"History will remember this day," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Saturday, after almost 200 countries adopted the first global treaty to curb man-made global warming. "The Paris agreement on climate change is a monumental success for the planet and its people."
President Obama agreed: "[The climate agreement] offers the best chance to save the one planet we have."
Meanwhile, my 9-year-old has been going around the house switching off lights compulsively, battling his own fear of darkness. "We need to save the planet," he says, while reminding me of my pledge to look into solar panels for the house. Which we are, even if efficiency in wooded Northern New England is not quite as good as in, say, Arizona.
The Paris agreement aims to keep global warming to well below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, and hopefully to no more than 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) by 2100. Even small differences in the average global temperature have enormous impact for coastal communities. Ben Strauss, a researcher at Climate Central, claims that limiting the warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius as opposed to 2 degrees Celsius could cut in half the projected 280 million people that would be displaced by rising sea levels.
Meanwhile, the temperature right now in Hanover, N.H., is a balmy 47 degrees Fahrenheit and the high is projected to reach 53 degrees. For Christmas Eve, the high is expected to be 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Unprecedented and quite disturbing. No white Christmas in New England this year, it seems.
There are two major challenges to turn the wonderful rhetoric of the Paris agreement into a global-changing reality. First, individual governments of all countries involved need to ratify the treaty and agree to impose costly measures to control fossil fuel emissions. The goal of reaching a sort of global equilibrium by 2050 (physicists like to call this a "steady state"), whereby what is emitted artificially by men is naturally absorbed by nature, requires a radical technological shift into alternative, renewable energy. I'm very curious to see how the U.S. Congress will react to this.
The second challenge is long-term implementation. Although the agreement asks for individual countries to impose their own targets and to review them after four years — in the hope that new technology will allow for even more stringent targets — there is no penalty for countries that miss their targets. This means that for a realistic change to happen, the change in mindset needs to be global; at least, it needs to be real to the group of 20 or so developed and developing countries that contribute the most to the rising temperatures. In effect, to reach the target of an increase of only 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, emission of carbon dioxide will have to be phased out by 2050. Oceans, forest and soil can absorb only about half of current man-made emission levels. Earth is well beyond its saturation point.
The treaty demands not only a political decision but a profound paradigm shift in the way civilization interacts with nature and its resources. This means that corporations — in particular, the oil and gas-producing giants — will have to truly act on their populist ads remarking that they are aligned with a clean future. For their part, individuals will have to make changes to their lifestyles, even if the output from these changes pales in comparison to the impact of real changes at the corporate level.
What matters is the mindset, which needs to be contagious to be effective.
Thirty years ago, almost no one had computers; now, almost everyone does. Thirty years from now, gas or diesel engines could be a thing of the past. Imagine if solar- or wind-charged batteries could power all our cars and machines? And if a combination of renewable sources and nuclear power supplied our more immediate energy needs? What would Chevron, Exxon-Mobil, Shell and British Petroleum be doing then? How will they reinvent themselves and keep their stockholders happy? Perhaps these corporate giants have a plan. At least, that's what they tell us.
Meanwhile, my 9-year-old and his generation grow up in a world very different from the one I grew up in, full of hope that our deeds carry more weight than our words.
Marcelo Gleiser is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist — and professor of natural philosophy, physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College. He is the co-founder of 13.7, a prolific author of papers and essays, and active promoter of science to the general public. His latest book is The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning. You can keep up with Marcelo on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser.