As the 46th anniversary of Earth Day passed on Friday, the United States joined 160 countries in signing the Paris Agreement on climate change, negotiated last year, which sets ambitious goals, including holding planetary warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6° F) above preindustrial levels.
While the stage for this agreement was set in 1992, when President George H.W. Bush signed the aspirational Framework Agreement on Climate Change in Rio de Janeiro, it’s taken nearly a quarter-century of talks to get to this point.
The Paris Agreement is the strongest climate commitment to date, and represents an important achievement in addressing one of the most significant challenges in human history. By signing the agreement, these countries are signaling their commitment to develop and implement national plans to meet the goals.
Much has changed since those first talks in Rio. The effects of climate change are increasingly evident around the world and the results more dire. Pope Francis’ pronouncements add spiritual weight to scientific data. In Paris last December, I was struck by both the number of corporations supporting the agreement and its goals and the voices of more than 400 mayors concerned about the future of their cities.
Significantly, 154 U.S. companies have signed the American Business Act on Climate pledge in support of the agreement. These companies have operations in all 50 states, employ nearly 11 million people, represent more than $4.2 trillion in annual revenue and have a combined market capitalization of more than $7 trillion. This show of corporate support represents a radical change in the conversation.
In Wisconsin, whether you are a farmer, a forester, an insurance company executive, a business owner dependent on Great Lakes shipping or a municipal official planning public infrastructure, climate change is affecting your bottom line.
Elsewhere in America, especially in coastal cities across the country, the effects of sea level rise are increasingly dangerous and costly. The impacts in Miami and other cities in Florida are so stark and challenging that, in a rare act of bipartisanship, Republican and Democratic mayors from that state joined forces, imploring the presidential candidates and Florida debate moderators to talk about climate change, and the journalists obliged.
The next few decades offer a brief window of opportunity to minimize large scale and potentially catastrophic climate impacts. To do so, we need to aggressively increase our efforts to achieve net zero emissions.
There are signs of progress. We have an enormous opportunity to maximize energy efficiency and clean energy. Last year, wind power in the U.S. provided 5% of our total energy needs and employment in that industry rose 20%. For the first time ever, more wind and solar capacity was added to the grid than natural gas; and solar power garnered $161 billion in new investment in 2015, more than natural gas and coal combined.
Creating greater energy independence and increasing our investments in, and reliance on, clean energy has many benefits beyond slowing the rate of global warming. These efforts offer us a multibillion-dollar business opportunity while cleaning up our air, improving public health and creating new and long-lasting job opportunities.
Achieving a carbon-free and clean energy future will require tremendous effort and focus. It will require us to consider all potential options for low-carbon emissions, including potentially expanding our nuclear energy programs.
This year, on what would have been my father’s 100th birthday, I find myself reflecting on his words from not long before he died. When asked why, at age 89, he still went to work every day fighting to protect our planet and its people, he said simply, “The job’s not done.”
Today, we can celebrate the sense of urgency and commitment among world leaders to address climate change. The choices they, and we, make now will be shaping the global economy, public health and environment for us and hundreds of generations to come.
Tia Nelson is managing director, Outrider Foundation Climate Change.