The Paris Agreement Opened Doors: Now We Need to Step Through

By Rev. Peggy Clarke

The Paris Agreement is a success. Is it perfect? No. But it’s good. Some will point only to its limits, failures, and deficiencies. Not me. I was there to witness much of the process, and given all the challenges, it’s better than I ever could have hoped.

The Good: This is the first time every nation on the planet has come to an agreement.

Although agreement looked less and less likely after the first week, it came together. As I understand UN process, finding common ground is rare. At COP21, the common ground was a shared sense of desperation, and desire to hope for a future generation. (After the document was finished, the Prime Minister of the Marshall Islands called home and his grandson said, “Do we have to move?” He replied, “Maybe, but not today.”) 

The energy on site was high and hopeful and, frankly, more ambitious than I had expected. Creating a just Agreement was a key part of the conversation. True, the final text does not address the issues fully or adequately, which reinforces what I already know: governments cannot fix this problem alone. Given the multidimensional nature of these negotiations, they did the best they could do given far more moving parts than I can count. Really—this was extremely complicated. The US did a good job particularly on some key elements like accountability and transparency moving forward.

The Bad: The United States pulled away from any accountability for our role in creating the crisis.

There is a section on Damage and Loss. That section was in danger of not existing at all. The US ensured it was there (with the help of the faith community), but liability and compensation were eliminated, which, in my opinion, falls too far short of the moral ideal.

I’m also upset, sorry, and angry that justice for indigenous people did not make it out of the preamble.

The Undecided: The Paris Agreement relies on each nation to step up on their own. (This is the first time developing countries are called to participate, which is a good thing.) The goals have been set, but the ability to reach those good goals relies on national initiatives. How well nations—including ours— really own their part in this is still to be seen.

A Larger Truth: Even had the US government played its part exactly as I would have wanted, even if the Agreement read exactly as I would have hoped—even if, unimaginably, the final document had been perfect in the eyes of all the world—that wouldn’t have solved the problem. Society has many parts. We need to do ours. Corporations need to do theirs. The faith community has a key role to play. In fact, the essential role of the faith community has never been more clear to me than over the course of the last few weeks.

One more thing: Weeks before COP21, I was invited to talk about messaging with other representatives of environmental groups. The conversation was all about declaring Paris a failure. They were poised and ready, and most have stuck to that message. I am troubled both by the assumption of failure before the work started, and negative messaging that has persisted even in the face of some very good work. It makes me want to say one more thing…Well, three more things:

  1. Although criticism is easy, progress is difficult: The work now being criticized was unbearably complicated, and people worked literally day and night—in good faith—to create the best Agreement they could, together. I grant that going forward, such work needs refinement and correction. Perhaps just as importantly, those who give themselves over to this work need our ongoing encouragement.

  2. Acting as if governments can do it all makes it easy to abdicate our own responsibilities.

  3. This Agreement isn’t the end; it’s the beginning. It opened doors; now we have to step through. Moving this forward is our job. I am confident we can and will do what needs to be done to create the necessary transformation.

Once you begin to notice, you find that opportunities to work for climate justice abound. That will be more true in the coming year than any previous year in history.

Whether you are new or seasoned, I hope you mark Sundays April 17, April 25, and May 1, 2016 for climate justice action—on your own calendar, and your congregational calendar, too.

In April 2015, Commit2Respond provided resources for congregational climate justice action. In 2016, we’ll also provide resources for collective climate justice action. It is time. I hope you’ll join me, and the thousands of others who have committed to respond.


Rev. Peggy Clarke

Steering Committee Member, Commit2Respond
Minister, First Unitarian Society, Hastings on Hudson, NY
Racial and Social Justice Consultant, UU Metro NY District
Co-Founder, InterGenerate
GreenFaith Fellow


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