Feb. 4, 2016

Panelists review Paris climate summit at Ithaca event

Mark Lawrence/ACSF
Allison Chatrchyan, director of the Cornell Institute for Climate Change and Agriculture, tells of her experience at the COP21 climate change summit.

Six panelists, including Cornell faculty members, who attended the 21st United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris last fall recalled the historic proceedings for a spirited audience that spilled into the hallway of the Tompkins County Public Library’s BorgWarner Room Feb. 3.

The panel, “COP21: Reflections on the Historic Climate Agreement,” was co-sponsored by Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, local government agencies and community groups. Todd Cowen, professor of civil and environmental engineering, moderated the discussion.

Topics discussed ranged from methane emissions to agriculture to civil disobedience, but panelists agreed that the COP21 made history by producing a 195-nation commitment to combat climate change that, while not nearly strong enough, they said, was a remarkable achievement nonetheless.

‘It cannot be a bridge fuel’

Panelist Robert Howarth, Cornell’s David R. Atkinson Professor of Ecology and Environmental Biology, attended methane, anti-fracking and ocean meetings at COP21. He said 195 nations agreed to keep Earth’s temperature rise well below 2 degrees Celsius but noted that the Earth is on target to warm 1.5 degrees Celsius in about 12 years.

Howarth said the United States and other nations need to focus more on methane, a shorter-lived, more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

“No matter what we do for carbon dioxide over the coming years and decades, the planet will continue to warm by 1.5 degrees [Celsius] in 12 years and by 2 degrees [Celsius] in 35 years, unless we cut methane emission,” said Howarth, who said we need to reduce methane within the next three years.

The natural gas industry is the largest source of methane emissions in the U.S. by far, and shale-gas development (fracking) has at least doubled these gas-industry methane emissions. “This completely undercuts the idea that natural gas is a bridge fuel,” Howarth said. “It cannot be a bridge fuel if we’re to meet the COP21 targets. … We’ve got to get rid of natural gas.”

Parsing the language

Picking up on the COP21 talks, Karen Pinkus, professor of Italian and comparative literature, observed how language was used in Paris. Pinkus observed meetings where negotiators parsed syllables, comma placements and precise terminology. As an example, she said an African coalition argued for the treaty to mention electricity rights.

Negotiators had excised the term – “electricity rights” – from the final COP21 document, which made no mention of agriculture or food security, critical issues for developing nations.

Pinkus also observed that climate change discussions have all but disappeared from U.S. media since the December convention. “This is something to be very cautious about, because if there is any momentum to come out of Paris … we can’t really afford to brush it aside,” she said.

‘This time it was different’

Johannes Lehmann, professor of soil and crop sciences, said COP21 “was an awesome assembly of people, and a quite frustrating beast as well.” Lehmann had attended previous climate meetings but said, “This time it was different.”

The meeting’s youth movement encouraged Lehmann. “It was teeming with young people, and they were excited about it,” he said. “To nurture this new generation of climate scientists, activists and concerned citizens is really important.”

Laying the foundation

Allison Chatrchyan, director of the Cornell Institute for Climate Change and Agriculture, set up an exhibit in Paris to showcase the university’s research and work on climate change, and she organized a panel on climate change and global food security and nutrition issues. While some people believe the COP21 treaty did not go far enough, she said she agrees with climate scientist Christopher Field, of the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology, who said the Paris agreement is going to save the world.

“We didn’t solve the problem, but we laid the foundation,” Chatrchyan said, noting the conference provided a more flexible approach to get agreement among all countries of the world: “But it is up to us – in our own countries and communities – to make sure that we’re living up to our commitments.”

‘We’re out of time’

Sandra Steingraber, distinguished scholar in residence in environmental studies and science at Ithaca College, spoke about business looking for strong signals from political leaders to signal that investment dollars will flow into a new green economy.

“So for the treaty itself, I think it’s a pretty sound document, it has good bones, the science is sound and there are pledges in place from almost every nation,” Steingraber said. “I see this as a great race. I agree with [climate author] Bill McKibben, who said, ‘It’s a great treaty – for 1995.’ But the problem is what’s missing is what we can’t add anymore, which is time. We’re out of time. So all of this remarkable transformation has to happen rapidly.”

‘Appeal to the better angels’

Colleen Boland ’01, founding member of advocacy group We Are Seneca Lake, said she and others gathered outside the official summit to “appeal to the better angels of those who are inside negotiating on behalf of the citizenry of the entire planet.”

Cornell is continuing to engage students and the public on climate change this spring, hosting a seminar series. The sessions are free and open to the public: www.acsf.cornell.edu/climate2016.