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At the beginning of 2015, there were plenty of reasons to be hopeful about our chances for a meaningful agreement at the UN climate talks in Paris. But over the course of this year, we've seen several developments that have transformed this hope into expectation for many of us in the climate movement. In the final countdown before the negotiations in Paris begin, here are six signs the world is changing in important ways, creating a climate (no pun intended) where an agreement to tackle our greatest challenge has gone from long-shot to real possibility.
1. TWO OBSTACLES OUT OF OFFICE
During their terms as prime minister of Canada and Australia, respectively Stephen Harper and Tony Abbott were called, at best, climate laggards, and, at worst, climate villains. Harper is a former oil company employee, and Abbott was known for saying outlandish things like, "The argument [on climate change] is absolute crap." Both nations have some of the highest per-capita carbon emissions in the world, and with both prime ministers at the helm of their respective governments as recently as July, it didn't look like things were going to change anytime soon.
But both Harper and Abbott have been replaced in the last few months leading up to Paris, giving hope that their replacements, Justin Trudeau and Malcolm Turnbull, will be less combative and more cooperative during the upcoming climate talks. While the dismissal of these two fossil fuel defenders isn't a silver bullet solution, coupled with several other factors, it could make a big difference in negotiations and the future of our planet. If nothing else, replacing Abbott and Harper suggests that there truly is a political cost to climate inaction.
2. CITIES AREN'T WAITING
"Cities are where the future happens first." That's the simple, but powerful idea behind the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group.
Cities aren't waiting for national governments to make lasting climate commitments. They're showing how it's done and proving that local action can be a solution to a global problem. For example, in September, Aspen became the third American city to go 100-percent renewable (compare that to the US target of reaching 20 percent -non hydro- by 2030).
Then there are the 75 C40 cities committed to addressing climate change by rethinking transportation, improving energy efficiency, and other initiatives for their more than half a billion citizens. As more and more people move to these and other urban areas, the actions cities take to address climate change by cutting emissions and energy use have greater and greater impacts.
3. AN END TO BUSINESS-AS-USUAL
If there is one painfully untrue myth about climate action that somehow seems to keep popping up in media discussions, it's that cutting emissions and shifting to clean energy will be bad for business and for economies. While there are plenty of holes in this argument (too many to name here), businesses themselves are proving it wrong firsthand. Influential companies like Google and Goldman Sachs are increasingly investing in renewables and choosing wind and solar to power their businesses. Plus, they're calling for governments to do the same with help from organizations like The B Team, We Mean Business coalition, and Ceres.
To get a sense of just how significant this movement is, look at the White House's recent announcement that 81 companies representing more than 9 million employees and $3 trillion in annual revenue have committed to ambitious, company-specific goals for climate action. These include reducing emissions by up to half, purchasing 100-percent renewable energy, and achieving zero waste-to-landfill.
Why is this so monumental? Because unlike governments – which can get stymied by special interests and bureaucracy – companies have the power to act quickly and spur rapid economic and cultural transformations. When they do and flourish, it sends a strong signal to other companies and markets alike: acting in the interest of people, planet, and profit just makes good business sense.
4. WE CAN'T USE THE "CHINA EXCUSE" ANYMORE
In previous rounds of climate negotiations, politicians in developed nations, and especially in the US, have frequently refused to make real commitments to reducing emissions and used China, the world's biggest carbon emitter, as an excuse. What's the use of us doing anything to address climate change if China doesn't address it, too?
While this excuse never really held water, it's been completely shattered by three developments:
China just announced plans for the world's largest carbon market to tackle emissions; The nation has submitted arguably one of the strongest commitments ahead of Paris with plans to cut carbon intensity by 60–65-percent below 2005 levels by 2030; and China's installed so much solar capacity in recent years that it's now second only to Germany on the list of top solar countries, and China has made huge commitments for the future.
The implication is clear: if the world's second-largest economy and largest emitter can get serious about cutting emissions and increasingly embracing clean energy, other nations have no excuse for inaction.
5. PRESIDENT OBAMA REJECTS THE KEYSTONE XL PIPELINE
This might have been largely a symbolic victory – as Canadian crude continues to flow across the US border through numerous pipelines and other channels – but as far as symbols go, it's hard to overstate the importance of this one. Because after seven years of intense fighting by both the climate movement and the fossil fuel industry, President Obama's decision not to permit the construction of another pipeline carrying some of the dirtiest fuel out there sent an unmistakable message to the world. Namely, the US won't sacrifice our climate and our planet for short-term economic gain.
As he said in the announcement, "America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change. Frankly, approving this project would have undercut that global leadership and that is the biggest risk that we face. Not acting."
It was brave and it was bold, and in the lead-up to Paris, it was just what the world needed to hear. The US is coming to the Paris climate talks. And this time, they mean business.
6. EXXON KNEW
Now this one – this is a big one. While the rest of the factors on this list mostly revolve around policy, this one points to broader changes in mainstream culture. In September, Inside Climate News exposed internal memos that prove Exxon went from researching the role of fossil fuels in driving the climate crisis to actively denying it in the span of the last 30 or so years.
The revelation of Exxon's deception helps redirect the larger cultural conversation away from whether climate change is real to what there is to be done about it – which is what leaders are meeting in Paris to decide. As more and more people begin to side with climate science, more and more people will be compelled to pressure their leaders to act on it.
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