Paris Climate Agreement Explained: Personal Reflections on a Turning Point Day

Today leaders in Paris reached a landmark agreement that commits at least 186 countries, big and small, to start curbing the carbon pollution that drives dangerous climate change. It's a big turning point. It's been a long time coming.

Fifty years ago, when I was just 14 years old, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson sent a message to Congress asking for comprehensive legislation to clean up the air that choked our cities and the rivers that caught on fire. Amazingly, Johnson's message called for curbs on carbon dioxide pollution that threatened to change our climate. Congress passed the Clean Air Act five years later, and President Richard Nixon signed it into law. And that law gave the newly-formed Environmental Protection Agency the authority to control CO2 and other climate-changing pollutants.

In the late 1970s, as a newly-minted lawyer, I went to work for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington. The EPA acted on many kinds of air pollution in these years, and in the late 1980s, I worked at home and abroad to help countries reached their first global agreement to cooperate in controlling an existential air pollution threat - the Montreal Protocol - which phased out the CFCs that had dangerously depleted the stratospheric ozone layer. (The CFC phase-out provided a huge side-benefit for the climate, because CFCs were also incredibly powerful climate-warming pollutants.)

That's when I started wearing this tie - my "big deal" tie - on the last day of successful international meetings. I've gotten to wear it a few other times before today, but not often enough.

Because action on climate change languished. Scientific studies continued in the 1970s and 1980s, with the certainty of the climate threat growing always stronger. The world formed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to guide policy-makers on the science, and countries agreed on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992. But real limits on the ever-growing levels of carbon pollution eluded us.

In 1993 I went to work in the Clinton Administration, and I was part of the double-all-nighter in 1997 that banged out agreement on the Kyoto Protocol. That Saturday morning, I said, was "a good day to write a treaty, but a bad day to operate heavy machinery." I wore this tie that day too.

We all know the troubles that followed. President Bush spurned the Kyoto treaty, and refused to use his Clean Air Act authority at home. Back at NRDC, I was part of the legal team that beat the Bush administration in the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in 2007 that the Clean Air Act must be used when science demonstrates that carbon pollution endangers human health and welfare. (One more time to wear the tie.)

Under President Obama, the U.S. government started vigorously using the climate protection authority that Congress gave EPA, and that the Supreme Court approved. With the Climate Action Plan to demonstrate that our country was finally acting, the U.S. had the credibility we've lacked for so long in the eyes of other countries. We moved from the vicious cycle of the past ("I won't because you won't") to a virtuous cycle for the future ("I will if you will") -- from laggard and impediment to leader and partner. From the President and the Secretary of State on down, the U.S. worked hard to build the consensus that we see manifest here in the Paris agreement.

The world has been waiting a long time for this. Environmentalists and climate activists have worked a long time for this. I've been at this a long time. So I am happy and proud to wear this tie today.


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