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An historic agreement in Paris – now the hard work begins

By Adam Corner on December 18, 2015

It was the moment we’d all been waiting for.

After two decades of false starts and bitter disputes, the world’s governments agreed in Paris to keep global warming to less than 2 degrees, and to achieve ‘net zero’ emissions of carbon dioxide by the end of the century. The agreement reached at COP21 signals a level of ambition that exceeds what many battle-weary campaigners believed was possible.

On its own terms Paris was a huge diplomatic success, and the politicians involved have wasted no time in describing it as such. The ‘landmark’, ‘unprecedented’ and ‘world-changing’ agreement was widely reported by media across the world.

We should celebrate the fact that all countries have signalled their willingness to play their part in decarbonising the global economy.

But we should also be clear that behind the ‘agreement’ lies much that is still disputed. And it is these points of dispute that will determine how the lofty ambitions committed to paper this weekend will play out over the coming decades.

We have arrived at the start-line 20 years too late, and we have some serious catching up to do. The path ahead is paved with exactly the same dangers that it was before the Paris deal was reached: the difference is that we have agreed to walk down it together.

But now more than ever we need a coherent, comprehensive and credible strategy for public engagement. How can we turn the rhetoric of the Paris deal into reality?

First and foremost we need some frank and honest debate about what it would really mean to live in carbon-constrained world. People don’t think about the future by picturing a change in global average temperatures. So we need to ask how the radical carbon cuts necessary to achieve the aspirations of the Paris deal can be translated into people’s lived experiences.

The Paris agreement provides an important structure for having these conversations. Perhaps we can leave behind for good the spurious sceptic logic of ‘I will if they will’ – now ‘’we must’ because ‘they are’.

But the disagreements that remain are where the real action is on climate change – disputes grounded in different values, and played out in the familiar fight between conservatives and progressives.

For example, despite the rush to celebrate the end of the fossil fuel era, the truth may be a little less straightforward. In addition to the ‘net zero’ target, there are precisely zero mentions of fossil fuels in the final Paris text, and zero indication of how the production of fossil fuels (as opposed to the emissions they cause) will be curtailed.

Carbon neutrality could mean anything from abandoning fossils fuels altogether to relying on climate engineering technologies that are currently untested and likely to be unpopular among the public.

Finding common ground on these more contentious topics is where the energies of climate communicators are best placed now that the skeleton of a sustainable world has been assembled.

At Climate Outreach, we believe that meaningful engagement with climate change is best catalysed by starting with people’s values, and the ‘things they love’ that are affected by climate change. In our narrative workshops with members of the public from a wide variety of backgrounds – from faith groups, to young people, those on the centre-right – we offer people the chance to talk about climate change on their own terms, and from their own perspective.

As we look down the long road ahead of us, and reflect on what achieving the Paris goals will mean for how we live and the future we want, this kind of values-based public engagement is more crucial than ever.

For the first time in years, climate change campaigners have the bit between their teeth and a solid, global agreement on which to base their advocacy.

Now we need to harness this positive energy and momentum, and move climate change from a scientific to a social reality.

(Photo by tableatny (CC BY 2.0)

By Dr Adam Corner

Adam Corner is a writer and independent researcher who specialises in climate change communication and climate/culture collaborations. Adam worked with Climate Outreach between 2010-2021, helping to build the research team, developing Climate Visuals and Britain Talks Climate, and establishing the centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST). Adam has published widely on public engagement with climate change, from academic journals and reports for NGOs to media commentary (including for the Guardian and New Scientist). Currently Adam’s work is split between strategic climate communication projects (like the Local Storytelling Exchange), writing and contributing to reports, and developing the climate communication evidence base into music and cultural spaces.

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