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In an Old House in Paris

“In an old house in Paris
that was covered with vines
lived twelve little girls
in two straight lines”

begins the classic tale of Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans. You know, the story about the girl who is frightened by nothing – not mice, not the tiger in the zoo (to whom Madeline just said “Pooh-pooh”), and not even getting her appendix removed. I mean, who sees the bright side of an appendectomy?

There are lessons in this tale. Ten short months ago, 195 countries negotiated the Paris Climate Change Agreement to hold global temperatures within 2 degrees C of pre-industrial levels. The Agreement will now take effect, as recent signatories India and the European Union have joined the U.S., China, and others to meet the minimum of 55 countries representing 55% of world greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Each country is responsible for determining its own GHG reductions, called “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs).

What went from: “No one wants to be the first” to “We better sign on now so we don’t look bad” hasn’t been an easy transformation. But it does remind me so much of the end of Madeline. You see, Madeline got sick in the middle of the night at her boarding school. Turns out she needed to have her appendix removed, and in those days that meant 10 days in the hospital. Most kids wouldn’t want to spend 10 days in the hospital, but ol’ Madeline quickly began enjoying her view, the crank on her bed, the toys and candy from papa, and all the attention she got from her school friends when they visited. In fact, her friends saw how great Madeline had it in the hospital that they ended up wanting their appendices taken out too!

“Boohoo, we want to have our appendix out too!”

In Paris this past December, no one was sure if the will for a climate agreement was there, as committing to GHG reductions can be costly. But indeed it was. And what’s more, countries are now lining up to have their appendices removed GHGs reduced. It’s true that so far the total NDCs would not achieve the 2 degree temperature goal. It’s also true that there is no real enforcement mechanism behind the NDCs.

But what gives the agreement hope is the Madeline principle. That over time, countries start to see reducing their own GHGs not as a drag but as an opportunity. Toys and candy come in the form of protection from the worst effects of climate change and from economic stimulation. And just like Madeline, countries want – and in fact need – all the positive attention they can get from their school friends international peers and from the citizens they represent.

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