Fortunately, few doubt any more that climate change is happening and that it is caused by humanity. Unfortunately, many still doubt whether humanity has the ingenuity, self-awareness and perspicacity to reverse course. But, happily, a lot of progress has been made on that score since I led the Kyoto negotiations for Canada 17 years ago. The Paris negotiators are not starting from scratch as we were in Kyoto. The science is much better now and the motivation to act is stronger.

More than 150 countries have come to the Paris talks with plans to reduce national greenhouse gas emissions, an encouraging global response to this major global problem. But, as in all such major negotiations, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. Success in Paris is not yet in the bag.

A few points are worth bearing in mind. First, there has rarely been as much at stake in a negotiation as there is in Paris: the survival of civilization. For the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons talks during the height of the Cold War, the establishment of a visionary goal – eventual complete disarmament – was crucial to success. Absent such a goal, the number of nuclear-armed states would likely have multiplied, rendering the treaty worthless. In Paris, the goal is to limit the increase in the Earth’s temperature to two degrees above preindustrial levels, beyond which lie major global economic, health, political and security consequences. Those countries most at risk would like to set a tougher, 1.5-degree Celsius target.

Second, never have negotiations been as complex. Federal, state and provincial governments, big-city mayors, private business, civil society, academia and those who are simply concerned are all engaged in the search for solutions. Yet only national governments can sign the treaty.

Agreement is reached not by vote but by consensus, which means any disgruntled country or group of countries can derail the negotiations. Getting 193 countries to turn a tightly contested 48-page draft text into an effective agreement is a patience-testing challenge and at times a mind-numbing one.

Third, whatever the text says, the treaty will be morally and politically compelling, not legally binding. There is no global sheriff. Persuasion is likely to be much more availing than coercion. Surveillance, monitoring, reporting, and naming and shaming are likely to be more effective than empty threats. Does Vladimir Putin look coercible on climate change? Xi Jinping? The U.S. Congress? But they can all sometimes be moved by a combination of domestic interest and international embarrassment.

Fourth, don’t expect the burdens of climate change remediation to be shared equally because they weren’t caused equally. Do expect the poorer and more vulnerable countries, which are disproportionately affected by rising waters, pestilence, disease and drought, to insist on “common but differentiated responsibility,” or in other words, expect wealthier countries to shoulder most of the burden.


They have a valid point. Heat-trapping greenhouse gases accumulate over decades and centuries. As the West has been pumping such gases into the skies since the Industrial Revolution, it bears a commensurate responsibility for fixing the climate problems these gases cause.

Those countries most affected expect the West, which built its prosperity partly on carbon, not just to reduce its own impact on the planet but to help poorer countries financially and technologically to respond to a problem they largely did not create and from which their people will suffer enormously.

But expect also to hear advanced Western countries counter that all humanity is in the same boat and unless all row vigorously, the vessel will sink. Patience has worn especially thin with conference gamesmanship, especially by some major polluting “emerging” countries, notably China, India and Brazil, that embed themselves among the victims. Their emissions must be reduced if climate change is to be slowed, let alone reversed.

Fifth, expect to hear about climate change for a long time to come. This process was launched with the creation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1988. Even if in Paris participants agree on ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets, timetables and funding, they will need to meet periodically to take stock of the science and of treaty compliance, to name and shame whoever deserves it and to set new targets as current ones expire. Paris is just the end of the beginning.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.
  • With a distinguished career in Canadian diplomacy — including posts as ambassador to Germany, permanent representative to the United Nations (UN) and adviser to various prime ministers, Paul Heinbecker is one of Canada’s most experienced commentators on foreign policy and international governance. Paul is also the director of the Centre for Global Relations at Wilfrid Laurier University.