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December 17, 2015

Paris Agreement is “first step” in addressing threat of climate change


Last year, I took a course called “Humanity and the Environment” which looked at human history through the lens of the natural world. We started the semester by reading foundational texts, such as religious creation stories and important early works of philosophy, making our way from the Paleolithic Era to the Postmodern Era. I studied how the world came to be; how humans used the earth for agriculture and how overuse has led to the point where political leaders need to meet — as they did during the last two weeks in Paris, France — to discuss the threatened future of the earth and mankind.

Before the class, I would not have considered myself an environmentalist. Sure, our use of the environment was destroying the earth, but we wouldn’t see the consequences anytime soon, at least not here. Right?

I was very wrong. Our careless abuse of the earth causes literal damage (climate refugees, droughts, floods, food and water shortages and the precarious future of ice sheets) and figurative (a dangerous, anthropocentric philosophy).

The ecological root of conflict in the war in Darfur, and local stories about environmental injustice in my own community, such as a sewage plant unfairly placed in a predominantly black neighborhood, show the true impact of abusing natural resources. From Syrian refugees to American teenagers, we’re all affected.

The Paris Agreement, a climate accord among nations that aims to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, reduce emissions from deforestation and mobilize climate finance, is the first step. The future of the planet relies on individual countries’ actions. The accord addresses this fact in its pragmatic approach to holding nations accountable for their progress in emissions reduction. The summit sent a strong signal, one that will hopefully resonate with lawmakers, business people and global citizens alike.

In 2016, I will be about to vote in the U.S. presidential election. I — and many other voters — am considering candidates’ stances on climate change policy. Republican presidential candidates for the 2016 election have expressed doubts about global warming and savaged President Obama’s climate change agenda, yet the majority of Republicans recognize that climate change exists and support regulation of carbon dioxide emissions, according to a recent report by the National Surveys on Energy and the Environment. The people’s support of climate change action might shape the candidates’ platforms as their campaigns evolve here in the U.S.

The power dynamics are complicated, the national interests are conflicting and the victims (think: least developed countries) of climate change are underrepresented in the international discourse. Still, the issue is not one we can afford to ignore any longer.

Soon we will all be in the hands of a changing climate, a sobering reminder that, at one time, the climate was in ours.

Sarah Warman Hirschfield is a senior at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York City. 

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