Understanding the Paris Agreement, as explained by Astronomer and Astrophysicist Ray Weymann

Oct 19, 2016

Last month, a group of 375 of the world’s top scientists signed onto a letter designed to draw attention to the risks of climate change. 

The timing of the letter was significant, because it was meant to be a message for the presidential candidates.

Those who signed it were all members of the National Academy of Sciences, and one of the organizers of that letter is a Central Coast resident.

Astronomer and Astrophysicist Ray Weymann of Atascadero joined KCBX's Randol White to talk about what’s transpired in the weeks since that letter was made public and how the issue of handling climate change is quickly moving forward in the weeks to come.

Randol White: The letter specifically addresses the Paris Agreement which within just the past several days has received enough signers to move forward. Do I understand that correctly?

Ray Weymann: That's correct, Randol. I should first explain to people what the Paris agreement actually is, because people may not realize it. And last December in Paris over 190 countries came together and they hammered out an agreement to try and avoid the worst effects of climate change by keeping emissions below a certain level. And as part of that agreement each country has to ratify it according to its own rules, and each country must submit its own plan for how they're going to reduce emissions because various countries are in various stages of technological development. And as you mentioned in order to have it go into effect there were two thresholds that had to be met. First of all 55 countries had to formally ratify it, and as of now 75 already have. And the second threshold was that in order to go into effect, those ratifying countries had to account for 55 percent of the world's global greenhouse gas emissions. And that was the threshold that was met October 5th. Much sooner by the way than people anticipated. And, in fact the four leading emitters now in the world; China, the US, Brazil, and India as well as France and Germany have all signed on.

White: The U.S. has signed on but we're switching presidents coming up here. If we were to elect someone who is not necessarily a supporter of the Paris agreement is there a way to back out?

Weymann: Well, according to the agreement, once a country ratified ratifies it, they are obliged to stick with it for four years. Now, of course I suppose a Congress or a president could say Well to heck with that, we'll renege on the agreement but I think that would have very bad effects on U.S. leadership, its reputation, and of course it would be a disaster for the world in my opinion. The Congress could say we're not going to make any attempt to meet our commitment under the Paris agreement, and of course that would be equally bad.

White: How do the big countries that you mentioned; China, the United States, India, Brazil — how do those countries verify that the other countries are actually living up to what's in the agreement?

Weymann: Well, that is part of the agreement, and in fact the next step is to work out the details of a transparent way of monitoring the emissions. There are satellites that can be of some help in this. And so they're required every year to report on their agreement, see how well they're doing. And then every five years, according to the agreement, all the countries take stock of where we are — are falling behind are we meeting the goals, and then they must submit new and more ambitious commitments to reducing their emissions.

White: Are the details within the agreement enough to really make a difference when it comes to global climate change?

Weymann: Making a difference, almost certainly yes. Much better than if we just proceeded on business as usual where we just dig up all the coal and dig up all the petroleum that we can. In terms of meeting the stated goal of keeping us to temperature rise of two degrees centigrade compared to pre-industrial values, and we're halfway past that goal already. I think most people would say, no that doesn't go far enough. On the other hand does that mean we throw up our hands in despair and say well forget it? I mean it's like I go to my doctor and she says you know Ray you really ought to exercise 45 minutes every day six days a week. And I say well I'm not sure I can do that but I'll give you 30 minutes a day for four days a week. Now does she say, Oh well then forget it, just become a couch potato.

White: There are still some benefits.

Weymann: Of course not. Well I think what she would say is, Well look live up to that agreement that you committed to come in and see me in six months. Let's see if we can add a few minutes every day and a day a week, come in and a year and then let's see if we can meet that goal that I recommend for you. And that's exactly what the Paris agreement says we should do; report every year on where each country is and every five years we take stock of the total emissions — are we falling behind, and if so each country submits a more ambitious commitment.

White: Now are a few weeks have passed since the letter was issued, what's been the fallout from that what how well was it received?

Weymann: Well I think most people are very encouraged as I mentioned earlier. We were all pleasantly surprised at how quickly we passed that threshold. Most people thought it wouldn't be until the first of the year but this means that every year there's something called the conference of the parties where people get together and work on issues of climate change and this means that the next one, which will be held now beginning November 7th, we can actually begin to thrash out the details of implementing. And this and this involves, for example, experts in technology helping countries decide the best way of meeting their commitments.

White: So November 7th is the next big step in the Paris agreement, one day before the general election in the U.S.

Weymann: That happens to be the case. Yes.

White: What exactly is the U.S. commitment when it comes to the Paris agreement?

Weymann: Well the U.S. has committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by about 27 percent, and that's relative to a 2005 baseline, by 2025. And the policies that we already have in place for example; improve mileage standards for cars and trucks, improved efficiency standards, the Clean Power Act which requires much less emission from from power generating plants. Those are almost enough I think to meet the goals with improved technology. And I should also mention that individual states — California being the most notable example — have adopted much more ambitious goals than that. And I think with the combination of those cities and states, the U.S. stands a good chance of meeting the goals provided we don't reverse all those policies in a new administration in Congress.

White: Where does the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions come from in the United States, is it industry or is it cars?

Weymann: Well it's it's a combination of electrical generation and transportation, in both the roughly equal amounts. Added to that there are manufacturing processes, cement production leads to a lot of emission. Some agricultural processes do, but primarily it's the use of electricity for running our factories, heating or lighting our homes, etc.

White: Is the breakdown different when you look at different countries, like China for instance?

Weymann: Yes and in many countries, the less developed countries, agricultural practices may play a larger role. But of course everyone wants access to electricity.

White: Is the Paris agreement legally binding on the United States, and you mentioned the president and Congress could theoretically decide to back out of it in the years to come, but do they need to approve it?

Weymann: Well the U.S. learned I think from the Kyoto Protocol, which which was a failure, and the reason it was was because it required countries to binding agreements on reducing emissions. And in that sense it would have been a treaty and that means that it would have required a two thirds vote of the Senate to ratify the treaty. The U.S. signed the Kyoto Protocol, but the Senate did not ratify it and the reason it didn't was because there was no requirement for the developing countries like China to do anything about the problem. So that's fundamentally different now. The Chinese are fully onboard with this. In fact the U.S. and China you know signed on together in a joint statement. And so the U.S. is not legally required to commit funds, it's not legally required to reduce their emissions, but they are legally required to adhere to this agreement, to report their emissions and to revise and improve upon their commitments.

White: When we last spoke you were in Tucson visiting with family, but also touring a unique way of generating power using solar panels. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Weymann: I was at the University of Arizona for many years and one of my colleagues a fellow by the name of Roger Angell he was recipient of one of these MacArthur Genius awards and he developed a technology for making huge telescope mirrors. But then he began to realize, hey astronomy is great but we really need to do something about climate change, and so he developed what you might consider a hybrid where he has mirrors that focus the light and track the sun but they also focus the light on small areas of silicon as opposed to these great huge panels and these can be made very very efficient. And so these folks think that they can improve the efficiency of the usual approach to solar energy by a factor of two. And so that would be a real step forward. Like so many other technical developments though, it's the step of getting from a concept up to the scale that we need to have worldwide and in the U.S. in particular.

White: And where where are we on that path? During the presidential debate there was some discussion about jobs in the coal industry. But where are we when it comes to jobs in the solar power, wind power?

Weymann: Well there have been many more jobs created by this new industry than there have been jobs lost to the coal industry. Now that doesn't mean we should ignore the coal miners. I don't think that's true at all. We really have to make a great effort to retrain them and the economic opportunities afforded by wind and solar and all non-polluting energy forms are enormous. And that's true worldwide too by the way. Right now there are 1.3 billion people in the world without any access to electricity and 300 million of them in India alone. And so I think the US, were certainly the best technical innovators in the world, and so we have a choice if we enforce and and support the Paris agreement, we have this huge market of energy that the world is going to demand. And so I think we turn our backs on that and that China take the lead in supplying that energy, we're missing a huge economic opportunity.

White: Diablo Canyon is being decommissioned in the coming years. The plan is for PG&E need to replace that power with renewable energy. Do you feel it's a good idea to be decommissioning decommissioning Diablo?

Weymann: That's a hornet's nest. I mean that's a decision that the PG&E upper management has made, I think largely on economic grounds. What I think is important is that there be a commitment to replace that energy by renewable energy. Some people are concerned that they will simply switch to natural gas and natural gas is a greenhouse gas emitter. So, what has to happen is to develop better means of storing the electricity. As we all know and as people tell me all the time the sun doesn't shine at night, and thank goodness. As an astronomer I'm glad it doesn't. But we do need to drive down the cost of storing it. We do need to improve the electrical grid. And worldwide, I think there are new nuclear technologies which also play an important role