An Evening Dedicated to the Paris Climate Conference

Ambassador Emerson Speaking at the French Embassy on COP21

As prepared for delivery.

“An Evening Dedicated to the Paris Climate Conference”
at the French Embassy
Berlin, November 20, 2015
Ambassador John B. Emerson

Mr. Ambassador, Professor Lawrence, Professor Boucher, Ms. Fies, Distinguished Guests,

Cher Philippe, thank you for inviting me to join the last in a series of programs that your Embassy has hosted in the run-up to the COP 21 summit in Paris.  Well, this long-awaited and critically important summit will begin in ten days.  The eyes of the world will be on Paris – and all the more so in view of the horrific attacks of last week.  And let me say that we all stand with France during these difficult days.

The COP21 will be an important statement by the world that no one and nothing can disrupt the commitment of the global community – certainly not despicable, cowardly acts of terror.  In this respect, COP21 is particularly important because climate change is not only a threat to the environment, it is also a threat to the stability of nations around the world.

There is no greater long-term challenge than climate change. It is an advancing menace that imperils so many of the other things we hope to achieve.  That’s why President Obama has put combatting climate change at the very center of America’s national security agenda.

The tangible, concrete impacts of a warming climate can intensify resource competition, threaten livelihoods, and increase the risk of instability and conflict, especially in places already suffering economic, political, and social stress.  And because today’s world is so extraordinarily interconnected, instability anywhere can be a threat to security everywhere.  Climate change is a ‘threat multiplier,’ making worse the problems that already exist.

This means that even if climate change isn’t the spark that directly ignites conflict, it increases the size of the powder keg.


For example, in Nigeria, climate change did not lead to the rise of the terrorist group Boko Haram.  But the severe drought that country suffered – and the government’s inability to cope with it – helped create the political and economic volatility that the militants exploited.

A recent study indicated, and I quote, that “the combination of high temperatures and humidity could, within just a century, result in extreme conditions around the Persian Gulf that are intolerable to human beings, if climate change continues unabated.” Scholars suggest that access to air conditioning could well mean the difference between life and death in such hot spots as Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.  And the prospect of a hotter, drier climate throughout the Middle East and parts of Asia will place even more strain on the most precious and essential resource of all – fresh water.  We’ve seen wars over oil; we do not want to see wars over water.

A changing climate makes it harder for farmers to grow crops, fishermen to catch enough fish, herders to tend their livestock.  It makes it harder for countries to feed their people.  And humans, like every other species on this planet, scatter when their environment can no longer sustain them.  The refugee situation we’re facing today will pale in comparison to the mass migrations that intense droughts, sea-level rise and other impacts of climate change are likely to bring about.  In other words, we have to integrate climate considerations into every aspect of our foreign policy – from development and humanitarian aid to peace-building and diplomacy.

And so the question is: Can the world muster the collective political will to reach an ambitious, achievable, and enforceable comprehensive agreement in Paris?  It is critical that delegations come to the table prepared to find common ground, while respecting the concerns and imperatives of others.  As Ambassador Etienne has illustrated, if we miss this chance now, it would have serious consequences – both for climate change and the broader effectiveness of the multilateral system.

The United States delegation to COP21 will be led by President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry.  The President will participate in the opening talks; and the Secretary plans to spend a considerable amount of time at the summit.

Their engagement on this issue is unprecedented.  In September, President Obama visited the state of Alaska to attend the GLACIER conference.  The Arctic is the leading edge of climate change — our leading indicator of what the entire planet faces.  Our understanding of our planet advances each day.  Human activity is disrupting the climate, in many ways faster than we previously thought.  And I am sure Professor Lawrence and Professor Boucher will address the stark science that proves that this once-distant threat is now very much in the present.  But on a very direct level, when an Alaska Native tells his President that many villages are about to slide off into the ocean, the urgency of the situation cannot be in doubt.

In terms of foreign policy, Secretary Kerry has made climate change a critical part of U.S. diplomacy – from development and humanitarian aid to peace-building and diplomacy.

The United States government is fully engaged in efforts to deliver a strong agreement in Paris that will put the world on a path to a low-carbon, sustainable, global economy.

On the international stage, the United States is working with other big emitters like China to encourage new commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  A year ago in Beijing, President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping made a historic joint announcement of the intended targets of both countries.  For the first time, China committed to cap carbon emissions; and at the same time, President Obama unveiled a plan for deeper U.S. emissions reductions through 2025.  The world’s two largest economies, energy consumers, and carbon emitters reached across traditional divides to demonstrate their commitment to reducing the emissions warming our planet.  As a result, more than 150 nations representing nearly 90 percent of global emissions, have followed suit and offered strong national targets put forward plans to cut pollution.

Since President Obama took office in 2009, the United States has taken a number of steps to sharply reduce its emissions.  We have cut our total carbon pollution more than any other country on Earth.  As a result of the President’s Climate Action Plan, electricity generation from wind has tripled; and solar energy generation has increased by more than twenty fold.  Tough fuel economy standards for cars and trucks to increase fuel efficiency have been introduced.  These new standards go hand-in-hand with strict guidelines relating to automobile emissions.  And as you can see, we are not reluctant to enforce those high emissions standards.  Energy conservation standards for 29 categories of appliances and equipment have been established and implemented – and more are on the way.  We have developed a strategy to reduce methane emissions from a variety of sectors.  And enormous investments have been made in renewable energy, such as solar and wind, and in energy efficiency technologies.

And recently, the Environmental Protection Agency issued groundbreaking regulations to cut carbon pollution from U.S. power plants by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.  Power plants account for a third of U.S. emissions; so the reduction that the new Clean Power Plan calls for is significant.  The plan allows states to use a variety of tools and technologies, based on their mix of energy sources, to develop tailored strategies designed to ensure that their power sector meets the goals.  Reflecting each state’s energy mix will level the playing field across the country.

Earlier this year, Governor Jerry Brown – from my home state – raised California’s greenhouse gas emission goal to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 – the same as the EU.  California, by far our most populous state and were it a country, the 7th largest economy in the world, is already on track to meet or exceed its current target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.  Meeting targets is important; but countries must also address the need for solid accountability measures – at the federal, state, and local levels.

This was the motivation that led to the so-called “Under 2 MOU.”  It originated from a partnership between California and Baden-Württemberg and brought together states and regions willing to make a number of key commitments towards emissions reduction in order to galvanize action at COP 21.  This alliance now represents 500 million people in 19 countries on five different continents.  I see a groundswell of action on climate change at the state and local government level – the authorities responsible for the development and implementation of policies that have the most impact on climate change.

States and cities will never fully displace nations in the global fight against climate change, but they are the laboratories for policy innovations which are then adopted at the federal and even international level.  Moreover, their regulatory changes impact industry and manufacturing,  As an example, auto emission standards in California, the largest auto market in the United States, will drive the entire industry to change, resulting in lower emitting cars throughout the entire nation.

COP21 will also address the question of adaptation.  In the United States, as in France, Germany and other developed countries, sound adaptation planning and the capabilities to implement these plans are in place; but it is crucial that developing countries not only reduce emissions, but also increase their capacity to adapt to the impacts of climate change.  Therefore the United States is not only pursuing ambitious reductions in our carbon emissions at home; we are also committed to ensuring a strong, ongoing program of financial and technical support to help developing countries identify and secure clean technology.  The science tells us we can only succeed in combating climate change if we are joined in this effort by every nation.  We will do our part to avoid the North-South divide that has hampered past climate summits by helping developing nations to do their part; and this was a major component of the messages delivered by Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande at the Petersburg Conference here in Berlin last May.

Pursuing cleaner, more efficient energy is the only way that nations around the world can build the kind of economies that will thrive for decades to come.  And this is an all-important requirement for Paris.  The agreement needs to be fair and relevant to a dynamic and evolving world.  Addressing climate change is only possible with a strategy that transcends borders, sectors, and levels of government.

Obviously, the industrialized countries must play a major role in bringing about a clean energy future.  From the days of the Industrial Revolution through the last century, they created the basic template for the problem; but this does not mean that other countries should repeat the mistakes of the past.  They have the opportunity to leapfrog over old technologies.  Today, almost two-thirds of global emissions come from developing nations.  Anything less than a global solution will not work.

We’re at an inflection point – a moment where consensus is building, and 30 years of foot-dragging can be replaced by a sprint to a low-carbon future.  After two decades of negotiations, Paris is our best opportunity to shift our approach toward climate change permanently and to embrace cooperative solutions to a truly global problem.

Reaching a new agreement in Paris would be an historic step.  The question, again, is whether we can summon the collective resolve to tackle this shared threat and establish, for the first time, an ambitious, durable climate regime, that would send a potent signal to the markets and civil society that the nations of the world have determined that there is no going back.  It will be only the beginning of a long process, but we need the commitment that an ambitious, achievable, and enforceable deal represents.  It is within our reach.  And it is in that spirit that the U.S. delegation will be heading to Paris.