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4 Pieces You Should Read About The Global Climate Deal

Costumed activists demonstrate near the Eiffel Tower, in Paris, on Saturday during the the United Nations Climate Change Conference.
Matt Dunham
Costumed activists demonstrate near the Eiffel Tower, in Paris, on Saturday during the the United Nations Climate Change Conference.

A day after representatives from 196 partiessigned an agreement that aims to curb climate change, it's time to start assessing its import.

Yesterday, Camila broke down the basics. Today, we've rounded up four pieces that help you understand the deal — and the politics around it — more deeply:

-- U.S. negotiators led the charge to keep some parts of the agreement from being legally binding. As The Guardian reports, the Obama administration wanted to do that to keep Congress — and specifically Republican lawmakers — from having to approve the deal. Here's The Guardian:

"Under US insistence, the 31-page agreement was explicitly crafted to exclude emissions reductions targets and finance from the legally binding parts of the deal. Other areas of the deal, including five-year review cycles, do carry legal force. That would free Obama from having to submit the deal to Congress.

"The other exclusion zone was any clause in the agreement that would expose the US to liability and compensation claims for causing climate change.

"The US – and European – position was a huge disappointment for the low-lying and small island states, which argued they needed recognition that their countries could pay the ultimate price for climate change in terms of land loss and migration."

You may be wondering what parts of the deal, then, are legally binding. As The New York Times explains it, countries will be legally required to set goals to reduce carbon emissions, meet every five years beginning in 2023 and "to monitor and report on their emissions levels and reductions, using a universal accounting system."

-- The Economist says more than anything,the agreement marks "an unprecedented political recognition of the risks of climate change." The magazine continues:

"Indeed, that is the lens through which to view its rather impractical-looking interest in the 1.5°C limit. It served to underline the urgency that more vulnerable nations feel about the issue, and to raise the stakes, even if, in practice, it will do little to increase the level of action in the near term. Delegates from low-lying islands threatened with flooding from rising sea levels could not travel home having signed a suicide pact. As the foreign minister of the Marshall Islands, Tony de Brum, noted: 'Our chance for survival is not lost.'

"And yoked to the political progress is an economic transition. Perhaps the most significant effect of the Paris agreement in the next few years will be the signal it sends to investors: the united governments of the world say that the age of fossil fuels has started drawing to a close. That does not mean that they are necessarily right, nor that the closing will not be much more drawn out than the Marshall Islands and other such states would wish. But after Paris, the belief that governments are going to stay the course on their stated green strategies will feel a bit better founded—and the idea of investing in a coal mine will seem more risky."

-- ABC News focuses on China, which was blamed for "obstructing the last high-level climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009." This time,China joined the international community, ABC News explains, because pollution has become a huge concern domestically. ABC adds:

"China pushed for a deal because of its own problems and because the effects of climate change are becoming clearer each year, said Dr. Jiang Kejun, senior researcher at the Energy Research Institute under the National Development and Reform Commission, China's top economic planning agency.

"The message on climate change "is very clear — we must do something — and in the meantime the domestic policymaking process is getting more environment-oriented," Jiang said. The air pollution in Beijing is putting pressure on policymakers and China is moving toward a low-carbon economy anyway, he said."

The BBC hassome of the details of the last-minute drama and the mythology that has already built up around it. The biggest hurdle was that the United States was insisting that the word "shall" be softened to the word "should" in Article 4 of the agreement. That word, Politico reports, would have been a deal breaker for President Obama, because it would have made carbon reductions legally binding.

Eventually that was fixed, but more drama ensued. The BBC reports:

"The UN is asking it to do too much, Turkey complains. The French conference chairman Lauren Fabius promises to hear its plea later.

"Then Nicaragua will not sign up. It says there is a total mismatch between what the document says is needed to protect the climate, and what it proposes to do about it. This is true and others nations feel the same. But they are not willing to ruin the deal to make the point.

"How was this hurdle overcome? Well, it is rumoured that the Pope had to phone the president of Nicaragua to make a personal plea. An even more outlandish rumour suggests UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had to promise to visit Nicaragua on 26 December to celebrate Christmas.

"Whatever the truth of these rumours, this extraordinary deal was eventually done."

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Corrected: February 27, 2018 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous version of this story said 196 nations agreed to the Paris accord. In fact, the 196 parties included the European Union, which is not a nation.
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.