02 trump clinton splits 1017
The candidates' positions on climate change
02:18 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion who focuses on climate change and social justice. Follow him on Snapchat, Facebook and email. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

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Sutter: COP22 climate talks in Marrakesh are an important followup to UN climate talks held last year in Paris

The divergent views of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on climate change are hugely consequential, Sutter says

CNN  — 

The world’s attention is rightly focused this week on the US election.

Meanwhile in Morocco, however, diplomats are trying to do something future generations might see as even more consequential: They’re trying to safeguard the planet from dangerous climate change.

The COP22 climate talks in Marrakesh, which opened on Monday, the day before the US presidential election, are a wonky but important followup to the UN climate talks held last year in Paris. There, the world pledged to do everything in its power to limit harmful warming to at most 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

That’s a staggeringly bold and critical goal – one that requires the world to ditch fossil fuels completely in coming decades. When protests flare up in North Dakota over oil pipelines, this is partly why. Climate activists realize the true urgency with which the world must act to avoid super-droughts, drowned coastal cities and mass extinction.

There’s simply no time to waste.

The US election could be a turning point on this issue, since Hillary Clinton supports the Paris Agreement and Donald Trump says he will scrap it (which may not be so easy) and falsely claims well-established climate science is a “hoax.”

But it’s important to note progress on climate change continues outside the American political echo chamber.

In terms of rallying attention and ambition, recent global climate negotiations should be seen as a resounding success. The Paris Agreement became international law on Friday. As of Monday morning, 100 countries had ratified that agreement, including the United States, China, India and Brazil, which are some of the biggest polluters. Together, they represent nearly 70% of the world’s emissions. That all of them say they’re moving away from fossil fuels is a very big deal.

But it’s also true that the Paris Agreement falls far short of what the science requires. Current pledges will add up to 2.9 to 3.4 degrees Celsius of warming this century, according to the UN Environment Program, which is a significant amount when it comes to the atmosphere. Scientists say some small island states, including the Marshall Islands, for example, are in jeopardy of drowning beneath rising seas at even 2 degrees Celsius of warming. Every fraction of a degree counts.

“If we don’t start taking additional action now, beginning with the upcoming climate meeting in Marrakesh, we will grieve over the avoidable human tragedy,” Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment, said in a written statement. “The growing numbers of climate refugees hit by hunger, poverty, illness and conflict will be a constant reminder of our failure to deliver. The science shows that we need to move much faster.”

James Hansen, formerly of NASA and one of the world’s most prominent climate scientists, has called the Paris Agreement “just worthless words” because it does not penalize countries that fail to curb rates of deforestation or to move swiftly to replace fossil fuels with cleaner sources of energy. “As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned,” he told The Guardian.

But even on the price of fossil fuels, there could be progress this week.

Washington residents will vote Tuesday on a carbon tax proposal that would be a landmark shift in state-level climate policy in the United States. The plan, called Initiative 732, is based on a successful carbon tax in British Columbia – and it is regarded by economists as the “holy grail” of climate solutions. Carbon taxes work by making a bad thing – carbon pollution – relatively more expensive, and by comparison reducing the price of cleaner energy sources.

The tax proposed in Washington state aims to be “revenue neutral,” meaning tax revenues are distributed via other tax breaks and credits to poor people. This is an agreeable, effective and bi-partisan solution to the climate crisis, and I’m hopeful it will pass.

In Morocco this week, diplomats will work on putting the Paris Agreement into action.

But they will be talking also about politics in the United States.

On an entire range of issues, from tax policy to immigration, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump couldn’t be more different. Their divergent views on climate change, however, may be among the most consequential. What we do – or don’t do – right now to curb fossil fuel use and stop deforestation will shape the habitability of this planet for generations. It’s for this reason that Vox called this an election that “will matter for 10,000 years.”

In a commentary published earlier this year in the journal Nature Climate Change, a group of scientists wrote that looking at the climate problem on this longer time scale shows that “policy decisions made in the next few years to decades will have profound impacts on global climate, ecosystems and human societies — not just for this century, but for the next ten millennia and beyond.”

There will be many issues on the minds of American voters on Tuesday.

Let those ten millennia be among them.