Will the US commit to climate action on the road to Paris?

Parker is a One Young World Ambassador, explorer and climate change campaigner. He has undertaken three expeditions to the North Pole and led the 2013 Willis Resilience Expedition to the South Pole. This piece was originally published on parkerliautaud.com.

At this very moment international delegates are convening for the final day of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Geneva to agree their commitment for a climate agreement. What they agree now will be tabled at the Conference of the Parties in December. COP21, which will be held in Paris is particularly important, and hope for a successful outcome has built up over the past several years. Failure to produce a binding agreement among member states would be a devastating blow to the world’s confidence that the process could eventually yield acceptable results.

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United States President Barack Obama, speaks at the UN Climate Summit 2014. Photo: UN Photo | Kim Haughton

As with past conferences, the outcome of COP21 will be closely linked to how the United States approaches the negotiations. And while the political situation in the US on climate change isn’t simple, there are certainly reasons to be more optimistic.

An emboldened President Obama is breaking new ground in aggressively pursuing executive actions to mitigate climate risks before his term ends – recent examples include mandatory emissions caps for both new and existing coal power stations and a bilateral agreement for simultaneous emissions reduction with China. A recent New York Times poll asserted that nearly four out of every five Americans believe that the federal government should limit greenhouse gas emissions from businesses, including a majority of Republicans.

At the same time, young Americans in particular are still exasperated. The politics have become even more tiring. When the Senate voted earlier this month on whether they believed that humans contributed to climate change, half of the Senators voted against, defying the overwhelming scientific consensus. Of course, this embarrassing vote should never have taken place, both because the results are highly predictable and have little to do with science, and because the majority of Senators are unqualified to vote on such a measure.

But what does leadership look like? The United States’ mere participation in the UNFCCC, doesn’t necessarily reflect a willingness to commit to action, it’s often easy to lose sight of this reality. The United States is part of a global community. While ambitious new domestic measures are important, we must finally be willing to commit to a process that is bigger than ourselves. This is culturally difficult to reconcile with some traditional views of the United States’ role in the world. However, a successful outcome at the Paris summit in December will hinge on the US agreeing to some higher level of enforcement, with a responsibility towards other nations and obligations to uphold. In short, this means the United States will have to show a little bit of humility, acknowledge its disproportionate role in cumulative emissions to date (28.8% of total greenhouse gas emissions throughout history are attributed to the US, according to the World Resources Institute), and realise that the costs of its actions are currently being shouldered by other, much less privileged, nations.

Given the American track record on climate, this may seem naïve, but I would argue that it’s not necessarily unrealistic that the US would commit to acceptably ambitious targets. President Obama’s executive actions on climate have changed the conversation and domestic support is growing. American political discourse against climate action is also shrinking, at least becoming less emphatic as the credibility of science deniers continues to wane.

Leaders do listen to their constituents. Public engagement has a direct impact on the outcome of the diplomatic process. We have the privilege of living in a time when the outcome of a diplomatic undertaking like COP21 can be shaped by the collective impact of individual voices. If the American people stand with the rest of the world in recognising the destructive effects of climate change and the need to address them, the outcome is more likely to be successful.

Around the world, local communities and entire industries stand vulnerable to the threats posed by a changing climate, and it can be disheartening to see leaders failing to recognise the broader importance of confronting the issue today. An example was the apathy of CEOs at this year’s World Economic Forum for whom climate change didn’t even register on their list of concerns for 2015. However, enlightened companies, industries, and governments do exist. We often forget that breakthroughs are fueled, not by every member of a community, but the one, or two, or ten who decided to take the lead because it was the right thing to do. The mere presence of laggers is no cause for despair; rather, it creates a space for the right people to raise their hands.

The Paris summit in December could be a historic success, or a historic failure. History will judge harshly those who fail to take decisive actions in Paris this year, but if member states prepare for the summit with the right sense of perspective, their success will be held up as example of the way diplomacy should be conducted in the twenty-first century.