By Published: Feb. 17, 2016

Attending Paris climate-change conference flips CU-Boulder professor from pessimism to optimism

When Peter Blanken flew to Paris for the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in December, he had somewhat low expectations.

“Going into it, I felt pessimistic,” says Blanken, associate professor of geography at the University of Colorado Boulder, who was one of 10 official observers selected by the Association of American Geographers.

Peter Blanken, front row to the left of the aisle, at COP 21

Peter Blanken, front row to the left of the aisle, at COP 21

And who could fault his pessimism? Global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide surpassed 400 parts per million for the first time in 800,000 years in 2015, while experts were warning a decade ago that 350 ppm might be a point of no return. In the United States, widespread skepticism about climate change persists despite an overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is causing a steady rise in global mean temperatures.

And, when he arrived for the conference, he heard representatives from some 200 countries describing impacts that were already occurring.

“At this meeting, there was no ambiguity. We have flooding, people starving, we have climate refugees. But it was good to hear, because there was a strong sense that if we don’t do something in these two weeks (of the conference), it will be too late,” says Blanken, whose research focuses on carbon fluxes over forests, lakes and wetlands.

Which isn’t to say there weren’t extremely tricky areas of disagreement and lots of careful negotiation. For example, discussions included how to compensate less developed countries that would like to have the kind of economic growth and prosperity seen in the West, development that carries a heavy carbon price tag; doubts about whether carbon credits and trading are fair and loophole free; whether to settle on a goal of 1.5- or 2-degree Celsius global temperature increase by century’s end; and whether any agreement should be legally binding and non-adherents punished in some way.

At CU, we have a lot of people doing good work in the science of climate change. Even at this politically oriented conference, I realized that science really does have an impact and does make it into the policy world.”

“Right now it’s a name-and-shame kind of procedure,” Blanken says.

Nonetheless, Blanken left the conference feeling optimistic. The conferees settled on 1.5 degrees Celsius, and each signatory nation not only had to provide a detailed plan of action to reduce carbon emissions, but also agree to a five-year evaluation on progress.

“It’s not just, ‘Let’s wait 80 years and see what happens,’” Blanken says.

The Paris agreement must now be ratified by a majority of nations that emit 55 percent of the world’s carbon by April. President Barack Obama, who faces deep skepticism and opposition among Republicans about climate policy, has said he believes the U.S. could ratify the agreement, which is not a treaty, by executive authority.

As much as anything, Blanken came away encouraged that the work he and his colleagues are doing matters.

Blanken also returned feeling energized to bring his experience to students.

“I had a student in the fall (in his biometeorology class) who came up to me and said, ‘You are one of the reasons I go to CU. Professors at CU have the stature to go to these types of important meetings,’” he says.

Clay Evans is a free-lance writer and longtime Boulder journalist.