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“Simon Says” – Keep calm and carry on from Paris

June 5, 2017

The issue

This month is proving yet another critical time for the planet as the world looked nervously on to see if the USA pulls out of the Paris climate agreement and what will happen when they eventually did.  Few people and almost no reputable scientists, doubt the serious impacts that climate change will have on our environment, nature, society and economies.  Few also doubt that it is a primarily man-made phenomenon.

Even as a scientist myself I think of climate change in pretty emotive terms.  I recently watched a documentary on BBC4 about the Russian space programme.  Nothing to do with climate change.  But seeing pictures, as people were seeing for the first time back in the 1960s, of the vanishingly small, almost two-dimensional strip of fabulous life in an unimaginably large sea of completely inhospitable blackness of space made me, as it has most astronauts, reflect on how we have no choice but to look after our environment.  The Paris Accord, that has been so much in the news lately, is one such step to safeguard our future.


Figure 1: Life exists in a small sliver of space. 

What is the Paris agreement?

Thrashed out in Paris in 2015, 194 countries agreed to a range of environmental pledges.  This was a landmark agreement, both because of the number of countries adopting the proposals, as well as the extent to which the proposals sought to address climate change.  To achieve their aim of keeping global average temperature rises to below 2°C and preferably below 1.5°C, governments effectively agreed to keep net (i.e. emitted minus removed carbon) emissions at zero. If they could keep to 1.5°C this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.  Ahead of the Paris summit and not to be further negotiated, nations made pledges to limit greenhouse gas emissions covering 90% of all such emissions.  It committed countries to have a plan of action and to take steps to carry out those plans.  Whilst there was a commitment to achieve the targets, they are not legally binding and subject to international sanctions.  These commitments, though a significant step forward, would only limit global warming to 2.7°C this century – still way too high, so they all have to make new pledges and show how they plan to reduce emissions still further.

Heads of delegations at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris.

Figure 2: Heads of delegations at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris.

When I was working for WWF at the UN in New York we were trying to get tiny commitments to ocean governance to protect ecosystems and fish stocks, but it was incredibly hard to get any changes because every country had a wide range of agendas it had to consider and didn’t want to upset the delicate balance with more or different international agreements.  Confidential deals between countries on issues completely unrelated to ocean management frequently scuppered what we thought was good progress.  So what was achieved at Paris was astonishing and indicated the severity of the situation climate change puts us all in.

Why governments and business should sign up

Governments realised they needed to do something about climate change because every one of the 194 are effected, some with significant economic, social and environmental effects.  Extremes of flooding and drought, such as we see in Dorset, will increase.  Drinking water, even here in Dorset will become scarcer and less reliable.  Fish stocks which we rely on for food will change and move, let alone the loss of coral reefs and the livelihoods that go with them.  Sea levels will rise inundating coastal areas and destroying some island communities. Food crops will change and be more at risk.  Insurance costs will increase, disaster provision needed will be greater, national security threatened. The list goes on and on.

River Frome flooding from Poundbury Fort, Dorchester © Sally Welbourn

Figure 3. The flooded river Frome in 2014 © Sally Welbourn

By making this such a multilateral attempt to reduce carbon emissions this should be less threatening to business.  Industries in different countries are therefore on far more of a level playing field.  Opportunities for access to low carbon technologies and services will be more readily available.  In most cases customer expectations can be met without losing a competitive edge.

The effect of the US pulling out

I believe that President Trump’s announcement to withdraw from the Accord will, at least for the time being, do little to harm our efforts.  As a campaign pledge many of his rank and file voters were holding him to, it isn’t surprising he made the announcement.  In fact The US cannot withdraw from the Accord for a further 3 years (until after the next presidential election), and the Accord was non-binding in any case.  So little will change, especially as so many US cities, states and companies have pledged to stay with the agreement in any case.  In making this announcement he both pleases his voters and does little of substance to change US participation.  The main concern is probably the threat to withdraw US financial support to help developing countries achieve their targets.  It remains to be seen if countries such as China, India, Canada and the EU step in to offer support in place of the US as that would also make good business sense for them.  China leads solar technology for example.

I believe those parts of the US that don’t continue to support climate change mitigation will become isolated and lose their competitive edge in the fast-developing global non-carbon economy.  Corporate evolution will mean they will wither and die.  Those elements that do support the Paris Accord, even in the US, will prosper.

Shareholder power

Can we do anything in Dorset?  I believe there is a lot we can do.  As individuals we can use our buying power to choose carefully what we purchase and from where.  As shareholders and investors we can either only invest in companies that are taking steps to reduce their emissions in line with Paris Accord targets, or use our voting power at AGMs to cause change.  Recently 62% of eligible voters (including the Church of England) required Exxon to assess the risks of climate change.  A great step forward and one that was reflected by the Exxon CEO’s criticism of the US decision.  We must also do our bit, no matter how small on the global scale, to use renewable energy and be as economical and efficient as we can by cutting down our energy consumption.  What is good for the planet is good for our pockets and good for Dorset.


As a conservationist I need to be an optimist. I firmly believe that far from damaging the world’s efforts to combat man-made climate change, the US decision has focussed attention on one, if not THE, most important issue facing our planet today.  It has strengthened resolve and informed or inspired all but the most hardened climate sceptics.  Let’s not panic, but rather stay calm and carry on saving this fabulous planet and county of ours.  After all, it’s all we’ve got.


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