By Richard Ponzio and William Durch

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As the world commemorates Earth Day today, April 22, it is useful to take stock of the progress made in tackling the preeminent global environmental challenge of our time: climate change. Remarkably, last December in Paris, 195 world leaders pledged further action to cut carbon emissions with the goal of keeping global warming from exceeding 2ºC. Equally impressive is how a range of new and influential actors — from mayors and corporate executives to indigenous rights groups, religious leaders, and environmental activists — contributed to this outcome.

Despite attempts in 2009 in Copenhagen and at subsequent U.N. conferences to achieve a new instrument to legally bind the climate action commitments of all states, world leaders instead opted in Paris for not legally binding “nationally determined contributions” to carbon emissions reduction. Nevertheless, countries are legally bound to monitor and report on their emissions and progress, and to increase their efforts to reduce emissions in the future.

Starting with the U.N. Climate Summit in September 2014 and Lima conference that December, thousands of civil society groups, industry and religious leaders, and municipal representatives worldwide began to ratchet up the pressure on national leaders in the run-up to Paris. Besides more traditional lobbying efforts, many have issued parallel voluntary commitments to action that go beyond the measures that national governments are willing to undertake at present. Since many scientists warn that the Paris agreement is still too weak to prevent devastating climate change, further efforts to innovate climate governance are needed urgently.

In June 2015, the Commission on Global Security, Justice & Governance, co-chaired by former U.S. Secretary of State Dr. Madeleine Albright and former Nigerian Foreign Minister and U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Dr. Ibrahim Gambari, released its report, Confronting the Crisis of Global Governance, at the Peace Palace in The Hague and subsequently at the United Nations. In seeking to strengthen the connections between grassroots action and top-down approaches to mitigate and adapt to the worst effects of climate change, the Commission called for:

  • Opening future intergovernmental climate agreements to signature by other actors than national governments, to include, for example, provincial and district leaders, mayors, industry and professional associations, and civil society organizations, including women’s organizations.
  • Convening annual Group of 20 (G20) leading global economies ministerial meetings on climate change to encourage members to align their policies on climate finance, risk disclosure, and energy development.
  • Requesting an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice (initiated through the U.N. General Assembly) on states’ obligation to mitigate climate change through domestic measures, thereby strengthening the legal basis for climate action.
  • Establishing a Global Climate Research Registry and Climate Action Clearinghouse to better collect and disseminate research and good practices on mitigation and adaptation efforts around the globe by governments, civil society, and industry.
  • Creating a Green Technology Licensing Facility (within the Green Climate Fund) to help those least able to cope to adapt to climate change, by better leveraging private sector ingenuity and boosting the transfer of environmentally sound technologies.

With the Paris Agreement viewed as coming up short by renowned climate scientists, some view geoengineering as a useful complement to current mitigation and adaptation efforts. Geoengineering refers to strategies that try to alter the climate system through direct human intervention, broadly divided into two categories: (i) removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and (ii) modifying the reflective properties of the atmosphere.

At present, no international treaties govern geoengineering, and no international organization has offered policy guidance, despite associated ethical concerns and potential unforeseen transboundary environmental risks. Consequently, the Commission on Global Security, Justice & Governance recommended establishing a Geoengineering Advisory Board and Experiments Registry, to subject geoengineering experiments to careful scrutiny, especially those involving solar radiation or albedo management techniques.

The proposed Geoengineering Advisory Board should review and approve all geoengineering experiments. UN Member States should agree to treat its decisions as binding, in the common interest. All atmospheric research involving solar radiation management, for example, should be considered human subject experimentation insofar as its intent is to affect the living conditions of people. Approval should be conditioned on best available evidence and modeling indicating that expected transboundary effects are minimal. All approved projects should then be entered into a Geoengineering Experiments Registry — a special track of the Global Climate Research Registry.

Climate change is a quintessential global governance challenge, with far-reaching effects beyond the abilities of any single state or small grouping of states to contain or redress. Indeed, mitigating and adapting to climate change globally require a new understanding of what constitutes security and justice in the twenty-first century. Fortunately, as the Paris Agreement shows, world leaders, in partnership with thousands of stakeholder groups from across civil society, the business community, and sub-national governing entities, are ready to begin taking the extraordinary and decisive action required to address the causes and impact of climate change.

Though Paris represents a vast improvement over the 2009 Copenhagen conference outcome, the model of climate governance needed to fully halt runaway climate change is still incomplete. With the commitment and creativity of leaders and concerned citizens at all levels of society, we may soon complete this transformation and mark future Earth Days by constantly reassessing our progress and sustaining efforts to better govern our fragile, life-giving, and universally shared climate.

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William J. Durch is a Distinguished Fellow of Stimson’s Future of Peace Operations program. Richard Ponzio is a Nonresident Fellow and Director of the Just Security 2020 project at the Stimson Center.