Idaho doesn’t have an official representative at the Paris climate talks, but Sandpoint’s Gary Payton is there, representing the Presbyterian Church and the Idaho Conservation League.
Payton who spent 24 years as an officer in the U.S. Air Force specializing in eastern Europe and Russia, has spent the second half of his life dedicated to peace, service and protecting the environment in Idaho and the globe. He paid his own way to join the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, along with 151 heads of state; national negotiators; and leaders of global faith communities, environmental organizations and businesses. The Paris talks continue until Dec. 11.
The talks aim to craft an international agreement to keep global warming from rising by more than 2 degrees Celsius, the point where a consensus of scientist say oceans will rise to levels that will cover island nations, snowpacks in mountains will melt and large portions of the world will become uninhabitable.
For this goal to be reached, developed nations will need to move away from economies based on fossil fuels and developing nations will have to leapfrog past coal and oil to build their new economies on low-carbon energy. It’s a tall order, but for Payton it’s a responsibility that comes from his patriotism, his faith and his love of grandchildren Alec and Tessa.
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“The science is in. There are no ambiguities of the nature or causes of climate change,” he said by telephone from Paris. “We as Americans have the responsibility to deal with climate and energy issues in our midst and to assist those in the world least able to address them.”
Payton was the 2015 recipient of the Keith and Pat Axline Award for Environmental Activism, the Idaho Conservation League’s highest award. He has worked hard opposing new coal terminals in Washington state that would make it possible to ship coal from Montana and Wyoming to China and India.
For him, the coal trains are not simply a global issue, but one of safety and health for North Idaho, through which 1.5-mile-long trains full of coal would travel. He also has pushed ICL to get involved in renewable energy issues in southern Idaho, said Rick Johnson, its executive director.
Payton is bucking Idaho’s political establishment. Gov. Butch Otter has favored renewable energy development but he, along with the entire Idaho congressional delegation, opposed President Obama’s new rules to reduce carbon emissions from electric power plants by 30 percent.
To make sure the world knew Republicans opposed Obama’s efforts, the House passed two bills aimed at stopping the rules from being enforced on the day Obama addressed the Paris talks, which Payton watched.
“The existing power plant rule would effectively put into place a cap-and-trade system, even though many economists agree that such a system is not the most effective way to reduce the impacts of climate change,” Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson said in a press release. “Without global participation in such a program, including heavy polluters in growing economies like India and China, U.S. industries will be unable to compete on the world stage and American jobs will be forced overseas.”
But that debate is what the Paris climate talks are all about.
While Payton was in Paris, the French ambassador to the United States was in Boise and Nampa Wednesday to support the French food companies that have invested more than $335 million in Canyon County. Gerard Araud also visited Micron Technology, hoping to get the Boise company to invest in France.
In an interview at Micron, Araud told me the Paris talks are not going to solve the climate change issue. Instead, he said, they can be the place where the world begins the many-decades effort to bend the curve on carbon emissions.
“Paris would be the first time when all of us are on board,” Araud said.
That’s not just nations, he said. Cities, non-governmental organizations and businesses also must put in place the technology that will eliminate carbon while driving development.
“Paris is a success if everybody is serious about global warming,” Araud said.
Payton is already serious. For him, the climate talks are not about this year’s election or even his own lifetime.
“My prayer is for today’s negotiators, that they never lose sight of the impact of climate change on tomorrow’s living beings,” he said.