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Paris climate change deal is a good start, but work must continue

A demonstrator holds a banner reading "One climate

A demonstrator holds a banner reading "One climate one world" during a rally held by several Non Governmental Organisations (NGO) to form a human chain on the Champs de Mars near the Eiffel Tower in Paris on December 12, 2015 on the sidelines of the COP21, the UN conference on global warming. Credit: AFP / Getty Images / FRANCOIS GUILLOT

The agreement that emerged from the climate change conference in Paris is a historic breakthrough. Nearly every nation on Earth now recognizes the reality and dangers of global warming, and says it is committed to reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that cause it.

But now celebration must be followed by action, and then recalibration. Because as noteworthy as the Paris agreement is, it is vitally important that we understand what it is not.

It is not THE solution to climate change. But it might lead to one. It is, as President Barack Obama put it, a framework for progress, the first step in what has been a long and torturous road. At best, it’s expected to cut emissions by about half of what scientists say is needed to avert the worst consequences of climate change — rising sea levels that obliterate coastlines, and more severe droughts, flooding, storms, and food and water shortages. But it would enable negotiators to continue to develop the framework, and to let nations continue to devise strategies to reduce emissions and protect the forests that absorb carbon.

In that sense, the Paris agreement is a bet on the willingness of nations to act in the future — and on the world’s citizens to keep the heat on them. But it also smartly contains language designed to produce constant peer pressure to act.

Nearly 190 nations submitted plans to cut emissions. Because the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate would reject any binding cut in emissions, the plans are voluntary. But they are backed by a series of binding requirements. Countries must meet every five years to publicly report on progress compared with plans, update plans to further reduce emissions, and use the same accounting system to monitor and report on emissions and reductions. The agreement also sets a target for developed countries to spend $100 billion a year to help developing nations bypass fossil fuels and go straight to alternative energy, and to help poorer nations deal with the impacts of climate change.

Critics on the left say that’s not enough. They wanted binding agreements, taxes on carbon emissions and more stringent emissions targets to firmly tamp down the rise in global temperatures. But after more than two decades of failure to forge some climate change pact, negotiators were right not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

At the other end of the climate change spectrum, most GOP presidential candidates have expressed doubt about the reality of climate change and have decried efforts to combat it as job-killers the American economy cannot tolerate. But inherent in the Paris agreement is a hope: that the message that the fossil-fuel era is ending will spark the financial and energy industries to shift on their own and invest in clean energy, creating thousands of jobs.

There are many potential pitfalls. Nations might not live up to their pledges, including the United States under the next president. Progress might stall. That’s not acceptable. The stakes are critical. Making good on, and then improving, promises made in Paris will determine whether the agreement is merely symbolic or whether it is the turning point in saving Earth from the worst effects of climate change.