As the digital media bubble pops, journalism is in "panic" mode. Read our take.
Climate Desk Associate Producer
Tim McDonnell joined Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine. He remains a cheerful guy despite covering climate change all the time. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.
The Justice Department filed a civil lawsuit on Monday against Volkswagen over charges that the company installed illegal software on more than half a million vehicles sold in the United States that allowed them to cheat on emissions tests.
"Car manufacturers that fail to properly certify their cars and that defeat emission control systems breach the public trust, endanger public health and disadvantage competitors," Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden of the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division said in a statement.
Back in September, the Environmental Protection Agency filed a citation carrying the possibility of billions of dollars in fines against Volkswagen after the agency discovered that 500,000 VW diesel-powered cars sold since 2009 were designed to deliberately emit much lower levels of harmful gases during official testing than during actual on-the-road driving. A month later, the scandal widened to include an additional 10,000 cars. By some estimates, the excess emissions caused by VW's cars could contribute to thousands of deaths.
For VW, the fallout has been long and damning. The company's share price fell off a cliff immediately after the first allegations and has only recovered a little bit in the months since. The CEO has been replaced. The episode prompted the EPA to overhaul its emissions testing procedures to better catch similar evasion tactics in the future. And the company now faces lawsuits from pissed-off drivers and car dealers.
The suit today represents the Obama administration's first steps to follow up on the EPA's allegations. The suit says VW could be liable for up to $6,500 in fines per vehicle—totaling to more than $3 billion—and adds that recalls or other possible remedies are still being considered. It also says criminal charges haven't yet been ruled out. In a statement, a Volkswagen spokesperson said the company "will continue to work cooperatively with the EPA on developing remedies to bring the TDI vehicles into full compliance with regulations as soon as possible," and that it "will continue to cooperate with all government agencies investigating these matters."
There was relief and celebration in Paris Saturday evening, as officials from more than 190 countries swept aside monumental differences and agreed to an unprecedented global deal to tackle climate change.
The historic accord, known as the Paris Agreement, includes emissions-slashing commitments from individual countries and promises to help poorer nations adapt to the damaging effects of a warming world. Negotiators also agreed on measures to revise, strengthen, and scrutinize countries' contributions going forward.
"This is a tremendous victory for all our citizens," said Secretary of State John Kerry during the final session of the summit. "It's a victory for all of the planet and for future generations."
The Paris Agreement includes commitments to slash emissions and help poor countries adapt to warming.
However, the deal leaves some key decisions to the future, and it is widely recognized as not representing an ultimate solution to climate change. Instead, it sets out the rules of the road for the next 10 to 15 years and establishes an unprecedented international legal basis for addressing climate issues. Within the agreement, nearly every country on Earth laid out its own plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to climate change impacts. Although those individual plans are not legally binding, the core agreement itself is.
The deal sets a long-term goal of keeping the increase in the global temperature to "well below" 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels and calls on countries to "pursue efforts" to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees C. It adds that "parties aim to reach a global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible."
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who has served as chair of the two-week summit, said the deal is the most ambitious step ever taken by the international community to confront climate change.
In announcing the deal, President Barack Obama clinched a major foreign policy success years in the making and secured long-term action on climate change as a core part of his legacy, despite extraordinary opposition at home from the Republican majority in Congress. During the second week of the talks in Paris, Kerry was a driving force, delivering several high-profile speeches in which he sought to cast the United States as a leader on climate action. For Kerry, who has been a prominent voice in climate summits for two decades, it was essential to craft a deal to which the United States could agree and not to return home empty-handed.
The deal leaves some key decisions to the future, and it's not an ultimate solution to climate change.
The deal signals that world leaders are now committed to responding to the dire scientific warnings about the impacts of warming. Rising concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels and other human activities are threatening to usher in an era of rising sea levels, sinking islands, scorching heat waves, devastating droughts, mass human migration, and destruction of ecosystems.
Among the deal's biggest successes is a commitment to produce a global review of climate progress by 2018 and to bring countries back to the negotiating table by 2020 to present climate targets that "will represent a progression beyond the Party's then-current" target. In other words, countries are committed to ramping up their ambition in the short term. This was an essential item for many people here, since the current raft of targets only keeps global warming to 2.7 degrees C, not 1.5 degrees. The deal also promises to hold every country accountable to the same standard of transparency in measuring and reporting their greenhouse gas emissions; this was a provision that the United States had pushed hard for in order to ensure that other big polluters such as China and India abide by their promises.
"Countries have united around a historic agreement that marks a turning point in the climate crisis," said Jennifer Morgan, global director of the climate program at the World Resources Institute. "This is a transformational long-term goal that should really send clear signals into the markets" about the imminent decline of fossil fuel consumption.
Delegates agreed to keep warming "well below" 2 degrees C—but the actual emissions cuts promised by countries won't be enough to do that.
The deal is expected to be a boon for the clean energy industry, as developing and developed countries alike increase their investments in wind, solar, and other renewable energy sources. Early in the talks, a high-profile group of billionaire investors, including Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, promised to pour money into clean energy research, and a critical component of the agreement is a commitment for developed countries to transfer clean technologies to developing countries.
"If we needed an economic signal from this agreement, I think this is rather remarkable," said Michael Jacobs, a senior advisor at New Climate Economy.
Still, parts of the deal left some environmental groups unsatisfied, particularly with respect to financing for clean energy technology and climate change adaptation. The deal requires all developed countries to "provide financial assistance to assist developing country Parties with respect to both mitigation and adaptation." Although the deal sets a floor of $100 billion for that assistance and calls for that number to be raised by 2025, it doesn't specify a new higher target and does not commit any country, including the United States, to any particular share of that. The deal also specifies that nothing in it can be construed as holding countries with the biggest historical contribution to climate change—most importantly the United States—legally or financially liable for climate-change-related damages in vulnerable countries. And it provides no specific timeline for peaking and reducing global greenhouse gas emissions; according to some scientists, that will need to happen within the next few decades for the 1.5 degrees C target to be achievable.
Countries agreed to return to the negotiating table by 2020 to strengthen their emissions reductions.
"There's not enough in this deal for the nations and people on the frontlines of climate change," said Kumi Naidoo, international executive director of Greenpeace, in a statement. "It contains an inherent, ingrained injustice. The nations which caused this problem have promised too little help to the people who are already losing their lives and livelihoods."
The task of delegates at Le Bourget, a converted airport north of Paris, over the past two weeks was substantial. After all, more than two decades of UN-led climate talks had failed to produce a global deal to limit greenhouse gases. The Copenhagen talks in 2009 collapsed because officials couldn't agree on how to level the playing field between rich and poor countries, sending negotiations into a morass of recriminations. Before that, the Kyoto protocol in 1997 also failed—the United States and China didn't ratify it, and it only covered about 14 percent of global carbon emissions. This year's negotiations, the 21st in the series of UN climate talks, had to be different.
One of the major reasons negotiators were able to reach a deal was that much of the work had been done in advance. By the time Paris rolled around, more than 150 countries had promised to change the way they use energy, detailing those changes in the form of individual commitments. Known as INDCs, these pledges formed the basis of Saturday's deal. Of course, the INDCs won't be legally binding, and even if most countries do manage to live up to their promises, they aren't yet ambitious enough to prevent dangerous levels of warming.
Some environmentalists are disappointed. The agreement "contains an inherent, ingrained injustice," said Greenpeace's Kumi Naidoo.
The latest estimate is that the INDCs will limit global warming to about 2.7 degrees C above pre-industrial levels. That's above the limit of 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) that scientists say is necessary to avert the worst impacts of global warming—and far above the 1.5 degrees C target that negotiators in Paris agreed to aim for. But it's also about 1 degree C less warming than would happen if the world continued on its present course.
The Paris summit began as the largest meeting of government leaders in history (outside the UN building in New York) just two weeks after ISIS-affiliated terrorists killed 130 people across the city. While French officials immediately promised the talks would continue, they soon banned long-planned, massive climate protests, citing security concerns. That decision set the stage for several skirmishes between police and protesters, who remained committed to disrupting the talks in order to highlight issues such as sponsorship from big oil companies and the plight of poorer countries. At one protest, an estimated 10,000 people formed a human chain in the Place de la République, the site of a spontaneous memorial to the victims of the Paris attacks. There were scores of arrests.
But the climate talks themselves went ahead as planned. Some 40,000 heads of state, diplomats, scientists, activists, policy experts, and journalists descended on the French capital for the event. Perhaps the biggest factor driving the negotiators' unprecedented optimism was the fact that the two biggest greenhouse gas emitters, and the world's two biggest economies—the United States and China—had made a public show of working together to get an agreement. A landmark climate deal between the two countries in November 2014 built critical momentum. China later promised to create a national cap-and-trade program to augment a suite of emissions control policies. The Obama administration, meanwhile, pushed through its Clean Power Plan regulations, despite aggressive resistance from Republicans. Still, as the talks neared their conclusion on Friday, tensions were rising between the so-called "High Ambition Coalition"—a negotiating bloc including the United States, the European Union, and dozens of developing countries—and China and India.
Nevertheless, a rare alliance between world leaders ultimately prevailed: Pope Francis, for one, campaigned tirelessly for a climate deal ahead of the talks, decrying the "unprecedented destruction of the ecosystem."
All of this cleared the way for large groups of developed and developing countries to cooperate at the talks. Bigger countries appeared ready to work with the 43-country-strong negotiating bloc of highly vulnerable developing nations. Recent changes of leadership in Canada and Australia, notable adversaries of climate action in recent years, switched these mid-sized players into fans of a deal before the talks. Even Russia's Vladimir Putin seemed to have an eleventh-hour change of heart—or, at least, of rhetoric—and called for action.
The next 24 hours could make or break humanity's chances of staving off the worst impacts of climate change.
Negotiations in Paris for an international agreement to limit and adapt to global warming are in their final moments, after diplomats pulled their second consecutive all-nighter to crash through a few critical remaining questions in the 28-page document. The most recent draft, released Thursday evening, resolved one of the most important questions on the table: an agreement to at least attempt to limit long-term global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, a crucial half degree less warming than had been on the table before. For climate activists and diplomats from the world's most vulnerable countries, that was a huge win.
Now, the question is whether the agreement will actually have the necessary tools to achieve that target. Many of the critical pieces needed to make the deal as strong as possible—most importantly, increased funding for climate adaptation in developing countries and a plan to ramp up greenhouse gas reductions over time—are still on the table. That's a good thing. But there's no way to know how many of them will survive the night.
"We're in a good position. The sunlight is really in front of us," said Li Shuo, a campaigner with Greenpeace in China. Still, he added, "we have tremendous risk that this very could be watered down tomorrow."
"Everyone is trying to hide behind the political smog."
The most important issue under debate right now is the "ratchet mechanism," which would require countries to boost their climate ambitions incrementally over time. It's an essential component for actually meeting the 1.5 degrees C target (or even the less ambitious 2 degrees C target), because the promises countries have made so far add up to about 2.7 degrees C—a level of warming that could ultimately prove catastrophic around the world. At the moment, the text requires countries to report their greenhouse gas emissions every five years. But it is still vague about how countries that lag behind could be penalized, how countries could be required to increase their efforts over time, and how exactly their reporting could be internationally fact-checked. Secretary of State John Kerry has been ambiguous on this point; he said on Wednesday that in the agreement, "there's no punishment, no penalty, but there has to be oversight."
Crucially, negotiators have also not agreed on when those reviews need to start happening. The view of most experts here is that in order to stay within the 1.5 degrees C target, the reviews should start as soon as possible—certainly before 2020. That way, there's time to correct course before it's too late. But the Chinese delegation has resisted that timeline. Last night President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke on the phone, according to Chinese state television; what exactly they discussed was unclear, but the call raised some eyebrows here about a possible wedge emerging between the two countries.
Some tension at this stage is to be expected, said David Waskow, director of the international climate initiative at the World Resources Institute.
"What's happening here is the world is trying to craft a new way of collaborating," he said. "We're seeing the growing pains of that process."
China and the United States were among the first countries to take a strong bilateral stand in advance of the Paris talks, when they released a joint plan to fight climate change last November. Many people I've spoken to here have said that this early partnership was one of the biggest reasons to be optimistic about these talks, since disagreements between the two countries has been a key reason that past climate summits have collapsed. So if that mood is changing, it could really improve the final deal in Paris.
"The world is trying to craft a new way of collaborating. We're seeing the growing pains of that process."
China has yet to sign onto the "High Ambition Coalition," a negotiating bloc that includes the United States, European Union, and dozens of developing countries. That coalition has emerged in the past few days to fight for what it portrays as the strongest possible agreement. I've heard concern from many activists here that the coalition is really just a way for the United States to seem like it's on the right side of history, without actually taking very ambitious steps, while simultaneously painting China and India as the villains. (Eric Holthaus at Climate Desk partner Slate did a good job breaking down that dynamic.)
"Everyone is trying to hide behind the political smog," Shuo said.
Meanwhile, the United States seems to be obstinately resisting language in the agreement that would make more money available for developing countries to expand their clean energy sectors, and for a compensation fund for the most climate-impacted countries. And negotiators are still squabbling over how exactly to determine which countries should be obliged to do what.
So now, it's a waiting game. If there's one thing I've learned in my days at this summit, it's to not even bother looking at the official procedural schedule. Anything can happen anytime because most of the action is taking place behind closed doors. That will continue through Friday night; the next draft of the agreement is due Saturday at 9 a.m. Paris time. At that point, it's more or less up to the French officials leading the summit to decide whether to force an up-or-down vote or to let diplomats pull their red pens out again.
At the very least, it's pretty safe to say that the chances of the talks totally collapsing are slim to none. Instead, it's a question of whether the deal will actually be as ambitious as leaders such as Kerry have repeatedly said they want it to be, or whether it will be something more milquetoast. Either way, no one expects this agreement to actually solve climate change. But this is the most optimistic activists and diplomats have been in the 20-year history of these talks.
As Tine Sundtoft, the Norwegian environment minister, told reporters this afternoon, "There's no real danger that we will lock in low ambition for decades to come."
Update—December 10, 2015, 4:50 pm ET: Delegates in Paris appear to have agreed on Thursday to "pursue efforts" to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit)—a target that US negotiators had been pushing for. That's substantially less warming than the 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) limit that was agreed to in Copenhagen in 2009. Here's the latest text from Thursday evening's draft agreement:
However, the document also "notes with concern" that the actual actions that countries have so far agreed to take to reduce their emissions fall well short of both the 1.5 degrees C target and the 2 degrees C limit.
The international climate summit in Paris may be getting too ambitious for its own good.
There are a lot of numbers flying around at Le Bourget, the modified airport in a northern Paris suburb where diplomats from around the world are racing toward an unprecedented international agreement to limit climate change. Many of the most important are dollar figures: the need for wealthy countries to raise $100 billion annually to help vulnerable countries deal with climate impacts, and promises by the United States to double spending on clean energy research and climate adaptation grants for developing countries.
There's a very good chance that the final agreement will call for a limit of 1.5 degrees C—a crucial half degree less global warming.
But right at the top of the draft agreement is another number that, in the big picture, could be the most important. That's the overall limit on global temperature increase that the accord is designed to achieve. At the last major climate summit, in 2009 in Copenhagen, world leaders agreed to cap global warming at 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, based largely on findings from scientists with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that anything above that level would be totally catastrophic for billions of people around the world, from small island nations to coastal cities such as New York.
All the other moving pieces in the agreement, which officials here hope to conclude by late Friday or Saturday, are more or less aimed at achieving that target. It's the number that is really driving the sense of urgency here, since earlier this year the world crossed the halfway point toward it. In other words, time is running out to keep climate change in check.
As the negotiations push into their final hours, something unexpected is unfolding: That target might actually get even more ambitious. There's a very good chance, analysts and diplomats say, that the final agreement will call for a limit of 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit)—a crucial half degree less global warming. Here's the relevant section of the text; negotiators need to pick one of these options:
The US delegation is supporting Option 2, according to an official in the office of Christiana Figueres, the head of the UN agency overseeing the talks, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the official is not authorized to speak to the press about the negotiations. That aligns with the announcement, made yesterday by Secretary of State John Kerry, that the United States will join the European Union and dozens of developing countries in the so-called "High Ambition Coalition," a negotiating bloc that has emerged to push for the strongest outcome on several key points, including the temperature limit.
Negotiators in that bloc have realized, the official said, that "if they move the long-term goal further out, it will move politics in the short term closer to where they need to be."
If the 1.5 degrees C target makes it into the final agreement, that would be a massive win for climate activists and delegates from many of the most vulnerable nations, especially the small island nations. Since the 2 degrees C goal was set in Copenhagen, the leaders of low-lying countries like the Marshall Islands and the Maldives have increasingly protested that even that level of warming would essentially guarantee the destruction of their islands.
The fact that the United States is now backing a more ambitious target is a sign that President Barack Obama is hearing that message, said Mohamed Adow, a Kenyan climate activist with Christian Aid.
"Paris is meant to indicate the direction of travel, and the US giving in on this point demonstrates their solidarity," he said. "You're talking about a level of warming that we can actually adapt to."
But here's where things get problematic. There's a huge difference between including the 1.5 degrees C limit in the agreement, and ensuring that it could actually be met. That's because other key pieces of the agreement that could actually make that level of ambition possible are still far from clear. The biggest obstacle could be the hotly debated "ratchet mechanism," which would require countries to boost their targets for greenhouse gas reductions over time, and which the US delegation appears to be resisting. The current draft of the text includes language directing countries to provide an update of their progress every five years or so, which would be compiled into a global "stock-take," a kind of collated update, sometime after 2020. But the enforcement stops there; there's nothing in the agreement to penalize countries that lag behind or to compel them to boost their ambitions. Yesterday, Kerry offered a confusing take on that problem when he said that in the agreement, "there's no punishment, no penalty, but there has to be oversight."
The whole Paris accord risks losing credibility if it comes up with a really ambitious target and no way to reach it.
Everyone here seems to agree that Paris is only a starting place: Without an incremental ramping-up of climate goals, 2 degrees C—not to mention 1.5—will remain out of reach. The current set of global greenhouse gas reduction targets only limit global warming to roughly 2.7 degrees C (4.9 degrees F). That's a big gap.
"It's not looking good," Adow said. "If the US means business, are true to their support, they need to agree to an annual review starting in 2018."
Instead, it seems that the United States could be trading a concession on the 1.5 degrees C target for steadfast resistance to increasing its funding for climate adaptation in developing countries. The United States is also standing in the way of a "loss and damage" component, which would require heavily polluting countries to compensate countries that have been wracked by climate impacts. Without extra money on the table to invest in clean energy, developing countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere won't be able to contribute to the 1.5 degrees C target, said Victor Menotti, executive director of the International Forum on Globalization, a San Francisco-based activist group.
"The US is pretty clear they want 1.5," he said. "The question is what's going to accompany it, and at what price. They'll be able to claim climate leadership, but without any means of implementation."
The upshot is that the whole Paris accord risks losing credibility if it comes up with a really ambitious target and no way to reach it. All of these pieces are essential, because even with the best possible outcome in Paris, 1.5 degrees C is going to be really hard to meet, said Guido Schmidt-Traub, executive director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. In a recent report, Schmidt-Traub found that meeting the 2 degrees C limit means ceasing all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide by 2070. And because most coal- and natural-gas-fired power plants have multidecade lifespans, that means we need to start planning to cease building them as soon as possible.
"The bottom line is that 2C requires all countries to decarbonize their economy at a very rapid rate, but in our analysis there is some wiggle room," he said. "If you go to 1.5C, it becomes very hard to have any wiggle room left. This is a very fundamental point that is not being discussed at all in the negotiations."
On Wednesday afternoon at the massive global climate summit in Paris, diplomats unveiled a new draft (PDF) of the document they hope will save the world from global warming. After a week and a half of chipping away at the agreement, it's considerably shorter—in fact, it's about half the length it was just a couple of days ago. That's a good sign that some points of contention are getting resolved, and that the prospects for an agreed-upon final draft are better than ever. Word around the campfire here is that the conference could wrap on time—by the end of Friday—which would be virtually unprecedented in the 20-year history of global climate talks.
Apparently the latest draft of #COP21 agreement, just released, has ~75% fewer brackets (i.e., undecided questions). Progress!
The new draft dropped just minutes after Secretary of State John Kerry gave his strongest speech in Paris so far, telling world leaders that the United States wants to get even more ambitious over the next couple of days. He said that the United States would join the European Union and dozens of developing nations in the "High Ambition Coalition," a group that has emerged since the weekend and hopes to achieve many of the key goals sought by climate activists.
To that end, Kerry also said the United States will double the amount of cash it makes available to vulnerable countries that are already hit hard by climate change impacts. The number is still pretty small—just $861 million by 2020—but it's likely to be the last olive branch the United States extends as the talks approach their conclusion and Republicans in Congress continue to hammer President Barack Obama's climate agenda.
"Our aim can be nothing less than a steady transformation of the global economy."
"The situation demands—and this moment demands—that we do not leave Paris without an ambitious, inclusive, and durable global climate agreement," Kerry said. "Our aim can be nothing less than a steady transformation of the global economy."
Whether the Paris accord will actually make that happen is still far from certain. Everyone here acknowledges that there's no chance the agreement will limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the threshold that world leaders agreed to at the last major summit in 2009. (Some players here, especially the small island nations, are adamant that even that amount is far too high.) Instead, the object of this document is to require countries to ramp up their climate goals over time, most likely every five years. That appears to be the best chance we have of staving off the worst impacts of climate change.
"Everything that happens in Paris should be an enabling mechanism for future ambition," said Derek Walker,* associate vice president of global climate at the Environmental Defense Fund. "Paris has to be a catalyst. It's in no way, shape, or form a final chapter."
At this stage, it seems highly likely that that kind of periodic review will take place. But there's still a lot of ambiguity about what exactly that will look like. How will the international community actually enforce its climate goals? Could there be sanctions, independent investigative review boards, or some other system? In his statement, Kerry's view on these questions was muddled.
"No one is forced to do more than what is possible," he said. "There's no punishment, no penalty, but there has to be oversight." Even though each country's individual greenhouse gas reduction targets won't be legally binding, "that doesn't mean a country can get away with doing nothing or next to nothing."
"Paris has to be a catalyst. It's in no way, shape, or form a final chapter."
That's just one of perhaps a dozen major questions that remain on the table for Kerry and his peers, said Jake Schmidt, director of the international program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. One of the most significant is climate finance, i.e., how wealthy countries will help poorer countries pay for climate change adaptation and clean energy development. Most negotiators agree that there needs to be an annual minimum of $100 billion raised collectively toward this end. But should that specific number be in the legally binding agreement? The US delegation doesn't want it to be, Schmidt said, because of the added pressure that could create on the country to cough up more cash. How, exactly, should the figure be increased over time, if at all? How, exactly, should it be divided between the United States, the European Union, and other wealthy players? Those questions remain on the table.
Three options for climate finance in the latest draft agreement
Still, the atmosphere here is decidedly optimistic (if a bit bleary eyed and frazzled). There appear to be no fights about basic negotiation procedure questions, which have bogged down previous summits. There appear to be no negotiators who think the whole document is totally unnecessary, or a total sham. All the highest-ranking officials seem doggedly committed to not leaving Paris without some kind of agreement to take home.
Now they just have about 36 hours to finally agree on what it should say. This afternoon, French officials said negotiators should be prepared for consecutive all-nighters. The conference center is sprinkled with nap couches and is liberally stocked with baguette sandwiches, coffee, and wine.
"I think our sense is that almost everything we need for an ambitious agreement is still in play," said Jennifer Morgan, director of global climate programs at the World Resources Institute. "But there is an immense amount of work to be done in the coming hours."