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Bill McKibben Grades The COP21 Climate Change Accord: 'Incomplete'

Thibault Camus
Activists gather near the Eiffel Tower in Paris on Dec.12. during the the United Nations Climate Change Conference. Environmentalist Bill McKibben says that countries have agreed on a good target for warming temperatures, but not a plan for getting there.

After two weeks of intense negotiating at COP 21, the United Nations conference on climate change north of Paris, nearly 200 of the world’s nations signed off on an agreement to finally do something meaningful about curbing global warming. But not everyone's enthusiastic about the outcome.

One of the critics is environmentalist and author Bill McKibben, who's well known for arguing that more aggressive measures have been needed to address this issue well before the Paris talks got underway.

The agreement is more ambitious than any previous accords, because countries agreed to a target of limiting increases in warming temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius. If that were to be actually achieved, it would likely ward off some of the most severe effects of climate change.

McKibben was in Paris for the climate negotiations, and says if he had to give the final accord a grade, it would be “incomplete.”

“This is a step along this process. And actually, the countries of the world managed to agree on a good target where the where the world should go. They just didn't come up with the much of a plan for getting there yet,” McKibben said by phone Tuesday.

One of McKibben’s critiques is the non-binding nature of the accord.

“The fact that it's non-binding is testament to the dysfunction of the U.S. political system,” he says. “Everyone around the world just understands that because there's so much oil money in Congress, the U.S. Senate will never find the two-thirds vote to approve a meaningful treaty. Hence everybody's negotiating a sort of jury-rigged series of pledges. That's a problem.”

"The fact that [the accord] is non-binding is testament to the dysfunction of the U.S. political system." - Bill McKibben

McKibben says that even if each country stuck to its promises, the agreement wouldn’t be enough to protect the planet from a climate change tipping point.

“It would take us to about a world 3.5 degrees Celsius, or 6 or 7 degrees Fahrenheit, warmer. And that's beyond what any scientist or indeed any government thinks is sane,” McKibben says. “The governments of the world said we have to keep it to 1.5 or 2 degrees, which is correct. But they didn't come up with a plan that would do that.”

That’s because in the agreement, language that countries “shall reduce emissions” was changed to “should reduce emissions.” McKibben says those changes aren't just semantics, and they weakened the accord.

“It was a another concession to America's political system. If it had been a firm commandment ... then the thing would have qualified as a treaty and it would have had to go to Congress. So everyone's trying hard to keep it out of the hands of [Senate Environment and Public Works Committee chairman] Jim Inhofe, Chevron, Exxon, and the rest.”

Inhofe denies climate change exists, as do many Republican candidates for president. McKibben says that with an increasingly polarized Congress, executive action is becoming more important; he cites President Obama’s plan to shut down coal plants, as well as his veto of the Keystone XL pipeline. He also recognizes the value of initiatives from people like Bill Gates, who recently announced plans to ramp up investments in basic research and development on clean energy.

"At this point, there's no happy solution. At this point we're trying to stave off utter collapse."

But he’s not painting a rosy picture of a green future.

“I think we're already in a good deal of trouble. I mean, this is the hottest year that the world's ever seen. We've lost most of the summer sea ice in the Arctic. We seem to have lost the undergirding for the great ice sheets of the West Antarctic. At this point, there's no happy solution. At this point we're trying to stave off utter collapse.”

After decades of fighting climate change, McKibben says the growing global movement is what’s keeping him optimistic.

“I keep myself charged up because the activism that we have is working. It may be working too slowly. I may have waited too late to get started. But now that we're building a movement, it's really beginning to produce something,” he says. “I mean, that's why Paris came out reasonably well. And why Copenhagen six years ago was such a disaster. There was no movement to hold leaders accountable; they could come back having failed and pay no political price. But that's no longer the case.”

McKibben says that as the movement gets stronger, the attention will shift from national governments to “the people who actually run them: the great fossil fuel industry.”

“This is the richest most powerful industry the world's ever seen. There's a lot of fights left to be had and if we fight them hard, then we can't stop global warming, too late for that,” he says. “But maybe we can keep it from getting utterly out of control.”

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