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What is the Paris Climate Agreement? We have recently been hearing a plethora of opinions on the agreement, but what do we know about it? We set out to understand the agreement, what it means, and what it is trying to address.

It is no secret that climate change has become a hot button issue on a national and global scale, sparking many conflicts. It is also no secret that the current President has decided to begin the process of withdrawing the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement. The United States is the second largest emitter worldwide, producing nearly one fifth of all global emissions, so the decision to withdraw not only affects the US, but threatens to drastically reduce the overall impact of the Agreement. In addition, it is unknown how the withdrawal will affect U.S. job growth. The Trump Administration claims that fewer regulations will promote job growth, but some economists worry that clean energy development offers more long-term employment opportunities. Stuart Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations also has stated that the withdrawal “will endanger U.S. national security and prosperity by sabotaging U.S. global leadership.” Other members of the council argue that the withdrawal of the U.S. will empower China to take greater global leadership.

The Paris Climate Agreement states that a country must wait four years to withdraw, however that period could be reduced to just one year if the U.S. is removed from a 1992 United Nations Treaty governing climate talks.  So what do we know about climate change and what is the Paris Climate Agreement?

One key thing to understand about climate change is the difference between climate and weather. It has been stated that climate change is not real because “it was cold today.” Weather refers to a location’s temperature, humidity, cloudiness, and so on at a specific point in time. Climate refers to trends in weather over long periods of time.

It is natural for Earth’s climate to change over time to an extent, usually a result of slight variations in the Earth’s path as it travels around the sun. Our current experience is unique in the rate at which the climate is changing; ten times faster than we see from a recovery following an ice age.

Evidence that the climate of the Earth is changing can be found in many areas of research. We know climate change is happening by observing global temperature; the global average temperature is clearly rising, with 16 of the 17 warmest years on record having occurred since 2001. Scientific consensus attributes this temperature rise to human carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon Dioxide and other gases in the atmosphere trap heat which results in a rise in temperature.

We also know the climate is changing because sea level has risen faster in the last 20 years than the previous 100. The acidity of the ocean is rising, too. In fact, the acidity of the ocean has increased by 30% since the industrial revolution due to approximately 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide being absorbed by the ocean. We know climate change is happening because between 2002 and 2005, Greenland and Antarctica have lost up to 60 cubic miles and 36 cubic miles of glacial ice respectively. The Northern Hemisphere is also seeing less spring snow cover and an earlier loss of snow.

But why should Wisconsin care? Well, Wisconsin is not exempt from the ravages of climate change. Not only is the average temperature for Wisconsin increasing, but the Great Lakes are experiencing shorter periods of ice coverage, heavy rainstorms are occurring more frequently, threatening flooding, and warmer water temperatures are expected, threatening the health of those in urban areas such as Milwaukee.

Precipitation in the Midwest has increased between 5-10%, with the four wettest days of the year being 35% wetter than in the past 50 years. Lake Michigan is also threatened by increased precipitation. More rain causes more runoff of nitrogen and phosphorous from soil, which could promote toxic algae blooms, especially in combination with the warming waters. In addition, sewers experience an increased risk of overflowing into rivers and lakes, which threatens the safety of our beaches and drinking water.

So what does all this mean? Warmer, shorter winters jeopardize recreational activities such as snowmobiling and ice fishing, hurting local economies. Rising temperatures will likely change the habitats of many plants and animals found in Wisconsin. Many species of trees are endangered by warming temperatures, such as birch and balsam, resulting in an increase of pine and oak trees. Warming waters will change the fish population as well, favoring warm water species such as bass and reducing the cold water species such as trout and walleye, and changing migrations could result in some species of animals being unable to find food when they arrive at their destination. Wisconsin’s agricultural industry is at risk as well, with cows producing less milk in warmer temperatures and flooding impeding crop yields. Over half of Wisconsin’s revenue comes from the agricultural industry.

Increasing temperatures also threaten human health. Warmer weather also means more pollen, one of the most common allergy triggers, and longer tick season; increasing risk of Lyme’s disease, rickettsia, and other diseases. Other complications from hotter Midwest summers include increased risk of heatstroke and dehydration, especially in urban areas, which are generally warmer than rural areas. These risks are even higher for the poor, elderly, sick, and children. An example is the 1995 heat wave, which killed 91 people in Milwaukee due to heat related complications.

In 2015, 195 countries came together to negotiate the Paris Climate Agreement in order to address climate change. As of today, all but 3 countries support the agreement: Nicaragua, which felt the agreement was not stringent enough, Syria, which is in the middle of an ongoing civil war, and the United States, who started the process of withdrawing from the agreement on June 1, 2017.

The Paris Climate Agreement aims to do three things:

(a) Halt the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C (36°F) above pre-industrial levels, and pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C (35°F) above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change;

(b) Increase 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; and

(c) Make finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development.

Essentially, the goals of the Agreement are to minimize the rise in global average temperature, reduce greenhouse gas emission, and aid climate financing for poorer countries.

The agreement requires developed nations to maintain a funding pledge of $100 billion per year beyond 2020, and to increase that figure by 2025 collectively. The goal of this funding is to provide developing nations the ability to skip the development of fossil fuel usage and move straight to the use of renewable energy. In comparison, the United States budgeted $560 billion dollars on military spending in 2015.

It is important to note that nations were given the opportunity to negotiate their spending under the agreement and pledges to cut emissions are voluntary.

Reactions to the decision to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate agreement have been mixed.

Senators from Wisconsin, Tammy Baldwin and Ron Johnson had conflicting reactions as did Representatives Gwen Moore, Jim Sensenbrenner, Mark Pocan, and Paul Ryan. Mayor Tom Barrett of Milwaukee has vowed that Milwaukee will continue to fight climate change regardless of the withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement as have other mayors throughout the country.

It is important to realize that regardless of the status of the United States regarding the Paris Agreement, everyone can still do their part to better the planet on an individual basis. Even if the United States is not part of the Paris Climate Agreement, we can still take it upon ourselves to reduce our carbon footprint.

Written by Melissa Sheffer for the Milwaukee Area Science Advocates


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