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The Paris Deal Is the Start of a Long, Uncertain Road

Francois Guillot / Getty

LE BOURGET, France—Three people are crying and hugging behind me with huge smiles on their faces. I don’t know exactly why they’re crying—I guess I could ask them—but I know what set them off: It’s over. The Paris Agreement is in the books, banged into ecological history with a foam green gavel by the foreign minister of the French Republic.

The main feeling in the Le Bourget expo center is relief. Relief this wasn’t a repeat of the embarrassment in Copenhagen six years ago. Relief that people can go home to their bosses in capitals of the world and say they did their best. Also that this didn’t drag on for more than an extra day past the end of the two scheduled weeks, ending at a highly reasonable 7:25 p.m. Central European Time, as the few cafeterias still open ran low on Orangina and ragoût de bœuf and the wifi petered out.

That’s apparently the feeling that climate conferences often provoke at the end. Which has to be by design. How else do you get every country in the world, give or take, to agree on a plan that aims to remake their economies in the face of impending disaster—in a way that has to be impervious to revanchists and oppositions across hundreds of languages and cultures—without locking everyone in an airplane hanger and threatening to starve and bore them to death if they don’t?

Sure, great, but what about the deal? Or, as a friend put it in a message from the States today, “SO ARE WE NOT GOING TO DIE NOW!?!” In the long run, sadly, yes, we will. As for the state of the Earth and its atmosphere when that happens, it’s a more complicated story. The Oil Age did not end today. It may be, as Greenpeace’s Kumi Naidoo said, “the beginning of the end.” But there’s no way to know that now.

What we do know is that the Paris agreement is more ambitious in its rhetoric than most anyone expected when they boarded their planes to Charles de Gaulle two weeks ago. The bit about “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C,” is going to come up again and again as countries and cities wrestle with how to make that happen.

The bad news is there’s nothing to enforce the carbon emission cuts needed to get near that goal. It’s up to each individual country to cut its own, and those current goals add up to 3 degrees of warming or more—a total disaster. The only penalty for not living up to those self-made promises remains diplomatic embarrassment—which diplomats think will be effective, but future leaders could prove impervious to. There will be a meeting in 2018 where everyone is supposed to report back. We’ll see.

People are divided on what to make of the rest of the dense, 31-page document. One of the most important bits is a call for cutting back on emissions “as soon as possible,” with the goal of achieving a “balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century.” What that means in English is that the amount of carbon getting put in the air needs to be equaled, more or less, by the amount of carbon being sucked out of it by trees or the carbon-eating robots of the future.

Some people think this is really, really good. “The battle to get that long-term goal in there was fucking immense—excuse my French,” Sam Barratt, a spokesman for the climate activist group Avaaz just walked over to tell me. Corporate Accountability International’s Jesse Bragg, on the other hand, thinks it’s criminal: “potentially a death sentence for millions.” The upshot could be that big companies keep polluting—the aviation and shipping industries aren’t even mentioned in the agreement—while small farmers get pushed off land to preserve the forests needed to offset them.

The fundamental negotiation at the heart of the talks all along was money from the countries that got rich by damaging the climate over the years—the United States and Western Europe principally—in exchange for emission cuts from the rising giants, India and China, and peace, stability, and survival in poor and developing nations still barely benefiting from the activity that smoked the greenhouse in the first place.

That didn’t move much on paper here. The agreement doesn’t force anyone to pay more than they’re paying now, or to do it in a more efficacious way, meaning that when Republicans start screaming “Redistribution of wealth!” on Monday, they’ll have to find some other—just kidding, they’ll do that anyway.

One significant addition is a section on loss and damage, money paid to countries and people that have suffered irreparable damage from rising temperatures and seas. The catch—and it’s a big one—is that the document contains a provision preventing anyone from using the agreement to hold anyone actually liable for the damage they’ve done. The silver lining for the aggrieved is that, at the last minute, this language was moved from the loss and damage section itself to the part of the document called “Decisions To Give Effect to the Agreement,” which will be far easier to change at future summits, if anyone gets the ability to do so.

Mohamed Adow, the climate chief for Christian Aid, said that shift in location was a result of pressure the small island states put on the major powers. I asked how that was possible. He replied that it’s the only way they’d agree to the deal—and they had the moral authority to scuttle the whole thing by walking away. “Obama wanted a deal more than the Marshall Islands did.”

The fact that the 1.5-degree text got into the document at all, in fact, was lobbying from the small islands and vulnerable countries. Many are also crediting the intervention of Pope Francis, with his environmental, anti-consumerist encyclical Laudato Si’, and the huge worldwide climate protests that marked the opening of the talks—action, as Barratt put it, from outside the bubble. That may be the real legacy of Paris.

It’ll be up to the world to decide what to do with this thing. Investors will wake up Monday and show with their energy stocks whether they got the “critical message to the global marketplace” Secretary of State John Kerry said the talks were supposed to send. With crude oil prices having already fallen off a cliff, that will get interesting. Activists are planning direct action against fossil fuel companies. Some are trying to fight the fossil fuel companies with lawsuits.

In the meantime, droughts and floods will continue. Temperatures will continue to rise. People keep telling each other that history was made here tonight, and I guess in a technical sense that’s true. Glad to have been here to tell you about it. Glad to be going home.