195 Nations Reach Groundbreaking Climate Change Agreement

December 12 marked an historic day for global and environmental health: the 195 countries attending the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) climate change summit in Paris reached a landmark agreement that commits them to lowering greenhouse gas emissions in an attempt to halt the most extreme effects of climate change. The deal, which is legally binding and was agreed upon by nearly every country in the world, requires that all participating counties take some form of action against climate change. Also noteworthy is that the pact applies the same requirements to all counties, including developing ones such as China and India, which have historically been exempt from such agreements.

The agreement puts the world on the path toward preventing the global temperature from rising by more than 2 degrees Celsius above the average pre-Industrial Revolution temperature. That number is the threshold at which most scientists agree the effects of climate change would significantly alter the planet and lead to devastating consequences for the world’s population. The planet is currently on course to hit that mark by mid-century. The Paris agreement as it stands now will not prevent warming from reaching that mark but it helps to lay a course for reaching such an achievement in the future.

Prior to the summit, all countries were asked to develop voluntary pledges detailing how they would aid the global fight against climate change; 186 nations submitted plans to the United Nations, the United States included. The plans vary widely in their scope; some pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions, while others will preserve forest cover or use more clean energy. Countries will then increase the stringency of their climate change policies over time. The Paris agreement does not hold participants to a metric-based timeline but instead operates as a system of global peer-pressure. Participating countries will be required to reconvene every five years beginning in 2020 to present updated plans with stricter measures; they also must reconvene every five years beginning in 2023 to publicly report on their progress, under a universal monitoring and accountability system.

Much of the United States’ efforts toward combating change will stem from the Clean Power Plan, which establishes national standards to reduce carbon emissions from power plants by 32% from 2005 levels by 2030. The Environmental Protection Agency says that reducing carbon emissions will have significant health benefits, and estimates that the Clean Power Plan will prevent 3,600 premature deaths, 90,000 asthma attacks, and 300,000 days of missed work and school. The Clean Power Plan is currently facing legal challenges from more than 25 states and countless industry groups who variously have claimed the plan is “unconstitutional” and an “attack on industry and economic livelihood.” NACCHO supports the Clean Power Plan as a way to protect the public from the negative health effects of climate change.

Efforts such as the Paris agreement and the Clean Power Plan will help local health departments more effectively protect the health of their communities. Climate change is responsible for a host of health problems, including asthma, heart disease, malnutrition, increased spread of infectious diseases, and mental health issues. Local health departments should continue to educate their communities on what climate change is and how it affects human health, as well as the importance of mitigation efforts, at both the local and global level.

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About Katie Regan

Katie Regan serves as the Communications Specialist for Environmental Health, Pandemic Preparedness, and Catastrophic Response at NACCHO. Her work includes promoting local health departments' best practices through NACCHO's various storytelling and communications channels. Twitter: @katiejregan

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