Water for Food

COP 21: A historical achievement and a legacy for future generations

December 16, 2015
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Closing Ceremony of COP21, Paris (U.N./Flickr) Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (second left); Christiana Figueres (left), Executive Secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC); Laurent Fabius (second right), Minister for Foreign Affairs of France and President of the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris (COP21) and François Hollande (right), President of France celebrate after the historic adoption of Paris Agreement on climate change Dec. 12, 2015.

By climatologist Donald A. Wilhite, Water for Food Institute Faculty Fellow and professor in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln School of Natural Resources

The signing of the International Climate Agreement at the 21st annual U.N. climate conference (COP21) in Paris Dec. 13, by 195 countries represents a historical moment and one that we should all be celebrating. It puts us on a pathway to mitigate some of the most deleterious impacts associated with the projections of our planet’s changing climate. Although there has been an overwhelming scientific consensus for many years that our climate is changing, and that human activities that have resulted in increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in our atmosphere are the primary cause, the global community has been slow to respond to these changes until now. As U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon indicated, “History will remember this day… The Paris agreement on climate change is a monumental success for the planet and its people.”

I have been impressed by the leadership demonstrated by the United States in the months and years leading up to COP21. While our nation’s contribution to the problems associated with rising CO2 levels cannot be diminished, the solution to the problem is one in which all nations must contribute. And, it is my belief, that most nations of the world were looking for American leadership to begin to address this issue. Mission accomplished! Now, the U.N. must hold its member states to the pledges they have made through their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions in the days prior to COP21.

We all have heard considerable discussion surrounding the projections for a changing climate if we continue on the path that we have been on since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. CO2 levels in the atmosphere have risen from around 280 parts per million to over 400 parts per million in recent years. These increasing concentrations of CO2 and other greenhouse gases such as water vapor, methane and nitrous oxide have altered the heat balance of the earth. The International Climate Agreement of COP21 is an attempt to hold temperature changes below 2° Celsius. Without such an international agreement, temperature projections will likely be much greater as noted by the most recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/). However, it’s not just the temperature increases that we are concerned about — the side effects of these temperature changes are even more staggering, such as increases in extreme weather and climate events, melting icecaps and glaciers, rising sea levels, acidification of our oceans, loss of plant and wildlife species and increasing concerns about national security as food and water shortages in key regions of the world become more commonplace resulting in greater political instability.

As a state that sits squarely in the middle of one of the primary breadbaskets of the world, it is essential for Nebraska to provide leadership in our efforts to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change. Through the efforts of the University of Nebraska and many other organizations in the state, we have been working diligently to provide our citizens with the most current science-based information on climate change and its potential impacts across numerous sectors in the state. The University issued a report on the implications of climate change on the state in September 2014, Understanding and Assessing Climate Change: Implications for Nebraska and has been building on the success of that report as an educational instrument by organizing a series of eight sector-based roundtable discussions during the fall of 2015. These discussions have engaged well over 350 stakeholders to discuss critical mitigation and adaptation actions that sectors such as energy, agriculture, business, ecosystems and wildlife, human health, forestry, urban and rural communities, university campuses and the faith community could adopt now and in the future. These efforts have been widely recognized by other states and at the national level for how they have engaged diverse stakeholders in the discussion process. The leadership efforts of the University of Nebraska, the Water for Food Institute and other key stakeholder organizations must continue in order for our state to continue to address the climate change in a proactive manner.

Donald A. Wilhite

Donald A. Wilhite

As the university’s climate report concluded, action now is more preferable and cost effective than reaction later. While action must take place at the local level where the impacts will be felt the greatest, global leadership is essential if we are going to be successful in addressing the implications of climate change. This will be the legacy of COP21.

Don Wilhite is a Water for Food Institute Faculty Fellow and professor in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln School of Natural Resources.

Read the historic Paris Agreement on climate change

Learn more about COP21

Further reading: Understanding and Assessing Climate Change: Implications for Nebraska

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