The Paris Agreement is a Triumph of Diplomacy

The Paris Agreement has been formally adopted by 195 counties.

Here it is.

Over the coming days, we can expect experts, advocates and other interested parties to closely parse over the text. There will be criticisms of it. And there will be praise. (The praise will probably outweigh the criticism.)

“The Paris agreement is a pragmatic deal that delivers what’s needed – tools to hold countries accountable and build ambition over time,” Elliot Diringer of Center for Energy and Climate Solutions  said in an emailed statement. “We’ll only know for sure years from now, but this new global approach could prove transformative. ”

Either way, the fact that this agreement was adopted at all is a triumph for the notion that international diplomacy can produce global solutions to big global challenges. It’s an affirmation that even the most seemingly intractable and complex global problem — as climate change surely is — can be mitigated and addressed through smart diplomacy.

The agreement reached in Paris is profoundly inventive, and a big step forward for a new kind of diplomacy that takes into account certain realities of American politics. Most of the substantive measures that countries are undertaking to reduce emissions were not up for negotiation. Rather, these “intended nationally determined contributions” were what countries brought to the table ahead of the Paris talks. This was a necessity for the USA, among other countries, because of the low probability that the US senate would  ratify a sweeping climate treaty. And without the USA (which is the world’s second largest emitter and historically largest emitter) the agreement would be meaningless. So rather than mandate country-specific emissions targets, the agreement reflects what countries themselves are bringing to the table.

Taken together, these pledges push the needle in the right direction.

But that was not enough.  As the agreement went down to the wire, key questions about climate finance, how often the countries would come back together to “ratchet up” their ambition, and how the international community could verify compliance with emissions targets were up for debate.

The result is partly a statement of international goals and ambitions, and partly a legally binding treaty text. But —  and here is another stroke of genius — the legally binding parts of the text are not technically a “new” treaty that would require US ratification. Rather, they were included as part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which the USA ratified back in 1992.  The current US senate cannot block this agreement because a prior US senate already ratified the treaty text to which the legally binding portion of this agreement applies.

Again, this is a triumph of ingenuity in diplomacy.  But deeper still, the Paris Agreement is a victory for the basic idealist notion that countries with diverse and competing priorities can find non-zero-sum solutions to the world’s most complex problems.  If countries can come together in the face of as massive and complicated challenge as global climate change, then other seemingly intractable global problems suddenly don’t seem so impossible to take on.