Professor Garcia: Paris Talks

Interview Conducted by Jeremy Love-Epp |

The Paris Agreement that came out of the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP 21) last December marks a hopeful step forward on the issue of climate change, but should not be seen as the final step of the journey. As part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), the Paris talks were the biggest environmental policy event since the last greatly anticipated COP, the Copenhagen talks of 2009. Like Copenhagen, Paris did not seem as though it would be a successful negotiation. The Paris talks had to overcome the historical precedent of failed COPs, the core disagreements between the developed and the developing, and the fierce opposition of key industry stakeholders in powerful states.

Domestically, the opposition to any legally binding agreement was incredibly overt in the United States’ Congress. Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee and climate change skeptic, said, “The President not only lacks support from his own country, but he has no way to follow through on any of his promises.”1 Senator Inhofe also introduced a resolution about the Paris talks that stated “any protocol, amendment, extension, or other agreement…shall have no force or effect in the United States… until [it] has been submitted to Senate for advice and consent.”2

In addition to the internal struggles of the United States, COP 21 faced the monumental task of overcoming decades of inadequate action at the international level. While the UNFCC has always had grand aims, it has historically fallen short of affecting the actions of the world’s superpowers. Those past failures are what has made COP 21  a historic achievement.

Professor Denise Garcia, the Sadeleer Research Faculty and associate professor in the Department of Political Science and the International Affairs program at Northeastern University, was the head of Northeastern’s delegation to the Paris negotiations. Garcia believes two key factors were at the heart of COP 21’s success. First, in her own words, “long time acrimony existent between the developing and the developed countries, between China and the United States, gave way to unprecedented global cooperation in the halls of the COP 21.” This unprecedented cooperation was precipitated by the bilateral agreement between China and the United States the year prior.  Second, “the art of French diplomacy paid dividends after COP 20” Specifically, the leaders of the Peruvian delegation and the French delegation, Laurent Fabius and the UNFCCC secretariat Cristiana Figueres, “travelled around the world visiting every capital to be sure that everyone was on the same page.”

The actual details of the Paris Agreement are cause for both celebration and concern. Any agreement is a step forward. Additionally, many of the explicit goals of the agreement are promising. Countries have pledged to try to curb warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and have net-zero emissions by the second half of the current century. However, without any enforcement or coercion mechanism these goals could ultimately be meaningless. Paris is drafted in such a way that it is not technically binding, meaning that it lacks an established enforcement policy, but is still meaningful. The Paris agreement lays out an accountability mechanism that would require continual updating of targets and progress, with the aim of coercing noncompliant states through the mounting pressure of other actors. This move away from enforcement means the national assemblies of countries like the United States cannot block the agreement while also erecting structures that should elicit the achievement of the lofty goals the agreement lays out. Ultimately, the agreement is an encouraging first step, but much work is still to be done if climate change is to be meaningfully affected.

Special thanks to Professor Garcia for finding the time to sit down with me face-to-face.