Thoughts about COP21 on a warm December day

It has often happened over the years that one day in autumn, something about the temperature, the sun, the air, and sounds has my senses saying “spring.” And vice-versa – on one spring day it just feels like autumn. Not sure, but I think I first noticed this after returning to temperate climates from years living in the very different cycle of seasons in the tropics (and therein would be another story).

It has never happened before, however, that on a mid-December day in temperate mid-Atlantic North America, I feel like spring and autumn have somehow overlapped. Raking the last of some autumn leaf fall to find some bulbs starting to sprout as if it were early spring. Trimming some dead flowering vines off an arbor, only to see that there are fresh green sprouts as well. And a few bright yellow dandelions coming up.

Technically it’s just a long warm autumn in one region – in what happens to be the hottest year on record worldwide. Still it was a bit surreal to be cutting the grass in a tee-shirt at a time of year when there are no leaves on the trees and neighbors have put up Christmas decorations.

Weather, climate, and policy

It’s a fallacy of course to draw conclusions from weather in one area to the state of the climate in that area, let alone globally. But it has sometimes seemed like weather here in the Washington, DC area has had an inordinate effect on rhetoric in the US if not on actual policymaking about climate change. The “Snowmageddon” storm in the US middle Atlantic in 2010 elicited doubts about global warming, and extreme winter cold in the eastern US in 2014 caused by a shift in the “polar vortex” had a similar effect. Last February, a US senator brought a snowball into the legislative chambers to punctuate his claim that global warming is a hoax. So maybe it’s helpful in the capital area to have some record high December temperatures more in line with what’s happening worldwide, as politicians and policymakers here consider the Paris Agreement of the just concluded UN Climate Change Conference COP21.


COP 21 logo

COP21 – the twenty-first “Conference of the Parties” since 1995 – was convened amidst growing concern about a number of issues related to climate change. For example, some island countries and major coastal areas face submersion from rising sea levels, other regions could become uninhabitable due to heat indexes of 165-170°F / 74-77°C, and large scale “environmentally induced migration” is already an issue (just to put yardwork in December or snowballs in February into perspective).

By most accounts, COP21 has done a remarkable job in finding an international consensus on goals and means for limiting production of greenhouse gasses. The Paris Agreement issued by the conference  is the latest in a series of protocols, agreements, and action plans within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change which was adopted at the Earth Summit (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. However it is the first among them to be “universal”- that is it involves virtually every country (the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, for instance, primarily concerned emissions by industrialized nations).

Like earlier efforts – some of which are considered to have failed – it will require follow-through by signatories. The Paris Agreement is not a treaty, unlike the Kyoto Protocol, so is not binding under international law. Therefore a lot depends on decisions by individual governments concerning their respective “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDC) and monitoring of emissions levels.

Criticisms of the agreement begin with the latter – how do the INDCs add up, how will the Agreement be carried out by signatories, and how will it be evaluated – and include questions about whether it goes far enough, or allows crossing of too many “red lines.” Other criticisms relate to economic impacts. And then there is what we might call the “snow fort” of climate change denial.

In any event, this Agreement is all we have at this point, and whatever its imperfections needs attention and action if the worst of outcomes of climate change are to be avoided or, where already unavoidable, ameliorated.

Spanish moss in northern Virginia

Another surprise working in the yard yesterday was finding a sprig of Spanish moss on the ground, still very much alive. This plant of course can’t handle the winter cold that we usually and will eventually have, again, in this part of Virginia. We had brought some back from a trip to Savannah, Georgia last spring (gathered from fall beneath some trees), just to see how it grows. It obviously survived, and actually grew some, but never seemed to thrive. Then a month or two ago a windstorm stripped the last of it off the magnolia, so I assumed it had perished. Maybe will try to keep it going inside to hang out again in the spring as a global warming decoration?


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