What does the Outcome of the COP21 Climate Talks Mean?

Portrait of Dana Fisher, associate professor in the Department of Sociology, College of Behavioral and Social Sciences.

Dana R. Fisher
University of Maryland

In the afterglow of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s 21st Conference of the Parties (or what many have come to know as the COP21 Climate Talks in Paris), everyone has spent the past week asking the important question: what does the outcome mean?  As a sociologist who has been studying the UNFCCC process since the Kyoto round of the negotiations in 1997, I can say with certainty that, for those of us living in the United States, at least, the outcome means close to nothing. 

Don’t get me wrong, I am all in favor of the success of multilateralism and would be particularly delighted if it came in the form of an international climate agreement, especially one that aims to reduce the overall global temperature increase to only 1.5 degrees Celsius. But one of the overall problems with this type of international policymaking is that it doesn’t matter one iota what the Parties—i.e. national governments—agree to if those nation states do not then take the necessary steps of implementation.

Let’s be honest, even with all the talk about the importance of global civil society and multilateral agreements, most sociologists agree that the nation-state level is where the proverbial rubber of policymaking hits the road (if it hits the road at all).

What this fact means is that the agreement is only as strong as the domestic policies that implement it and the ways in which these policies are enforced. Within a week of the conclusion of the Paris talks, a number of countries were acting in ways that suggested they were not going to follow through with their commitments to the climate agreement at home. In the UK, for example, clean energy subsidies were cut on December 17th—less than a week after the COP ended.

In the United States it didn’t even take that long. While President Obama and his vast negotiating team were in Paris chatting up the US as a leader on climate governance, Republican Presidential hopeful Senator Ted Cruz was holding a hearing in a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation Subcommittee called “Data or Dogma? Promoting Open Inquiry in the Debate over the Magnitude of Human Impact on Earth’s Climate.” As you might expect from the title, the whole point of this hearing was to debunk the scientific evidence that anthropogenic climate change is happening.

In addition to hearings and other statements, which may be just symbolic politics, both houses of the Congress moved to limit President Obama’s executive orders that make implementation of the Paris Climate Agreement possible. Since the President has been unable to get anything climate-related passed through the Congress, the President’s entire climate policy for implementing carbon reductions relies on his Executive Orders, which can be (and are being) challenged by the Congress and the courts. Moreover, these orders can be revoked by the next President of the US. In case anyone forgot, the election takes place in 11 months and the new President will take office in January 2017.

All 195 countries agreeing to something in Paris was an important first step in addressing the issue of global climate change. However, the real work needs to be done within nation-states themselves, and the jury is still out on how and if that work will be completed at all.


Dana R. Fisher is professor of sociology and director of the Program for Society and the Environment at the University of Maryland. She has studied and written about the climate regime and domestic climate policy for many years. Her first book, National Governance and the Global Climate Change Regime (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers 2004), traced domestic responses to the climate regime through 2001. For more information and copies of additional papers on the subject, see www.drfisher.umd.edu

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5 thoughts on “What does the Outcome of the COP21 Climate Talks Mean?

  1. Totally agree with the letter of what you say Dana, but on the spirit… there’s just a slight (more optimistic) question in my mind. Clearly, as you suggest, U.S. Republicans are one of the most important groups globally who might impede real progress. But the latest opinion polls are finding that even Republican voters (though seemingly not politicians) are expressing more acceptance of climate science. It’s early days, but maybe public opinion is shifting in a positive direction. And could not the fact that 195 countries just signed a major new agreement–which takes the scientific consensus on climate change as a given–help encourage that shift? I realise that for many/most Republicans, it won’t make any difference; but for some it might (especially tag-teaming with the encyclical).
    It would make an interesting survey experiment: Ask people (Republicans, other Americans, or really any people) a question about climate change after randomly assigning half of them to a very brief mention of the new Paris Agreement. Does hearing about it make a difference, on average?

    1. Interesting ideas about how this information may affect options, Malcolm.

      However, there is still no good research on how to get these “climate concerned” Republicans to vote on this issue. It’s likely that other issues are driving their voting behaviors. No question that much more research is needed! I just hope it goes beyond the attitude experiments to look at the triggers between attitudes and behaviors, which is what is needed right now.


  2. I’m also more optimistic, because a curious fact is there *is* a lot of environmental legislation in the U.S., but it’s at state level. The states are out front in trying to develop renewable energy (Texas, oddly enough, is a leader). If this continues (admittedly a big if), we could yet meet our commitments despite national-level political obstruction. Michael Vasseur studies state-level enviro legislation.

    1. Hi Monica,

      I also study sub-national climate policy in the US–Im kicking of a new project that builds on my previous work this month. It’s true that innovation is taking place at the subnational level. However, the level of change needed at this point requires a coordinated federal effort (or much more at the subnational level. It’s also worth noting that, while renewable energy is expanding in states like Texas, challenges to the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan is also happening at the subnational level across the US.


      1. Dana–point taken that action at national level is needed given the scale of the problem. I think there’s something important to be learned about the politics of obstructionism from the different way Texas delegations operate at national level (obstructionist) compared to what is happening at the state level (where Texas is a leader in wind energy). Ideological opposition to global warming does not extend to opposing jobs in a new and booming industry. Perhaps the lesson for national level legislation is that rather than mandates to reduce emissions, you need legislation that enables the new industry in renewables.


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