Global Environmental Politics

Master's Degree Programs in Global Environmental Policy and in Natural Resources and Sustainable Development

Reflections on COP21

The Paris climate change conference has concluded with an agreement. The Global Environmental Politics (GEP) program in the School of International Service at American University has observer status at the international climate meetings and had a contingent on the ground in Paris. Here, faculty, students, and alumni from the GEP program unpack the meeting, its outcomes, and its implications.

Professor Paul Wapner, Global Environmental Politics

– The Reality of Paris: It Begins Now

Observers have called the Paris agreement everything from a historic success to a monumental failure. The reality is that it is too early to tell. Everything depends on how people respond to the agreement. Will countries, financial institutions, subnational governments, and civil society actors embrace the accord and use it as a springboard to move genuinely toward a post-carbon world or will they dismiss the agreement as too little too late or, worse, mere rhetoric and thus continue business as usual? To appreciate this challenge, it is useful to understand the promise that emerged from Paris.

First, a reality check:

No, the Paris agreement will not solve climate change. Individual countries have submitted voluntary commitments to reduce carbon emissions but, added together, these pledges still promise a hotter world. If every country fulfills its stated obligation, global temperatures will nevertheless exceed the 2 degrees Celsius target.

No, the Paris agreement does not provide sufficient funding to assist developing countries to pursue adequate mitigation and adaptation measures. Developed states agreed to supply at least $100 billion per year, starting in 2020, to help developing countries reduce their carbon output and adjust to a warmer world. However, most analysts agree that this is insufficient and many doubt that countries will fulfill their pledges to reach even this amount.

No, the Paris agreement will not be legally binding in the sense that individual country commitments are voluntary with no stated penalty for failure. While the agreement calls for transparency in reporting emissions and fulfilling one’s commitments, it falls short of requiring nations to meet their targets.

Finally, the Paris accord ignores the scientifically established climate budget, which requires keeping fossil fuels in the ground and makes clear that developed countries have already used up more than their fair share of global carbon space. Without referencing the biophysical constraints of what it will take to stay below a 2 degrees Celsius rise, the agreement privileges ambiguity and injustice over veracity and equality.

Now for the reality:

COP 21 never promised to solve climate change in one fell swoop but rather attempted to build a policy architecture under which countries could pursue an accelerated, multi-year effort toward climate protection. Diplomats understand individual country commitments as simply opening pledges that will be ratcheted up over the next five years—at which time increased ambitions will be reviewed—and beyond. The real success of Paris is the establishment of an institutional structure that can encourage increasing commitments toward a post-carbon world.

The previous architecture—the Kyoto Protocol—required only certain states to reduce emissions and this caused resentment, especially insofar as countries like China and India assumed no responsibilities. The Paris accord includes all states and thus creates a genuinely global compact. More than anything else, this was a central goal of COP21. Nations have finally established global solidarity toward moving beyond fossil fuels. This is more important than the specific numbers included in the accord.

Paris created the same vision regarding climate finance. The final text clarifies that $100 billion represents a floor not a ceiling. A number of countries have already increased their financial contributions and have indicated that they will continue to do so as the pact unfolds. Certainly, the numbers agreed upon and additional promises fail to cover the full expenses of climate finance but the more important point is that the international community has agreed on the necessity for the developed world to take the lead in financing the transition to a post-carbon future. This, more than anything else, is a huge achievement. The international community rarely agrees on anything. That it has come together and committed itself to paying for the terms of the accord is noteworthy.

Finally, the construction of reality:

The most significant point in assessing the Paris agreement is to recognize that reality is not set. The accord does not cast an indelible fate for the world but provides the necessary conditions in which the world can pursue a safer future. It offers a structure within which countries can carry out ambitious actions knowing that they are not alone but part of a broader, global effort. At this point, it is up to everyone to make the agreement a meaningful reality. This means figuring out how to use the accord to shape national policies, send market signals, and bend cultural understandings in the service of climate protection.

If the accord remains a mere floor for action, the critics are right: we’re cooked. If, however, the Paris agreement stands as simply the first movement of an accelerated global effort, there is a chance that 2015 will stand as the year when the world started turning back the climate dial. To be sure, erratic weather, melting ice caps, and all the rest will continue and intensify but at least we will know that humanity has put a stake in the ground and is starting to make good on such a commitment.

If genuinely appreciated and championed, the Paris agreement represents a pivotal historic moment. Let’s capitalize on this moment and make climate protection a reality.


Professor Todd EisenstadtSchool of Public Affairs

– Paris Agreement Defines Gap Between Climate Mitigation Dreams and their Implementation and Deserves Praise for That

The Paris Agreement was a diplomatic and political achievement. Getting 195 countries to agree to one text after twenty annual meetings without a major new accord was nothing short of remarkable.

As a legally binding document it is a little less extraordinary. The document is woefully inadequate in providing mechanisms for enforcing the individual nationally-determined contributions (INDCs) which are the “currency” of each nation’s pledge, and more generally, it does nothing to guarantee that these pledges will ratchet up over time to reach the level of greenhouse gas emissions savings needed to keep global warming from exceeding 2 degrees Celsius.

Negotiators and the media new to this issue and impressed with all the attention it had received universally lauded the document. However, longtime climate change followers — and most scientists — are a lot more sanguine. The INDCs at this point are good will pledges more than verifiable requirements, and the language in the text about not having global temperature rise exceed 2.0°C (3.6°F), and with an aspiration to keep this increase below 1.5°C (2.7°F). is completely divorced from reality.

The good news is that the treaty seems, in two weeks, to have reframed the worldwide conversations. The competitiveness gains in wind and solar energies, which have made those renewable alternatives to coal and oil economically viable, are positioned to soar now that the entire world has endorsed the dire need to slow — and eventually stop — the planet’s warming. The public and private sectors both seem to be on board, and measured in good intentions, the conference was a responding success. Continue reading…


Kristine Smith, Graduate Student (Attended COP21)

– My COP21 – Growing One’s Professional Network 

Many debate the utility of large international conferences such as UNFCCC COPs, the World Water Forum, etc. However, one way in which these conferences are indisputably valuable are that they allow the various stakeholders in a particular industry to meet face to face on the sidelines, and to expand their own professional networks. For me, COP 21 was more about expanding my professional network and conducting informational interviews than it was about following the negotiation text. I’ve been to several large international conferences this year, either through AU or through work, and many attend these conferences largely because they offer a rare opportunity to meet with counterparts face to face, even if the meetings have little to do with the actual subject or substance of the conference. Side meetings, informational interviews, and impromptu coffees are incredibly valuable when looking to advance your career, or even just a particular initiative you are working on. As I am graduating from AU this December, my first priority is to secure full-time employment that aligns with my interests and skill sets. I used COP 21 to meet with numerous organizations where that might be possible. For me personally, COP 21 was thus highly valuable. At large conferences, I focus most of my energies at the pavilions and coffee events, meeting new people and learning about new organizations. It is also a welcome break from the repetitiveness of side events and negotiations. Attending these types of conferences is especially valuable to the budding young professional, and I would recommend that all AU students take advantage of any opportunity to attend conferences in their field, because it is one of the rare times that everyone you would ever want to talk to will all be in one place.


Joe Thwaites, Alum of the Global Environmental Politics Program and Research Analyst at World Resources Institute 

– Lifetimes’ Worth of Work

On Saturday, at the end of two very long weeks of UN climate talks, and 23 years after countries first came to the negotiating table, they concluded the Paris Agreement, the first in which all nations commit to take action to reduce emissions. It creates a process in which all counties commit to taking action and come back every five years to review and increase their ambition. There are literally lifetimes worth of work to do to live out its goals and aspirations, but in the struggle to address climate change, this might mark a turning point. Success will depend on how effectively countries’ national climate plans are implemented, and how much further transformational ambition can be unlocked in the coming years. For this, climate finance will be crucial.

At the closing session where the agreement was adopted, there was a particularly moving speech by the South African environment minister, speaking for the group of 130-plus developing countries. She quoted Nelson Mandela speaking about a different struggle, but very applicable to this one:

“I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.”

I’m leaving Paris exhausted, but hopeful. This is the end of the beginning. There is so much to do.


Adam Jadhav, Alum of the Global Environmental Politics Program and Researcher with Panchabhuta Conservation Foundation

I split time between a field station in a rural Indian fishing village
and my apartment in Bangalore, a global megacity. My daily experiences
in both geographies temper my reaction to the climate accord reached
in Paris.

In my field site, I am critically examining years of government
planning and effort to develop an industrial port. The project would
destroy a biodiverse estuary, trading ecosystem services for coal
imports to satisfy India’s electricity demand. In Bangalore, when I
travel at peak hours, I lose hours in roads choked with the traffic of
India’s consumptive middle and upper classes.

More generally, the rhetoric of India’s government scares me.
Increasingly, the government has been happy to rhetorically cast
international efforts to address climate change as veiled “Western”
attempts to hold India back. Officials downplay the threat of climate
change and routinely embrace unsustainable “development.” Even now,
the environment minister trumpets a historic deal first and foremost
because India’s responsibilities remain differentiated.

I don’t see how our economics or our politics (in India or the U.S.)
will change enough to stay below the new 1.5-degree threshold. We will
need new paradigms, from “radical ecological democracy” to “climate
suffering” to questionable geoengineering tactics. And even then we
may fail, because we don’t just need to turn the ship around; we need
a completely different vessel.

So I’m skeptical about global exuberance over the deal. Is it wrong to
be hopeful that the world can change radically? No. But I worry that
impossibly wishful thinking might be a dangerous distraction we cannot


Michelle Swiger, Graduate Student (Attended COP21)

– The Next Steps

COP21 was a whirlwind of activity with so many events and informal information sessions that it was hard to choose what to follow and attend. Many people, especially those who worked for, or closely with, governments felt very positive about these negotiations. Several of the people that I talked with were very confident that the negotiations would produce a partial legally binding document that would be the start of future action. However, there was also tension. Towards the middle of the first week, several of the parties at briefings expressed their concerns, but despite their concerns they were all willing to work, negotiate, and make an effort to come to an agreement. I think that this cooperation and momentum needs to continue into the future because implementation and further reduction of CO2 are where the real difficulties begin.

Despite this agreement, there is still much work to be done if we are going to keep the world below 2 degrees. While the Paris agreement provides a framework and a way to move forward, so much more is going to be required. This is a daunting task considering how much it took to get to this point, but it cannot all be in vain. What gives me hope is that countries came together and found places where they could agree, showing the strength of civil society. The intersectionality of climate change with a variety of other social causes is not lost and a variety of groups showed strength and resolve at COP21. Some through protests, others through hosting side events and educating people about issues they work on. Most importantly, different organizations came together as one and fought for change. This is the future and needs to be sustained. The future of the climate will require this same type of collaboration.


Gabriella Neusner, Graduate Student (Attended COP21)

I consumed my time at COP 21 wandering the exhibition halls, attending panel discussions, listening in on plenary sessions, and talking with fellow attendees. I was struck by the enormous range of different sectors of society that had mobilized around issues related to climate change. A total of 1,109 NGOs were represented at COP 21, with many of them hosting briefings, press conferences, technology demonstrations, and panel discussions. Civil society groups were divided on questions of how to best address climate change, at times coming into direct opposition with one another on issues such as nuclear energy or the UN REDD+ program. As did the states, civil society groups within the climate movement formed alliances in order to influence the UNFCCC negotiations. One of the most interesting alliances was the collaborative movement to highlight climate change as a human rights issue. Labor unions, gender rights activists, indigenous groups, and youth groups formed an alliance to advocate for the inclusion of language on human rights in the UNFCCC Agreement.

Although a wide range of actors were gathered in the same highly securitized conference center, the COP was organized in such a way that different voices were not always coming into contact with one another. There existed a tremendous selection of different events to attend throughout the day and there were few opportunities for NGOs to participate in the formal negotiations binding the conference together. As a result, there emerged a proliferation of competing narratives explaining what was being accomplished. In press conferences given by various NGOs (the UNFCCC makes these available on its website: and in news coverage following the conference, we see entirely different perspectives on the successes or failures of the negotiations.

Much of the media coverage of COP 21 has focused on the complex web of state-level interests that shaped the final agreement coming out of Paris. While marginal to the formal negotiations at COP 21, civil society actors will continue to play a critical role in pushing for further state action on climate change and in implementing climate change mitigation and adaptation measures. It is therefore important to understand the complexities within the climate movement in order to get a better sense of what changes we can expect to see coming out of the Paris climate talks.


Professor Victoria Kiechel, Global Environmental Politics

Now the Paris Climate Agreement comes home, and we need to act.  The Agreement invites us to be creative, since there’s no prescribed path to the outcomes it envisions. Bearing in mind that institutions rather than individuals will be able most rapidly to reduce carbon emissions at scale, what can we — as American University — do as our part to ensure that the United States lives up to the greenhouse gas reduction goals expressed in the Agreement?  

We can step up the efforts already begun to decarbonize American University.  

Here is where AU seems weakest and most carbon-intense:

  • Transportation. Let’s look at how to incentivize students, staff, faculty, and visitors to stop using personal automobiles to get to campus.  From public transit subsidies to building fewer on-campus parking spaces to helping implement Ward 3 bicycling lanes, let’s advance many options.
  • Existing buildings. New construction is great – and we’ve got a lot of it — but it’s not that green.  We need to improve the buildings we’ve got through weatherization, systems commissioning, and (human) behavioral training.  . While we’re thinking about human behavior, why don’t we include environmental education and green behavior as a mandatory part of all new student, staff, and faculty orientation?  
  • Finance and investment. We can build up an internal AU green revolving loan fund to implement the best ideas for carbon savings, chosen competitively from around campus.  We can choose to sponsor technological research and development based on low-carbon criteria and whole life-cycle considerations.  We can take a hard look at our campus vendors and their practices, both social and environmental, beginning with our campus food supply chain.  We can open up a new pathway to divestment, because after Paris, fossil fuel investments are long-term losers.   If the Trustees won’t embrace the dramatic leadership role of sudden divestment, let’s look at gradual steps.  

As we pursue these and other actions, let’s follow the spirit and the letter of the Agreement, with a transparent and socially inclusive process to achieve our goals.


The Global Environmental Politics program in the School of International Service at American University is a diverse and inclusive community. The program does not necessarily endorse the ideas contained in this or any other blog post. Please understand that our aim is to provide a space for the expression of a range of perspectives on global environmental concerns


Author: sisgep

The Global Environmental Politics program in the School of International Service at American University offers a unique, specialized, and world-leading graduate environmental studies education. We have two degree tracks: Global Environmental Policy (GEP), and our dual-degree Natural Resources and Sustainable Development (NRSD) option with the UN-mandated University for Peace in Costa Rica. Join us!

Comments are closed.