The amount of media inattention in the developed world for yesterday’s signing of the Paris Accord, the COP21 climate change agreement, is staggering. In the United States, people only diverted their attention from the Republican clown show long enough to mourn Prince’s passing, then got on with their day.

Search for reportage on the event using any combination of keywords, and you’ll find that the top-ranking Google result for the event derives from web goliath Dig a little deeper, and yes, the links are there.

Most of the major news organisations have dutifully covered the event, but where oh where is the sense of importance, of urgency that is needed to tackle climate change?

Pacific island nations appear to be doomed to act as the canary in the coalmine. Our fate may not raise huge concern in countries thousands of miles—and billions of dollars—away from us.

But consider that metaphor more closely: Canaries were kept in mine shafts as simple way of determining air quality.

If poison gas levels rose too high, the canary would succumb before the miners, so they’d have time to exit the mine.

But this particular mine has no exit. The only benefit the canary buys the developed world in this scenario is time to consider the error of their ways.

We’re not utterly alone in this. The COP21 agreement is a rather ingenious end-run around the intransigence of certain political and economic actors.

The United States did a neat thing when they led the drive for a mostly voluntary regime.

The structure of the actual treaty bits is such that even a Congress heavily invested in representing Big Oil’s interests would be hard put to block progress.

The second section of the agreement, where the proverbial rubber meets the road, consists of a number of opt-in measures in which countries agree to set their own targets and to monitor themselves, reporting to the rest of the world how they’re doing. In a striking—and all too rare—example of global conscience, a large number of signatories have in fact committed themselves to more than the minimum, and many have committed themselves to acting sooner than required.

It’s swings and roundabouts, of course. Canada has taken a very progressive stance on climate, but environment minister Catherine McKenna was unable to offer specific information about when the country’s emissions would actually begin to decline.

Prime minister Justin Trudeau has consistently taken a nuanced—and some say non-committal—stance vis a vis the country’s resource-driven economy.

The US Supreme Court is holding up progress on Barack Obama’s climate plan, and the country has been less than supportive of other countries’ efforts. India and the United States are currently locked in a trade dispute arising from India’s recent efforts to bootstrap its domestic solar energy capacity.

In the UK, the government has told the BBC it is ‘absolutely committed’ to COP21, but critics are saying the agreement isn’t nearly sufficient on its own.

In a joint letter sent to the UK’s Independent newspaper, leading climate experts said that the agreement offers ‘false hope’.

One scientist said: “The Paris Agreement’s heart was in the right place but the content is worse than inept. It was a real triumph for international diplomacy and sends a strong message that the sceptics have lost their case and that the science is correct on climate change. The rest is little more than fluff and risks locking in failure….”

Not everyone is despairing. We need to remember that the genius of the Paris Accord was the power of moral suasion to induce countries to act above and beyond the call.

There is cause for guarded optimism when we see the moral lever being pulled by some very able negotiators. Baroness Scotland, newly elected Commonwealth secretary general, is one such. She has made a career out of negotiating for social and economic justice issues, and is a Caribbean islander by birth. Small island states represent about a third of the Commonwealth member countries, so she promises to be a credible and notable advocate on our behalf.

In an exclusive interview with Buzz FM96 yesterday, she stated that one useful approach would be to use debt forgiveness in exchange for action on climate change. It’s not entirely clear how Vanuatu would benefit from such a strategy, because most of our debt right now is privately held, consisting largely of loans to build roads, wharves and the like.

But the Baroness made it clear that the there are significant sources of funding for climate mitigation coming online, and she intends to use her organisation’s capacity and clout to ensure that small island states get access to these funds.

Where there’s life, there’s hope, and we haven’t nearly begun to give up on either yet. The climate change fight is one that will last throughout our lifetime, and that of generations to come.

And Happy belated Earth Day, by the way.

Dan McGarry

Media Director

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