LE BOURGET, France (AP) - Nearly 200 nations adopted the first global pact to fight climate change on Saturday, calling on the world to collectively cut and then eliminate greenhouse gas pollution but imposing no sanctions on countries that don't.
The "Paris agreement" aims to keep global temperatures from rising another degree Celsius (1.8 Fahrenheit) between now and 2100, a key demand of poor countries ravaged by rising sea levels and other effects of climate change.
The Complete Run-down for This Year's Historic COP21 Conference
Loud applause erupted in the conference hall after French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius gaveled the agreement. Some delegates wept, others embraced.
"It's a victory for all of the planet and for future generations," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said, adding that the pact will "prevent the worst most devastating consequences of climate change from ever happening."
Brazilian Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira added: "Today, we've proven that it's possible for every country to come together, hand in hand, to do its part to fight climate change."
In the pact, the countries pledge to limit the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by human activity to the levels that trees, soil and oceans can absorb naturally, beginning at some point between 2050 and 2100.
In practical terms, achieving that goal means the world would have to stop emitting greenhouse gases - most of which come from the burning of oil, coal and gas for energy - altogether in the next half-century, scientists said. That's because the less we pollute, the less pollution nature absorbs.
Achieving such a reduction in emissions would involve a complete transformation of how people get energy, and many activists worry that despite the pledges, countries are not ready to make such profound, costly changes.
The deal now needs to be ratified by individual governments - at least 55 countries representing at least 55 percent of global emissions - before taking effect. It is the first pact to ask all countries to join the fight against global warming, representing a sea change in U.N. talks that previously required only wealthy nations to reduce their emissions.
"History will remember this day," U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said. "The Paris agreement on climate change is a monumental success for the planet and its people."
Speaking from Washington, President Barack Obama said the climate agreement offers "the best chance to save the one planet we have."
The deal commits countries to keeping the rise in global temperatures by the year 2100 compared with pre-industrial times "well below" 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), and says they will "endeavor to limit" them even more, to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The world has already warmed by about 1 degree Celsius since pre-industrial times.
Ben Strauss, a sea level researcher at Climate Central, said limiting warming to 1.5 degrees instead of 2 degrees could potentially cut in half the projected 280 million people whose houses will eventually be submerged by rising seas.
More than 180 countries have already presented plans to limit greenhouse gas emissions- a breakthrough in itself after years of stalemate. But those pledges are not enough to achieve the goals in the accord, meaning countries will need to cut much more to meet the goal.
"We've agreed to what we ought to be doing, but no one yet has agreed to go do it," said Dennis Clare, a negotiator for the Federated States of Micronesia. "It's a whole lot of pomp, given the circumstances."
The agreement sets a goal of getting global greenhouse gas emissions to start falling "as soon as possible"; they have been generally rising since the industrial revolution.
It says wealthy nations should continue to provide financial support for poor nations to cope with climate change and encourages other countries to pitch in on a voluntary basis. That reflects Western attempts to expand the donor base to include advanced developing countries such as China.
In a victory for small island nations, the agreement includes a section highlighting the losses they expect to incur from climate-related disasters that it's too late to adapt to. However, a footnote specifies that it "does not involve or provide any basis for any liability or compensation" - a key U.S. demand because it would let the Obama administration sign on to the deal without going through the Republican-led Senate.
The adoption of the agreement was held up for nearly two hours as the United States pressed successfully to change the wording on emissions targets from saying developed countries "shall" commit to reducing emissions to they "should." Experts said that means the deal probably won't need U.S. congressional approval.
Nicaragua said it would not support the pact. Its envoy, Paul Oquist, said the agreement does not go far enough to cut global warming and help the poor countries affected by it.
Nicaragua is one of eight participating countries that haven't submitted emissions targets, after Venezuelan envoy Claudia Salerno said her country - which had been holding out - liked the agreement and had submitted its pledge.
Thousands of protesters demonstrated across Paris, saying the accord is too weak to save the planet. People held hands beneath the Eiffel Tower and stretched a two-kilometer-long (1.2-mile-long) banner from the Arc de Triomphe to the business district La Defense.
Small island nations at risk of being wiped off the map by rising sea levels are leading the charge at COP21 for a global temperature target of just 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, said Sarah Munro, sustainability coordinator for the University of Connecticut's Office of Environmental Policy.
COP21 is the United Nation's 21st Conference of the Parties, an international meeting of experts and negotiators from more than 190 countries that have adopted the United Nations Framework on Climate Change since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.
Official negotiations began in Paris Nov. 30 with the stated ambitions of revisiting plans to maintain global temperatures at no more than 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels and to raise $1 billion toward mitigating the effects of climate change in developing countries. Negotiations are scheduled to end today, Dec. 11.
"There was a huge amount of representation of indigenous groups and groups from island states that were presenting their platform to the general public," said Munro, who attended COP21 in Paris with a group of 12 UConn students earlier this month. "They are the low-lying countries, they don't want a flood."
By the U.N.'s High Commissioner of Refugees' most conservative estimates, inhospitable weather conditions and environmental degradation resulting from climate change are expected to displace at least 250 million people by 2050.
As of Thursday morning, the Guardian reported that a "high ambition coalition" of more than 100 nations - including top greenhouse producers such as the United States, Canada and the entire EU - have come out in favor of a legally binding agreement that would lower the acceptable standard of global warming by 2020 from 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).
Notably absent is support from representatives of China and India, who have reportedly opposed stricter regulation of carbon dioxide emissions due to concerns that such limits would disproportionately impact developing economies.
The United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that global temperature increases must remain below 2 degrees Celsius to avoid the most extreme flooding, drought and wildfires. Ronald Tardiff, a seventh-semester marine science major who attended COP21 with the Office of Environmental Policy, said even this best case scenario is not enough for many low lying countries.
"There was a lot of talk about small island nations and how they're going to be entirely lost, even under the 2 degree scenario the world is working toward," Tardiff said. "When you lose these small island countries because they're going to be flooded, you're not just losing a village, you're not just losing the people that live there, but you're also losing the entire culture that might go back thousands of years, so very literally climate change would be erasing evidence of human history."
Between 1990 and 2011, the United States produced 16 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions despite constituting less than 5 percent of the world's population, according to the World Resources Institute. Individually, Americans were responsible for producing the equivalent of 19 metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2011, over four times the global average, which was roughly equivalent to the emissions of the average Brazilian or Mexican citizen.
Despite this unbalance, the BBC reported discussions surrounding "loss and damages," the question of whether or not Western polluters should be required to compensate the global south for the destructive effects of climate change, have been tense in the past. In 2013, leaders of 132 developing nations walked out of negotiations during COP19 in Warsaw, Poland when wealthier developed countries pushed discussions of compensation to 2015.
"The U.S. is fighting hard to avoid paying damages even though we are responsible, so we don't have to pay to relocate these people," Tardiff said.
In addition to being one of the world's leading producers of greenhouse gases, the United States is also one of the only nations in the world where the reality of climate change is still up for debate. Tardiff said he thinks this is due to the success of "the denial machine," fueled by conservative politicians like Texas Sen. and Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz who campaign on the idea that environmentalism is a ploy to expand big government.
"That's the kind of attitude that pretty much exclusively exist in the United States. In other countries you'll have academics who say, 'It's not going to happen that fast' or economist who say, 'It's not worth spending money on' but you don't have people saying it's not happening at all," Tardiff said. "Frankly, the matter is that countries like China that decide to a adapt and switch over to clean energy soonest are going to have the best future advantages, the U.S. is setting itself up for future failure."
Munro, who studied for a year in Germany, said she has observed a higher level of trust in science abroad, leaving many confused as to how climate change still remains a controversy in the United States.
"Even if you don't talk about the science, I think there's a general culture that's very accepting of the need to reduce pollution, the need to do things that have less of an impact on your environment," Munro said, adding that other countries may feel the effects of environmental degradation more acutely because their populations are more tightly packed.
Brianna Church, a seventh-semester environmental engineering student and an Office of Environmental Policy intern, said COP21 speakers from Libya and Uganda, which are experiencing ongoing flooding and droughts, highlighted how climate change continues to shape people's everyday lives.
"It really brought the issues a lot closer to home because, especially in the northeast where we have abundant resources, it's easy to distance ourselves from these problems," Church said.
Munro said students will continue to build on what they learned at COP21 next semester through panel discussions, blogging and art, including a photo exhibition by Church.
"Our generation is pretty united in the fact that we all agree that climate change is real, it's happening and something needs to be done," Church said. "As a group we hope to carry forth the ideas that we learned at COP21."
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) - The sea is rising. The land is sinking. Entire mid-Atlantic communities are anchored in between, bookended by certain disaster unless a way is found to turn back the tide and save the shore.
No one knows how to fix the fix we're in, as climate change and sea-level rise continue to assault our shores, although several organizations are beginning to put forth innovative suggestions for dealing with the coastal flooding that inundates barrier islands from the bayside.
Build levees and dikes. Erect bulkheads around entire towns. Construct dunes in the marshes to absorb flooding from the west. Transform low-lying areas into amphibious suburbs. Admit defeat and retreat.
"A lot of new things are starting to be considered," said Jim Rutala, a principal in Rutala Associates in Linwood who specializes in coastal work for communities in Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties. "There's a lot of interest in the back bays, and a lot of money is being spent," he told The Press of Atlantic City (http://bit.ly/21HagNx ).
Despite that, no one seems to know how many miles of bay coastline exist in New Jersey. A partial estimate comes from Jeffrey Gebert, a Hurricane Sandy planning technical expert with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Philadelphia District, who out of curiosity compared the bayfront from Manasquan Inlet to Townsends Inlet with the corresponding oceanfront. Examining those 67 miles of ocean shoreline- out of a total 127 miles -Gebert calculated a corresponding 209 miles of bay shoreline. If the same 3.1-to-1 ratio were applied to the state's entire Atlantic coast, New Jersey's baycoast would measure 394 miles long.
Perhaps the bay has been slighted in favor of the ocean because the Atlantic is what draws $38 billion in tourism money to the state. Since 2013, the Army Corps has spent $1.1 billion on coastal storm damage reduction projects such as dunes, beaches, seawalls and bulkheads, primarily along the Atlantic Ocean, in a state that leads the nation in attracting federal funding for beach replenishment. The federal agency has estimated it will spend $442 million on Ocean City's north-end beaches alone by the time its 50-year agreement with the resort expires in 2041.
The damage Sandy wrought on the backside of shore towns has helped open up the discussion to include the bay. Beginning next year, the Army Corps and the state Department of Environmental Protection will undertake a study on New Jersey's back bays, looking at nonstructural and environmental measures such as creating wetlands, said Army Corps spokesman Ed Voigt.
"The bayside is basically the Achilles' heel of New Jersey," said Michael Kennish, a research professor in the Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers University. "It's a crisis scientists are concerned about. People are more concerned about what they're going to eat two days from now."
"You're talking big-time impacts ahead for us," he said. "There's no real good solution for us at this time on the bayshore."
But there are many suggestions, all astronomically expensive.
Kennish said most experts advocate what he calls "a practical view," endorsing infrastructure improvements to stormwater drainage systems and the installation of pumping stations, along with raising roads and houses. A 1990 Environmental Protection Agency study calculated the cost of rebuilding utilities and raising structures and roads to accommodate an 8-foot sea-level rise on Long Beach Island, an 18-mile-long spit of sand in southern Ocean County, at $1.835 billion. The cost today, estimated Stewart Farrell, founder and director of the Coastal Research Center at Stockton University, would equal the total of the island's tax ratables: $14.3 billion.
Paul Dietrich, municipal engineer for Upper Township, favors a system of dunes built along the marshes behind the one-lane Cape May County town of Strathmere and into Sea Isle City. The dunes would provide protection to properties along the edges of marshes by absorbing floodwaters and would create nesting habitat for birds, he said.
The cost of construction probably would be comparable to that of building beaches and berms; a 9-mile project from Ocean City through Sea Isle was recently completed for $57.6 million. Such a plan would destroy some wetlands, and the cost to create wetlands elsewhere to amend for that destruction would be prohibitive, Dietrich said. Plus, as beach and dune construction last on average three to five years, there would be a continual cost for replenishment projects.
Bulkheads, designed primarily to hold back dirt, are not the best option to keep water out, as they seep at the joints and are unsightly, several experts said. Made of vinyl, composite (fiberglass-reinforced plastic) or steel, bulkheads will endure 40 or more years, said David Southard, senior estimator and project manager for Walters Marine Construction in Dennis Township.
Using the least expensive material at $1,500 per linear foot to enclose the 2.08 million feet of bayside coast would cost $3.12 billion. At $2,500 per linear foot, it would cost $5.2 billion. One group estimated in 2014 that it would cost $36 million to bulkhead the Chelsea Heights section of Atlantic City alone.
Although the cost of mitigation is high, proponents argue the financial losses to affected regions would be greater. Atlantic and Cape May counties would lose a combined $65.55 billion in tax ratables if municipalities with bay or ocean exposure were abandoned. The state's Blue Acres program, which buys out flooded properties, has targeted lower-revenue areas such as Lawrence and Downe townships in Cumberland County.
Still, retreat must be considered an option, Kennish and Rutala said.
"In some cases, the benefits don't outweigh the costs," Rutala said, citing Strathmere as "an area that is always targeted for retreat. Lack of a sewer system in the town is an example of how "the state is not investing in infrastructure there" and that "a slow transition is taking place," he said.