Speaking for the world’s political elite, President Barack Obama asserted that the Paris climate accord shows “what’s possible when the world stands as one.” The media responded with superlatives. New York identified the agreement as “Obama’s biggest accomplishment.” The New York Times labeled it a “big, big deal.” The Guardian went still further, declaring it “the world’s greatest diplomatic success.”

The praise is overblown. Aside from the singular achievement of reaching an agreement, the accord can claim little that will combat climate change. It demands nothing of the signatories. It doesn’t even outline what they might do. Quite the contrary, it exhibits a keen eagerness to finesse and postpone hard decisions. It sets a goal to keep average world temperatures from rising more than two degrees centigrade above pre-industrial averages. But the accord neither tells the world how it might cool things down nor does binds any signatory to anything more than a vague promise to try really hard to find ways to reduce carbon emissions, emphasize renewables, and otherwise contain greenhouse-gas emissions. It fails even to spur that weak effort on by refusing to impose any penalty on those who fail to do their part, which in any case it has not defined. It is, in fact, a commitment to avoid commitment. There are plans for firmer commitments at a later date.

Binding provisions were never likely. President Obama knew that anything definite would have turned the agreement into a treaty, and he could never have pushed that through the Senate. China, India, and other developing nations have always balked at promises of definite actions, claiming that their first obligation is to the alleviation of poverty. India—in the past and in Paris—pointed out that it can hardly be expected to cut back when the developed nations enjoyed the freedom to emit while they amassed their current levels of wealth and income. It and other developing nations might have yielded if offered financial assistance, but the suggestion that rich nations transfer $100 billion a year to help developing nations with their efforts went nowhere. (Just as well, since such monies would do more to enhance the military capabilities of the recipient nations or raise London real estate prices than cut greenhouse gas emissions.)

Without binding the signatories to action, the effort in Paris does nothing more than let world leaders look like good global citizens while carrying on with their domestic agendas. India and China, even after signing, still plan to build new coal-fired power stations at a rapid clip. Over time, China will almost surely take steps to control pollution—and so also greenhouse gases—but for public health reasons, not because of Paris or “to stand as one” with the other nations of the world. The Environmental Protection Agency in the United States—and equivalent bodies in Europe, Japan, Canada, and Australia—will continue to encourage the use of alternatives. But these efforts, too, would have taken place without the show in Paris.

To the practical man or woman, the diplomats in Paris look like nothing so much as college seniors promising to make the world a better place. No graduate ever bothers to outline exactly how he or she will achieve that which eluded past generations. Still, everyday people, when they hear such vows, are warmed by the memory of their own youthful ideals. Perhaps that’s what all the hoopla over Paris is about.

Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images


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