Teachable Instant: Global Climate Accord

December 13, 2015

Students learn about the historic global climate agreement reached in Paris on December 12, 2015, and consider different reactions to it.  

To the teacher:  

This lesson provides a quick overview of the new agreement. For more, please see other TeachableMoment lessons on the Paris conference and on climate change here.  The full 31-page Paris climate accord is here.



Read out loud the following quote by British columnist George Monbiot about something that happened this weekend:

"By comparison to what it could have been, it’s a miracle. By comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster."

Ask students: What is George Monbiot talking about?

Elicit or explain that:

  • On Saturday, December 12, 2015, delegates from 195 countries, meeting in Paris, agreed to a new plan aimed at lowering greenhouse gas emissions to stave off the most drastic effects of climate change. The Paris conference is officially known as COP 21 - the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties.
  • The agreement follows years of negotiation by UN diplomats and years of organizing and protesting by climate change activists around the world.

This historic agreement has two important elements:

  1. It sets a target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above the level that prevailed before the Industrial Revolution. This amounts to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit. Achieving this goal would require dramatic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions around the globe.
  2. It pledges that richer, developed countries, including the U.S., will help less developed nations cope with climate change.

According to the New York Times

The agreement reached here on Saturday will, if faithfully carried out, achieve far larger cuts in emissions than any previous climate accord. It will reduce, without eliminating, the risk that runaway climate change might render parts of the Earth uninhabitable. It will lessen somewhat the possibility of a collapse of one of the ice sheets, which would cause a rise in the sea of 20 feet or more. The deal, in short, begins to move the countries of the world in a shared direction that is potentially compatible with maintaining a livable planet over the long term.

Some facts about the climate accord

Ask students to read the following facts aloud.

  • Scientists say that we need to hold the global temperature rise to 2.7 degrees (Fahrenheit) to reduce the risk of the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. These include rising oceans that would swamp many of the world’s cities, as well as droughts, floods and storms that would endanger our food and water supplies, cause mass human migrations, and accelerate a die-off of species.
  • According to the New York Times, "A serious campaign to meet [this] goal would mean that in less than two decades, the nations of the world would likely have to bring an end to gasoline cars, to coal- or gas-burning power plants in their current form, and to planes or ships powered by fossil fuels."
  • In advance of the Paris climate summit, nearly every country submitted a voluntary plan to the United Nations for tackling climate change.  But even if countries kept to these plans, it would not be enough to keep global temperatures from rising to catastrophic levels. The signatories to the agreement  "note with concern" that the actual actions that countries have so far agreed to take to reduce their emissions fall well short of their target for global warming.
  • The Paris agreement does not bind countries to their plans or require them to improve their plans. But it does set up a process that would require countries to come back to the table every five years to increase their emissions reduction efforts, and it includes provisions to monitor what nation’s are doing to keep their promises.
  • In the agreement, wealthy countries set a goal of providing more than $100 billion per year in public and private financing by 2020 for poorer countries, to help them invest in clean energy and cope with sea-level rise, droughts, floods, and other ravages of climate change.  According to the Guardian, the deal "for the first time commits rich countries, rising economies and some of the poorest countries to work together to fight climate change."
  • Sticking to the agreement will require a quick and dramatic shift, especially in wealthy countries like the U.S., which is one of the world’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gases. Emissions of greenhouse gases — primarily of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels and the destruction of forests — have been rising for decades, and 2015 will be the hottest year in recorded history.
  • Fossil fuels still provide 86 percent of the world's energy, and fossil fuel corporations are still aggressively extracting, processing and selling oil, gas, and coal that scientists say must be left in the ground.

Reactions to the agreement

Reactions to the agreement ranged from ecstatic to skeptical. 

  • President Obama called the agreement "the best chance we have to save the one planet we have." He said that the agreement, although not perfect, could be a "turning point" towards a low-carbon future. "Together we've shown what's possible when the world stands as one."
  • "It’s a fraud really, a fake," said James Hansen, a former NASA scientist who is a leader of the movement to stop climate change. "There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will continue to be burned."  Hansen argues that greenhouse gas emissions must be taxed across the board, and that only this would force down emissions quickly enough to avoid climate catastrophe.
  • Greenpeace International executive director Kumi Naidoo said that the agreement marks "only one step on long a road. There are parts of it that frustrate and disappoint me, but it is progress. ... To pull us free of fossil fuels we are going to need to mobilize in ever greater numbers.... Paris was always a stop on an ongoing journey. Ultimately our fate will be decided over the coming decades by the collective courage of our species. I believe we will succeed."

For discussion

Ask students:

  • What stands out for you about the agreement?
  • Why do you think George Monbiot said that it was both a miracle and disaster? 
  • Do you agree with him?  Why or why not?
  • What kinds of actions are people taking to dramatically reduce the production and consumption of fossil fuels?
  • What kinds of actions do you think we should take to reduce greenhouse gases, not just individually but as a community and as as a nation?