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Kerry, 174 leaders sign 'powerful' Paris climate change treaty amid skepticism, protests

"The power of this agreement is the opportunity it creates, the power is the message it sends to the marketplace," Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday before signing the document.

By
Doug G. Ware and Amy R. Connolly
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry looks over his speech text during the opening of the United Nations Signing Event for the COP21 Climate Change Agreement on Earth Day at the United Nations General Assembly Hall in New York. Photo by U.S. Department of State/UPI
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry looks over his speech text during the opening of the United Nations Signing Event for the COP21 Climate Change Agreement on Earth Day at the United Nations General Assembly Hall in New York. Photo by U.S. Department of State/UPI | License Photo

NEW YORK, April 22 (UPI) -- U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry lauded the Paris climate agreement Friday as powerful but warned it may not be enough to keep the Earth from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius in the coming years.

Kerry was one of 175 world leaders who gathered in New York Friday, Earth Day, to sign the historic climate deal, also known as COP 21. The agreement, reached in December, is the first international accord that outlines steps for the world's nations to combat climate change and lower carbon levels by 2100.

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"The power of this agreement is the opportunity it creates, the power is the message it sends to the marketplace," Kerry said before signing the document. "The power of this agreement is what it is going to to do to unleash the private sector, and what it is already doing to set the global economy on a new path toward smart, sustainable development."

French President Francois Hollande was the first to sign the agreement Friday at 9:50 a.m. EDT. Kerry signed shortly after 11 a.m., giving a quick kiss to his granddaughter, who sat in his lap during the historic moment.

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The plan, which exists within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, calls on nations of the world to begin goal-oriented measures to reduce carbon emissions, adjust to cleaner energy and earmark resources by 2020.

Nearly 200 world leaders negotiated and agreed to the language of the draft treaty, which aims to accomplish three main goals:

-- Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.

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-- Increasing the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience and low greenhouse gas emissions development, in a manner that does not threaten food production.

-- Making finance flows consistent with a pathway toward low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development.

Key points in the agreement also include peaking greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible and achieving a balance between sources and reservoirs of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century. The process will be reviewed every five years and a $100 billion a year climate finance fund for developing countries will be established by 2020, with additional financing coming in the future.

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The signing

Leaders of nearly 200 countries were expected to sign the historic Paris Agreement, a draft treaty that seeks to significantly control carbon emissions by 2100. Agreed to in December, the accord is a landmark pact that spurs the world's nations to take definitive steps to reduce greenhouse gases caused by fossil fuels, like crude oil. Photo by Murty/Shutterstock
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Last month, Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced their governments' intention to sign the agreement.

"The presidents recognize that the Paris Agreement marks a global commitment to tackling climate change and a strong signal of the need for a swift transition to low-carbon, climate-resilient economies," the White House said in a statement. "The joint efforts by China and the United States on climate change will serve as an enduring legacy of the partnership between our two countries."

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The U.N. said the signing was the largest one-day signing of an international agreement in history, surpassing the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which saw 119 signers. It opened a one-year period for additional nations to sign the agreement, required to take effect by 2020. Obama, in London to meet with British leaders, did not attend the ceremony.

Although the accord is the first of its kind and tries to take on what many believe is a dire matter, it is somewhat controversial in the political and scientific communities.

The skepticism

As historic the agreement might be, it has not met with universal acclaim.

Citing various reasons, including that it is part legally binding and part voluntary, some in the scientific community said the measures do not go far enough to control climate change, only locking the world into a long period that will only see it get warmer.

Part of the problem, concerned scientists say, lies in the fact that some of the ratifying nations currently don't have any plans on the books to meet the steps outlined in the pact -- and some of those that do, like the United States, don't go nearly far enough.

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"Meeting the Paris pledge will require additional action," the Rhodium Group, a New York-based advisory firm, stated in a January report. "Reducing emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 [as the agreement calls for] will not be possible through current and planned policies alone.

"Even under the most effective policy implementation and optimistic technology and forest sink scenarios, we expect US emissions to be 23% below 2005 levels that year -- leaving a 220-350 million metric ton gap. While the US still has nearly a decade to put additional policy in place, it will need to do so relatively quickly for the impact to be felt by the time the 2025 pledge comes due."

"I think the train has left the station, and the clean-energy transition is going to happen. Whether it will happen in time to head off dangerous climate change is really the question," Guido Schmidt-Traub, managing director of an environmental group in Paris and New York, told The New York Times.

Future policies set in motion by Obama, who has spearheaded a push for change in the United States since taking office in 2009, might not even be enough -- thanks particularly, some say, to the Supreme Court, which in February voted to block the White House's Clean Power Plan. The president's action sets out to cut carbon emissions from U.S. power plants by more than 30 percent by 2030.

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Under legal challenge from fossil fuel industry states like West Virginia and Texas, the high court voted 5-4 to block its implementation -- submitting that Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency may have overstepped their authority in mandating the greenhouse gas limits.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the White House, though, have each insisted that the plan is desperately needed -- and legal.

The plan still must go through a court hearing in June and another vote by the Supreme Court, when it once again reaches full strength. In fact, whoever replaces the late Antonin Scalia on the high court could cast the decisive vote -- as Scalia was among the five who voted to block it.

The doomsday scenario

While some say the Paris accord doesn't go far enough, there are others who say it goes too far in causing potentially catastrophic harm to the planet. The agreement, they argue, could lead to unforeseen and potentially disastrous consequences.

"The Paris agreement is historic in the sense that the Munich Agreement was historic -- a catastrophic act of appeasement meant to maintain business-as-usual arrangements," Climate Mobilization Deputy Director Ezra Silk said. "Leading economists argue that climate change could cause at least as much destruction as World War II -- and the non-binding Paris agreement paves the way for that future. It's time to stop waiting for another climate 'Pearl Harbor' and to mobilize all available resources to save human civilization."

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The Climate Mobilization, an emergency climate change group, is planning "die in" protests at the pact's signing at the U.N. building and has posted a pledge online that calls on supporters to demand action from the U.S. government.

President Barack Obama makes a statement on the climate agreement in the Cabinet Room of the White House on December 12, 2015. President Obama said, “The American people should be proud” because the landmark accord offered “the best chance we’ve had to save the one planet we’ve got.” Pool photo by Dennis Brack/UPI
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One point of the pledge says, "I call on the United States government to reduce our country's net greenhouse gas emissions 100 percent by 2025 and implement far-reaching measures to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere."

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The organization doesn't pull any punches in an apocalyptic analysis of COP 21, either.

"Ultimately, the Paris Agreement's target of global net zero greenhouse gas emissions in 'the second half of this century' represents a cataclysmic failure of leadership -- and likely a crime against humanity and the natural world -- that will devastate the planet and civilization if it is realized.

"We need to turn this into an enormous grassroots movement, and we need to do it quickly. We need to bring the rest of the environmental movement and the American people on board with the call for Climate Mobilization NOW! If we succeed, we will be heroes."

The supporters

For every critic, there is a believer in the Paris Agreement.

In addition to presidents Obama and Xi, other world leaders and scientists continue to praise the landmark deal, which they argue is not a final plan etched in stone, but rather an initial guidepost that starts the critical first steps of the gargantuan fight against turning up the heat on Mother Earth.

"Geologists have demonstrated that Gabon has enjoyed a relatively stable climate through the ages, and our forests, which cover 88 percent of the country, act as one of the green lungs of the planet," the West African nation's president, Ali Bongo Ondimba, said in an op-ed on CNBC Thursday. "Yet the human effects of climate change will certainly reach us if action is not taken."

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Ondimba stated that although his small nation lags far behind the world's major carbon violators, he views COP 21 as a critical and necessary first step in solving a humanitarian crisis.

"This cannot be a one-off gesture, and further collaboration will be the price of our shared responsibility. Our challenges as developing nations are specific, but the consequences of failure are universal," he added.

"This is not a time for scaremongering -- and, thankfully, the Paris agreement gives us a path forward to avoid scenarios such as mass climate migration -- but it is beholden on all nations to keep to their word in the not-too-distant future."

The U.S. Department of State, which is sending Kerry to sign the agreement, said it applauds all supporting nations for green-lighting the measure -- but warned that signing the paper won't be enough.

"Friday is another critical milestone along the path -- confronting the threats -- and entry into force is really kind of a critical next step beyond that," a department representative said. "So as record numbers of world leaders sign the agreement on Friday, the next step really is to join the agreement. That's distinct from signing."

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Although COP 21 calls for nations to implement new environmental plans within four years, U.S. officials indicated that Washington hopes to do so far earlier, perhaps as soon as this year.

"Just a few weeks ago President Obama and Chinese President Xi jointly announced our intent to sign the agreement ... and then to join as early as possible this year," the State official said. "That's a signal -- significant signal, really -- of continued commitment and momentum coming from the two largest emitters, which together account for virtually 40 percent of global emissions.

"There's a clear cry globally for global climate action. ... The science is irrefutable. The ravages look more significant, more threatening; the need to act quickly to move, really quite significant, very important. And Friday is really a benchmark in that process."

The partisan perspective

Although Friday's signing doesn't directly impact the 2016 presidential election, its effects are likely to be substantially relevant for whoever succeeds Obama in the Oval Office in January.

The Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, have pledged to build on Obama's climate change agenda -- while GOP contenders Ted Cruz and Donald Trump have sharply criticized COP 21 and publicly dismissed the scientific community's assessment that climate change is a grave threat.

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Whoever wins the Nov. 8 vote will have a significant influence on the effects of the Paris agreement and may even determine its short-term success.

U.S. President Barack Obama arrives at the United Nation's 21st climate change conference at Le Bourget near Paris on November 30, 2015. Nearly heads of state and representatives from 200 countries in attendance negotiated a legally binding agreement to limit worldwide carbon emissions with the goal of keeping global warming under 2 degrees Celsius. Photo by David Silpa/UPI
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And without the United States, COP 21 would likely face an even more uncertain future.

"The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive," Trump tweeted about a month before the accord was reached.

"This very expensive GLOBAL WARMING [expletive] has got to stop. Our planet is freezing, record low temps, and our GW scientists are stuck in ice," he said in another.

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Cruz, meanwhile, pledged in December to remove the United States from the agreement if he is elected.

"Barack Obama seems to think the SUV parked in your driveway is a bigger threat to national security than radical Islamic terrorists who want to kill us. That's just nutty," he said. "These are ideologues, they don't focus on the facts, they won't address the facts, and what they're interested [in] instead is more and more government power."

Democratic contenders couldn't disagree more.

"We will only succeed if we redouble our efforts going forward to drive innovation, increase investment, and reap the benefits of the good-paying jobs that will come from transitioning to a clean energy economy," Clinton said upon the deal's completion in December. "The next decade of action is critical -- because if we do not press forward with driving clean energy growth and cutting carbon pollution across the economy, we will not be able to avoid catastrophic consequences."

Sanders, meanwhile, might be even more likely to charge ahead with the plan than Clinton will.

"While this is a step forward it goes nowhere near far enough," he said. "The planet is in crisis. We need bold action in the very near future and this does not provide that.

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"In the United States we have a Republican Party which is much more interested in contributions from the fossil fuel industry than they care about the future of the planet. That is true all over the globe."

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