The Paris Agreement: A Historic Turning Point or a Toothless Political Symbol?
Coral Davenport, The New York Times

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Washington, DC—On January 7, 2016, Coral Davenport, energy and environment correspondent for The New York Times, addressed WFPG members and guests on The Paris Agreement: A Historic Turning Point or a Toothless Political Symbol?. Davenport discussed the political significance of the international climate change accord reached in Paris, and the crucial role that President Obama played in obtaining this historic achievement. She highlighted the importance of the Paris Agreement to Obama’s legacy and its connection to current US climate policy. Lastly, Davenport emphasized how the Paris Agreement essentially signaled the death of the coal industry. The event was moderated by WFPG President Patricia Ellis.

Davenport described the Paris Agreement as being fundamentally different from its predecessors, such as the Kyoto Protocol and the Copenhagen Accord. She termed it a historic legal agreement in two key ways. Firstly, it is a universal agreement in which all 196 parties that are signatories to the Agreement will take measures to cut down their carbon emissions. She noted that in the past, only developed nations were tasked with cutting their emissions voluntarily, excluding a large portion of the world’s emerging economies, such as China.

Secondly, Davenport emphasized that the Paris Agreement has the strength of an international treaty. She described the Agreement as a ‘legal hybrid’, where some elements are legally binding and others are not. She discussed how the legal obligations in the Paris Agreement were carefully designed with the US legal process in mind, in order to bypass ratification by the US Senate. By requiring countries to make public their climate action plans every five years, she explained that the Agreement creates ‘political peer pressure’. She did, however, point out that monitoring international compliance would be a major challenge in the long term.

Given that this is an election year, Davenport mentioned that the strength of the Paris Agreement may hinge upon the next US president. She spoke about how the Agreement would most likely continue under a Democratic president but the Republican hopefuls were curiously quiet on this subject, even though most of them are known to reject climate science. She added that if the US were to back out of the Agreement, then it would equate to violating an international treaty. This would weaken the US position on the global stage, making it difficult to enforce other international treaties, such as security agreements under the UN Security Council.

According to Davenport, a key driving force behind the Paris Agreement has been President Obama and the focus on his legacy. She observed that Obama views climate change as an issue that stretches far beyond the environment, to include both national and international security, as well as the economy, and therefore features as a key component of his legacy. For the first time in history, the US came to the climate negotiations with a leg to stand on, anchored by Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which has authority under the Clean Air Act. She described this plan as the cornerstone of the Obama administration’s climate change policy, bringing in a new set of EPA regulations that require existing coal-fired power stations to cut their carbon emissions by 2030. She noted that this plan cleverly uses an existing law, and so unlike executive action, it cannot be canceled by another president. Consequently, the Clean Power Plan is also seen as the linchpin to the global climate treaty, where, according to Davenport, the plan’s survival—and its entry into law—could decide the fate of the Paris Agreement.

Davenport also stressed how the Agreement signals the death of the international coal industry. Global prices for coal have slid drastically, causing mining companies to incur huge losses. In contrast, having anticipated the carbon cuts, big oil companies are shifting investment into natural gas, which has half the carbon pollution of coal. Davenport raised doubts about whether Obama’s plan will be fully implemented as it is making its way through the US legal system. A significant ruling is likely to be made this year at the DC Circuit Court, where it will be decided whether to stay or uphold the coal-fired power plant regulations. She noted that the outcome will ultimately have a huge impact not only on the existence of the Paris Agreement, but also on Obama’s legacy.


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Moderator Patricia Ellis and Coral Davenport
of The New York Times

Board Members Theresa Loar and Allison Ford with WFPG President Patricia Ellis and Coral Davenport


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Board Member Theresa Loar of CH2M and
Board Chair Ann Stock

Coral Davenport addresses WFPG

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Board Member Allison Ford of United
Technologies during the discussion

Fabrice Vareille from the Delegation
of the European Union asks a question
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Eva Hunnius Ohlin from the Embassy of
Sweden during the Q&A

WFPG audience members listen to the discussion
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David Best from the Embassy of Switzerland
poses a question

Katie Gilman from the Wilderness Society
participates in the discussion