Taking Action: Connecticut Trustee Dan Esty on COP 21

The Nature Conservancy; December 8, 2015

What happens at this month’s United Nations Climate Conference (COP21) in Paris will be a significant step in determining the future direction for international climate action. There was little way Dan Esty, a trustee of The Nature Conservancy in Connecticut who’s been working on climate change issues for decades, was going to miss it.

Esty is the Hillhouse Professor of Environmental Law and Policy at Yale University’s School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, and he’s Clinical Professor of Environmental Law and Policy, Yale Law School. He also was a negotiator at The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992. He’s attending COP 21 as part of the Yale Climate Change Dialogue.


How important is COP 21 for addressing climate change?

Dan Esty:

I think this gathering in Paris represents the most significant opportunity for escalating and elevating the global response to the challenge of greenhouse gases that we’ve had in two decades, and I think failure in Paris would be a huge setback and would lead many to conclude that the global community just can’t get its act together on climate change.

I believe this is absolutely a make or break moment for all of us who care about protecting the planet from not just global warming but the potential for rising sea levels, increased intensity of hurricanes and other windstorms and the other risks we might face if climate change is allowed to unfold.


What are the potential outcomes on which you’re most focused?

Dan Esty:

In particular, we (at the Yale Climate Change Dialogue) have been pushing for a move away from the top-down approach of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change toward a more bottom-up strategy for engaging not just national governments, but also cities and states, the corporate sector and the NGO (nongovernmental) arena.

It turns out that national governments and presidents and prime ministers have, in many circumstances, very limited options for shaping our carbon footprint. Mayors, governors, CEOs and NGO leaders are often much better positioned in terms of their day-to-day decision making to move society toward the kinds of actions we need to take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve the resilience of our communities in the face of potential climate change.

Additionally, we’ve been arguing for a new approach to climate change finance. This approach recognizes the limitations of public resources and pushes for this limited public money to leverage private capital to better support the scale-up of resources going into projects that will provide greater energy efficiency, renewable power, resilience for our communities and many other activities.

Finally, we’ve got a team that’s been working on the issues of commitments and metrics.

I’m a big believer that, since the Framework Convention was launched in 1992, we’ve seen a flowering of information technologies that can be brought to bear on the issue of climate change.
I’m pushing for a structure of metrics and a platform where national governments, and also cities, states, companies and others, can make commitments -- their own individually determined commitments to bringing down greenhouse gases -- and these commitments can be registered and tracked over time. This would allow us to figure out best practices, highlight the leaders and perhaps put pressure on some of the laggards.


You’ve watched from Connecticut as these talks got underway. Did anything surprise you?

Dan Esty:

I think we’re seeing the broadening of commitment in just the way I had hoped we might. In particular, it’s quite clear there are a lot of initiatives being launched by entities above and beyond national governments.

I was very excited by the solar initiative that President Hollande of France and Prime Minister Modi of India are putting together and leading, which has engaged more than 100 countries in trying to expand access to solar power generation, particularly in the tropics.

I think this represents the kind of fresh thinking and new approach to funding that is really very promising, and I think they’re to be saluted for leading an effort that includes not just governments but other parties, as well.

In addition, I was very pleased to see the announcement of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, which Bill Gates is leading, but includes Ray Dalio from Connecticut. They’re committing big money to try to produce innovation in clean energy along many possible technology lines.


Can nonprofit organizations like The Nature Conservancy have significant positive impact in Paris?

Dan Esty:

I think NGOs play a critical role by identifying problems that need to be given attention by the government negotiators and also highlighting solutions and initiatives that are bringing progress around the world.

The presence of NGOs at the conference also keeps the heat on the negotiators and makes them realize that there really is a world out there looking for results. I think, absent that pressure from NGO groups, there might be some slackening of focus among the official government negotiators.


Are you optimistic about COP 21?

Dan Esty:

I am looking forward with a degree of optimism to what I hope will be an important turning point in the world community’s response to climate change.

In part, this is because some of the issues that caused problems in prior negotiations have been addressed. China is now committed to taking action. I also think the United States is ready to come forward with a robust strategy, and President Obama is showing real leadership. Historically, international environmental efforts have had a hard time advancing without the United States not only participating but also playing a leadership role.

I would add that the Paris outcome will include—but not be limited to—what the official negotiators come up with as the Paris 2015 climate change agreement. I think we are going to need to recognize that success cannot be gauged just by what’s in the official agreements.

Source: Cross-posted from The Nature Conservancy