I was driving through Glasgow the other day. At the corner of Argyle Street and George Square I glanced at the banners and flags strung from the antennae of passing cars. They were not because the city was celebrating the middle of April or welcoming spring — but because Scotland was preparing to sign up to the Paris Agreement at the end of April.
Doing that is a big deal, because most of the big powers will sign up, while the United States has not. The destination is recognition that there will be measurable targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions and that there will be punishments for countries that don’t comply.
It’s kind of the end of an era in our nation. We’ve just put the United States in a position to be the last nuclear superpower standing.
This agreement is all about managing change, not eradicating it. It is about fixing what’s broken, not creating new problems. And those who do not care enough to do that must accept that they are not going to rejoin the advanced and civilized world — because the the Paris Agreement will be the last great effort to restore that state of health.
What we are doing here has particular significance for Scotland, which is a country that has just learned — much too late — that it could not bear the full brunt of global warming. The environmental group Friends of the Earth estimates that the country has already been badly affected. The lowest point for sea levels that local scientists say might be avoided by 2100 was 1.3 meters. A hundred years ago the threat was less; the threshold had been raised from .6 meters to .7 meters in the space of a few decades.
The most important thing is that young people who lived in Glasgow only a few decades ago are going to inherit a much less parched and ravaged landscape than their parents. Without the emissions from their ancestors, the sea would have remained at a level of 1.1 meters, because they accumulated over thousands of years. Now they must find a way to pay a future price for the debts they will owe.
Many people around the world will need to change their lifestyles in ways that may hurt them. But when it comes to their environment, some people have only to look to their immediate neighbours.
These communities have had the foresight to develop a new energy, which is now cheaper than coal- or gas-fired power. That is the one problem with the nuclear power systems that remain in use around the world: They can still be more expensive than alternative forms of power, and in places where the cost of raw materials rises, as it has in the past year, they can become prohibitively expensive to run.
The idea of nuclear power as being an environmentally friendly source of energy is a non-starter for many people because it continues to rely on fossil fuels — principally oil — that pollute our atmosphere.
We cannot forget how loud the non-participation of key decision-makers in the international community was when it came to the Kyoto Protocol, which included nations that had already passed their limits under the First World Pollution Act.
Whether one agrees with the funding that was being used to help the low-lying island states — most of them political science students from the United States — to keep living is another question.
But to pretend that the challenges are sufficiently clear to decide that once again the rich industrial democracies are no longer going to lead the way is ridiculous. A country whose only industry is mining could not commit to stopping its practice of mining, whether for coal or for uranium, and charge up the incomes of its army of officers in large part because of its position as a superpower.
The idea that the people of the West, who provide much of the money that fuels the global economy, are not going to put pressure on their government to lead the way on the environment is highly galling to the many young people who live in places where the terrain is unforgiving and the skies are grey.
The nation of Scotland is a success story in many ways — whether it is one in which the results are defined by how many people make ends meet, whether they are young or old, or by their national prejudices. Perhaps the greatest demonstration of that is the extent to which it was that the people of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union.
That is why it is particularly dismaying that the Scottish nationalists did not choose the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 as an important model for how Scotland could leverage its economy to stay ahead of the emerging juggernaut of global warming.