate across borders, national sovereignty and the human desire for a sense of community and distinct local place create a politics that remains local. The 21st century will be about reconciling global and local forces. The sustainability of our way of life, our economy, and our planet depend on us getting it right. For our children’s sake I pray that we do.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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