Future 500 | Finding common ground between uncommon allies

Bernie Fischlowitz-Roberts

As climate change negotiations in Paris get underway, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Fortunately, in addition to announcements from the U.S. and China made earlier this year, the last several weeks saw a number of encouraging developments across various nations, creating positive momentum that makes constructive action coming out of the talks more likely.


The Canadian federal elections marked the end of a nine-year reign by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who had been a strong proponent of the Alberta tar sands expansion and the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Harper’s influence led Andrew Nikiforuk to write in Foreign Policy that Canada “has not so quietly become an international mining center and a rogue petrostate.” While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau still supports some oil pipelines and is not as green as many environmental advocates wish, an administration that restores respect to scientists, does not censor their work, and is open to more constructive international stakeholder engagement, is without question an encouraging development. And Alberta, under new provincial leadership, just announced plans for an economy-wide carbon tax to take effect in 2017, a phase-out of coal-generated electricity by 2030, and steps to increase renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Australia and the United Kingdom

Australia’s new prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, is much less hostile to climate policy than his predecessor, Tony Abbott. The new environment minister has suggested Turnbull may have a major announcement on the first day of the Paris talks. And British Prime Minister David Cameron announced the United Kingdom plans to shut down all coal plants by 2025, becoming the first major economy to commit to such a phase-out.

United States

President Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline permit was a defining moment; as the Climate Reality Project noted, this marks the first time a major fossil fuel infrastructure project in the U.S. has been rejected because of its climate change impacts. Coming on the heels of the release of the administration’s Clean Power Plan, these actions bolster U.S. credibility on the eve of the Paris negotiations, and represent modest steps in the right direction.

National Commitments

Any deal that comes out of Paris will take the form of an executive agreement rather than a treaty and will thus avoid the need for U.S. Senate ratification. Each nation will pledge emissions reductions that take into account their particular circumstances. Current analyses suggest the pledges announced to date, if implemented, would get the world less than halfway toward the goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius/3.6 degrees Farenheit. Former Vice President Al Gore and other leading experts project that once countries see that progress can be made more quickly and cheaply than anticipated, many nations will strengthen their commitments over time, thus ratcheting down emissions levels further. What may be most consequential, therefore, are the mechanisms for strengthening national commitments, and the process for doing so.

Climate and Security

In the most recent Democratic presidential candidates debate, Senator Bernie Sanders declared climate change to be the single greatest threat to U.S. national security. Sanders joined Secretary of State John Kerry, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, President Obama, and numerous others who’ve recognized climate change as a serious national security threat. These assessments are consistent with reports from the Pentagon, which calls climate change a threat multiplier, and the CIA, which identified conflict over limited amounts of water and land to grow crops as being among the problems caused or exacerbated by a changing climate. Syria is the most prominent example of ways in which a changing climate makes conflict and instability more likely, and can contribute to terrorism.

Thus it is sadly ironic that one consequence of the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris is the French government’s cancellation of large-scale marches and protests that were to take place during the negotiations. Yet on Sunday, the largest climate marches in history drew 785,000 people, in 175 countries around the globe. In calling for action to solve the climate crisis, they are urging negotiators to see the connections between climate change and public health, food security, and global security, taking a broader view of what constitute unacceptable security risks to people and nations. That perspective suggests the concerns of people whose homes and livelihoods are most at risk from rising sea levels, more intense storms, droughts and floods, crop failures and the like should take center stage during negotiations that may well determine the fate of their countries, including—in the case of small island nations—whether they survive. As the author Naomi Klein and climate scientist Jason Box eloquently asked in The New Yorker, “What if, instead of being pushed aside in the name of war, climate action took center stage as the planet’s best hope for peace?”

Washington Governor Jay Inslee has repeatedly said, “We are the first generation to feel the sting of climate change, and we are the last generation that can do something about it.” As world leaders gather at COP 21 to chart a course toward a clean energy future, it remains more important than ever to fashion a response to climate change, from both the public and private sectors, that is commensurate with the scope of the challenge. Here’s hoping the momentum of the last several months continues, and that the world’s nations and businesses seize the opportunity to make meaningful emissions reductions to address the most serious challenge that humanity has yet faced.


Bernie Fischlowitz-Roberts is an environmental policy analyst with an interest in helping organizations analyze and take action on a range of sustainability issues, and the founder of BFR Consulting.  He is passionate about developing and implementing solutions to the civilizational challenge of climate change.  He holds master’s degrees from the School of Natural Resources & Environment and the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, and a B.A. in political science from Haverford College. Currently based in Grinnell, IA, Bernie works remotely for clients around the country.  Before starting BFR Consulting, Bernie worked for a series of environmental nonprofit organizations.


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