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Returning to Washington Sunday after two days at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz expressed optimism that a draft agreement approved by leaders of more than 200 countries represents a “fighting chance” to make a difference before it’s too late.
The conference known as COP21 drew an unprecedented 150 heads of state last week — the largest gathering ever of world leaders. The countries represented at the conference are responsible for more than 95 percent of greenhouse gas emissions around the world.
Schatz was there with nine other Senate Democrats who comprise the Senate Climate Action Task Force. Working in support of U.S. positions on the climate compact with UN and international leadership, senators “fanned out” throughout the enormous gathering for key meetings.
Schatz met with UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon, Mexico President Felipe Calderon, representatives of the Marshall Islands and Palau and more. Schatz was particularly struck by the effectiveness of the Marshallese and Palau delegations, who represent nations that are among the most vulnerable in the world to sea level rise resulting from the warming climate.
“We in Hawaii know all about the plight of our neighbors in the Marshalls and Palau, but that story has only recently been told to the rest of the world,” said Schatz. “They’ve been extraordinary, and I told them that. By force of will, they’ve inserted themselves into a critical conversation. … They’re a force to be reckoned with now on the international stage.”
The central remaining obstacle toward completing a final agreement is the division of responsibilities between developed nations and developing countries. While many developed nations have taken significant steps to address carbon emissions in recent years, generations of pollution from those nations contributed enormously to climate change and to major wealth amassed by those countries.
Developing nations are often serious polluters and lack the resources and economic vitality to make significant changes on their own. Determining how much of their own pollution reforms those nations will be responsible for and how much of those needs will be borne by developed countries like the United States and other world powers will require the most attention from negotiators this week.
“There’s a broad recognition that you want to accommodate nations depending on where they are,” Schatz said. “But this can’t be only a developed world issue.”
Toward reaching a meaningful agreement, the participation of China, India and South American nations was critical, given their influence in the developing world, Schatz said.
One critical target negotiators are trying to meet in the final deal is collective action that will limit temperature rise to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Many scientists say temperatures no higher than that would allow the world to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.
Some island nations, such as the Marshall Islands, argue that anything higher than 1.5 degrees will spell the end of their countries. Experts estimate the draft agreement would limit temperature rise to 2.6-2.7 degrees above, said Schatz, which is one reason why many participants say the deal must be improved before it is completed.
Oil-producing nations — Saudi Arabia, in particular — are resistant to targets and emission reduction actions that would have negative economic impacts on their countries. Pleasing everyone will be impossible, but getting a deal that will allow for essential progress is critical.
Todd Stern, lead negotiator for the United States, told reporters on Friday, “It’s certainly not the agreement we’re looking for in any number of ways.”
But, he continued, “I have high hopes it’s an agreement we will like in the end.”
Schatz said one of the most rewarding parts of his participation in the conference was sharing the clean-energy progress that Hawaii has made in recent years. Hawaii’s Legislature passed a 100 percent renewable energy standard that requires the state to be wholly reliant on clean energy by 2045, making Hawaii the first state to enact such a commitment.
While some have disputed current definitions that allow certain biofuels to count toward that goal and loopholes that could prolong significant use of fossil fuels, the law’s proponents say there’s no doubt it has set Hawaii squarely on a path toward much cleaner energy.
Schatz said one of the most rewarding parts of his participation in the conference was sharing the clean-energy progress that Hawaii has made in recent years.
Schatz said the tale of how Hawaii got to this place is encouraging to nations that are only beginning to consider their own reforms.
“I was able to tell the story of Hawaii’s clean energy program in every meeting – how we started with a voluntary program and targets that weren’t enough,” said Schatz, who advocated for those reforms as a state legislator and later lieutenant governor before being elevated to the Senate in late 2012. “Then we increased targets and made them mandatory. My message was it’s important for the international community to start, and once you start down that road, you won’t turn back.
“To have such an aggressive clean energy program in the 50th state – even more aggressive than California’s cap-and-trade program — gives momentum and gives heart to some who are wondering what’s realistic and what’s not.”
The conference wasn’t limited to government participants. Business titans from around the world took part, as well — leaders such as Virgin Group CEO Richard Branson and Unilever CEO Paul Polman.
Arnold Schwarzenegger showed up with California Gov. Jerry Brown and an enormous delegation from that state. Robert Redford spoke to a group of mayors and local leaders, while Sean Penn spoke on a forest preservation project.
There was a broadly shared feeling that at this international climate conference, as major effects of climate change are now being experienced around the world, things might finally be different.
“We’ve only just begun, but I for one haven’t been this encouraged in a long time. I think we really have a fighting chance,” Schatz said. “A year and half ago, if you had said we’d have this many nations participating, that China would be participating aggressively, that would have sounded wildly optimistic to anyone. But that’s exactly what’s happening.”