As the world’s top governmental leaders convened for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December 2009, a sense of hope for international agreement on climate change was in the air. Eleven days later, on the last day of the conference, newspapers worldwide described the climate talks as being in total disarray. Blame was placed on developed and developing countries alike.
But as the 2015 UNCCC, scheduled to take place in Paris at the end of the November, looms closer, a team of researchers at the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy — a joint undertaking between the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and Yale Law School — are working toward a different outcome. Hoping to move beyond Copenhagen and capitalize on what they describe as growing momentum for a lasting climate change agreement, professors and students alike will present their research at the 21st annual Conference of the Parties, a yearly session which is part of the UNCCC.
“The critical thing about the COP is it’s a chance for the political players to gather and to discuss whether they’re on track in terms of the commitments they’ve made,” said Daniel Esty LAW ’86, a professor at the Law School who directs the YCELP. “Once every five years or so you aim to do something big and create a new agreement. This is six years since the last attempt, so there is an effort being made to fundamentally rebuild the agreement.”
Over the summer of 2014, after a three-year stint as commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, Esty began collaborating with other climate change thought leaders on how best to shift away from negotiation frameworks that relied heavily on parties at the highest level — primarily nation-states — to settle on climate change agreements. Esty’s research proposes engaging those at subnational levels — governors, mayors, chief corporate executives and business leaders — to help define courses of action moving forward.
As detailed in a white paper published by the YCELP’s Yale Climate Change Dialogue, Esty and dozens of other thought leaders from around the world have identified three main areas of focus. First, the paper calls for a bottom-up course of action, one that focuses on non-state actors who can commit to their own climate change contributions. Second, such non-nation-state contributions should be tracked through more innovative metrics that allow progress toward climate goals to be more easily evaluated, the paper said. Third, the paper calls for the scaling up of clean-energy financing strategies through the flow of private capital, rather than by relying on public funding.
“The 20th-century view of the important decision makers being national government leaders missed the reality that presidents and prime ministers don’t have much day-to-day authority over the things that determine the carbon footprint of a society,” Esty said. “If you really want to get at the critical decision makers, you need to talk to governors and mayors and CEOs and a broader set of civil society leaders.”
Dena Adler FES ’17 LAW ’17, who served on the white paper’s research and writing support team, said that in the time since the Copenhagen summit, the YCCD team has focused on how bottom-up strategy can increase the ambition and capacity of the 2015 Paris agreement. Esty agreed, noting that significant progress in mitigating climate change is already being made below the nation-state level. In an op-ed published in The New York Times last year, Esty highlighted how mayors in Barcelona, Melbourne and the Brazilian city of Curitiba are expanding public transportation, while British Columbia and Quebec have introduced cap-and-trade programs that put a price on greenhouse gas emissions, for example.
Director of the Environmental Law and Policy Program Josh Galperin FES ’09 said that joint projects through the center help unify the Law School and F&ES. Projects like Esty’s can bring the best from those at either school to work toward mitigating climate change, Galperin said. In this instance, he added, while some students and faculty can contribute real-world economic experience, others can use legal analysis skills and international connectedness to address climate change.
Larry Rodman FES ’16, who stopped practicing law after 41 years to go back to school and work on climate change policy, said that working on Esty’s research strikes a personal chord. Rodman will attend the COP in Paris along with Esty, Adler and others in the hope that Paris will be more fruitful than Copenhagen was six years ago.
“I think my children will probably live out their lives in a world similar to mine, but I doubt my grandchild will,” Rodman said. “I think it will all change radically, and that makes me really sad.”