Interestingly, Spash proposes a simple test for the agreement’s effectiveness: Did the share prices of fossil fuel companies drop after its adoption? As it happens, the Dow Jones coal index fell from 481 points in 2011 to just 12 points in January (a drop of 97.5 percent), although it has bounced all the way back up to 34 points today. The S&P’s global oil index peaked in 2014 at 2,560 points, dropping by mid-January to 1,240 points (down 52 percent). But it too is up to 1,600 points now. Whether the Paris Agreement had anything to do these trends or not, the shares of hydrocarbon companies have not been well-loved by investors of late.

Meanwhile, Lucas Bergkamp, the head of European Regulatory Practice at the international law firm Hunton and Williams, sees the Paris Agreement as a “Trojan Horse” that poses a grave threat to constitutional government. Along with his colleague Scott Stone, Bergkamp argues that the gap between the agreement’s ambitious goals and the admittedly insufficient national climate plans leaves space for UNFCCC bureaucrats, climate activists, and unaccountable judges to engage in policy laundering. This occurs when activists (and their allied bureaucrats and politicians) use treaties or other international agreements to justify imposing rules, regulations, taxes, and mandates that lack domestic political support. The rationale amounts to “The treaty (or agreement) made me do it.”

SystemChangeCop21BaileyRonald BaileyFor example, climate activists masquerading as the representatives of “civil society” might assert that international obligations under the Paris Agreement require courts to step in and order governments to perform their legal duty to protect citizens from climate change. In fact, last year a Dutch court ordered the government of the Netherlands to do exactly that by reducing the country’s greenhouse emissions by 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Unless governments are careful, Bergkamp warns that the Paris Agreement could morph into a vast bureaucratic monstrosity beholden only to climate activists and crony capitalists.

Bergkamp cites political theorist Isaiah Berlin’s definition of a totalitarian society as “one that places one goal so far above the others that anything can be sacrificed in its pursuit.” That should sound familiar: Protesters at climate demonstrations regularly feature banners with the slogan:“System change, not climate change.” In her recent book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, activist Naomi Klein does not put too fine a point on it when she declares that the climate change issue has given progressives “the most powerful argument against unfettered capitalism” ever. 

So who is right: Spash, who says the agreement doesn’t go far enough to achieve its goal, or Bergkamp, who thinks it will enable activists to impose laws on unwilling populations? As someone who’s been reporting on United Nations climate negotiations since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro where the UNFCCC was adopted, I’ve seen both the climate justice movement and the U.N. and domestic climate bureaucracies massively expand and gain influence. Global warming is a problem, but I fear that Bergkamp has a point.