Why the Paris Agreement isn’t just for Parisians

Rapid temperature increases, driven by carbon dioxide emissions put Earth systems out of balance. This is why we are seeing extreme weather events and rates of extinction on scales greater than ever before. It is not a problem to be solved overnight, or even by a few people, but by drastic systemic change. The Paris agreement of 2015, despite some recent confusion by a certain US Senator, aims to achieve this by collectively reducing global carbon emissions enough to keep warming between 1.5-2oC and reduce the effects and costs of climate change worldwide. The changes, believe it or not, are not only to benefit Paris, but the whole world- including Pittsburgh.

The Paris Agreement, now signed by 190 countries, was created to limit the impact of human activity and subsequent carbon dioxide emissions, a greenhouse gas which causes heat to become trapped around the Earth’s surface. Upon reading the document there is a strong sense of unity as developed countries are urged to support developing countries in reaching their goals and share information to bring about change as soon as possible. The foundation of this contract is a collective effort between numerous countries to bring about positive change- each acknowledges their role and understands that success will not be achieved without everyone pulling their weight and assisting one another. It is all about unity and change- in that sense, it is a rather beautiful thing. 

President Biden re-joined the agreement last week after Trump, in true Trump style, formally withdrew the US in November 2020 stating it would undermine the US economy. However, controversy has arisen as the US Senator of Texas, Ted Cruz, recently made a statement and tweet in response. He claims Biden is ‘more interested in the views of the citizens of Paris than in the jobs of the citizens of Pittsburgh’ in quite a catastrophic misunderstanding of the contract. 

Firstly, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (not to be confused with Pittsburg, Texas) refused to leave climate action contracts and joined one of their own in response to Trump’s withdrawal. Pittsburgh itself disagree with the comment.

Pennsylvania saw 30% more tornadoes in 2019 than average.

Secondly, the Paris agreement is not solely for Parisians, it is for all areas, animals and people feeling the effects of climate change. That means Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The area is seeing record precipitation, wind and hail as well as a stark increase in extreme weather events. In 2019 Pennsylvania saw 30% more than average tornadoes across the state. They would usually have around 3 in May, the peak of their tornado season. May 2019 saw 8. This aligns with a 2018 study on United States tornadoes by Gensini and Brooks published in Nature, Climate and Atmospheric Science section. They found tornadoes to be increasing in frequency in the US and, worryingly, tornado alley to be moving east. This will mean weather related damage and subsequent economic costs will increase in the mid-west and eastern states. 

Extreme weather and natural disasters have cost $2.98 trillion globally between 2010-2019.

The economic costs of extreme weather events have been increasing for decades. In the 1980’s annual losses due to natural disaster was reaching $50 billion. This has increased to around $200 billion in recent years with 2017 being the record according to the US National Association of Insurance Commissioners 2019 annual reports. 2010-2019 was the costliest decade at $2.98 trillion globally and the US incurred the second most costs behind Asia-Pacific regions, around half of which are covered by insurance. This is a huge economic loss for the entire world and will only increase with warming which begs the question- was Trump aware of the impact of climate change on the economy? The sooner we limit warming, the sooner these costs will stabilise because the earth systems will be able to come back into balance.

The Paris Agreement is not just for Paris, or just for Pittsburgh, it is for polar bears in the arctic where ice is melting twice as fast as previously thought, reducing habitat ranges and food availability. It is for Africa where malaria is spreading, and droughts are increasing in southern and easterly regions. It is for the oceans where corals are bleaching, and fish have to move to cooler waters to survive. It is for Australia where wildfires burned 5.8 million hectares of land from September 2019- January 2020, 3 times the size of Wales. It is for the Amazon where deforestation recently tipped the balance and it now produces more carbon than it removes. It is for indigenous communities who have fought to have their voices heard on climate change and are finally being recognised as agents of change. 

The Paris agreement is for Australia where wildfires burned an area the size of Wales in 5 months.

What Ted Cruz has really demonstrated in his tweet is the most profound misunderstanding brought about by an individualistic, exclusive mindset- the very thing that has driven our world into this state. Ted views the Paris agreement and climate action as a limitation to his freedom but, in fact, it is climate change in future years that will limit freedom. The sooner we all understand this the better.

Whilst the Paris Agreement and the US’s participation is an incredible step forward, it is important the note that the measures currently in place are not enough. 1.5-2oC of warming will still result in the loss and changes in distribution of many more animals. Many will move to cooler areas, often to higher latitudes. Problems will occur, though, when species dependent on one another respond differently, resulting in a breakdown of the relationship and potentially the entire ecosystem. The magnitude of this will depend on the rate and extent of warming which is why it is important to limit our emissions are soon as possible. However, many targets are too late to achieve even this. Net zero emissions by 2050 is too late. We only have 8 years of the 1.5oC carbon budget left. That means if we are to keep warming between 1.5-2oC we need to reduce our emissions by 15% per year. The coronavirus pandemic has reduced emissions by just 8.8% according to a 2020 study by Liu et al. published in Nature Communications. This decrease demonstrates how much impact personal changes can have in that people travelled less but simulataneously highlights the fact that it is not enough. We need systemic change in the next decade if we are to keep warming below 2oC. That needs to start now, for all of us. 

Studies and links to these sources

  1. Gensini, V.A., Brooks, H.E. Spatial trends in United States tornado frequency. Nature, Climate and Atmospheric Sciences 1, 38 (2018).
  2. Lindenmayer, D.B., Kooyman, R.M., Taylor, C. et al. Recent Australian wildfires made worse by logging and associated forest management. Nat Ecol Evol 4, 898–900 (2020).
  3. Liu, Z., Ciais, P., Deng, Z. et al. Near-real-time monitoring of global CO2 emissions reveals the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nat Commun 11, 5172 (2020).
  4. Lyubchich, V. and Gel, Y.R., 2017. Can we weather proof our insurance?. Environmetrics28(2), p.e2433.
  5. Serdeczny, O., Adams, S., Baarsch, F., Coumou, D., Robinson, A., Hare, W., Schaeffer, M., Perrette, M. and Reinhardt, J., 2017. Climate change impacts in Sub-Saharan Africa: from physical changes to their social repercussions. Regional Environmental Change17(6), pp.1585-1600.).

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