Stanford reflects on Earth Day at 50: Chris Field

Chris Field, director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, describes the Paris Agreement of 2015 as a success story waiting to unfold.

Chris Field is the Perry L. McCarty Director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, the Melvin and Joan Lane Professor for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies, a professor of Earth system science and biology, and a senior fellow at the Precourt Institute for Energy. His research ranges from work on improving climate models to prospects for renewable energy systems and community organizations that can minimize the risk of a tragedy of the commons. He has been deeply involved with national and international efforts to advance understanding of global ecology and climate change, most recently as co-chair of an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change working group.

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Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment’s Director, Chris Field, reflects on the success and important lessons learned from the 2015 Paris Agreement.

What is an example of a major environmental success story related to climate change over the past 50 years?

The Paris Agreement of 2015 is a success story waiting to unfold. The agreement has had a very rough run, especially with the U.S. announcing its intent to withdraw, but it is central to tackling climate change.


Why do you consider it of great significance/importance?

The Paris Agreement is important for four main reasons. It established a new framework for international agreements, in which each country makes its own determination of what it can do, with the international spotlight encouraging each nation to raise its ambition. It brought every signing country into agreement on a fair way to allocate responsibility for climate-change responses. It established a framework for predictable future changes in emissions reductions and the policies required to achieve them. Before the agreement, markets had no way to plan. It also established the idea that the solution to climate change will emerge gradually over time and not in one grand bargain. It is a framework for building trust at the same time as technologies.


What led to the change?

The path that led to the Paris agreement was long and challenging. The Kyoto Protocol of 1997 was an ambitious start that highlighted the importance of common but differentiated responsibility while also demonstrating the difficulty of implementing a system of mandatory commitments. The concept of nationally determined contributions, which arose more or less from the ashes of the Kyoto Protocol, was a key enabler of the Paris Agreement.

But an equally important enabler was the U.S.-China climate agreement of 2014. By bringing together the major emitters in the developed and developing world, the U.S.-China agreement opened the door for other countries to join.


What lessons can we learn from this success story?

Unfortunately, the lesson from the Paris Agreement is that the federal government of the U.S. is central to global progress on climate, and that solving climate requires a government that acknowledges the magnitude of the challenge and the imperative of addressing it.

The U.S. intention to withdraw fundamentally undermines the motivations behind the agreement. As the wealthiest nation and the largest emitter historically, the U.S. must be central to any global-scale agreement on climate.