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Paris accord begins the overdue process of dealing with global warming

The climate deal reached in Paris this past weekend marks a turning point in the world’s willingness to formally acknowledge what most scientists say is undeniable: The Earth is getting warmer and humans are causing it.

It’s been a long time coming, and there is serious debate over how much mankind can accomplish at this point to restrain the effects of a changing climate, but the hard-won accord approved on Saturday makes a hopeful start on achieving what we can.

The deal contains several key components that helped it succeed where previous efforts failed. One is that it includes standards for both the United States and China, the world’s leading emitters of greenhouse gases. The Copenhagen summit of 2009 failed in part because neither country was willing to commit to anything before the other did.

This time, it was different. China is choking on its own coal-fired pollution. It wanted a deal. And other nations, which were suspicious of President Obama in 2009, took notice of his actions in 2014, when he issued executive orders meant to cut emissions from coal-fired plants. “It changed the game,” the French climate change envoy, Laurence Tubiana, told the New York Times. With Obama’s elevated stature, the United States was able to take a leading role in the Paris talks.

The deal appears to be comprehensive. It covers 196 countries, committed to preventing an increase in atmospheric temperature of 2 degrees Celsius, or about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. More aggressively, they hope to keep the increase below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Scientists believe an increase of more than 2 degrees Celsius would set off a series of calamitous events, such as severe droughts in some areas and flooding in others, rising sea levels, destructive storms and food and water shortages.

Some, of course, still dispute that climate change is real or that humans play a leading role in it. Republican members of Congress are among the most skeptical, but the party wasn’t always engaged in this kind of denial.

In recently released memos from the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, those Republican presidents were shown to be engaged and concerned about environmental issues, including climate change. According to one memo from the Bush administration, global warming’s consequences will be “profound.” The United States “cannot wait” for all scientific questions to be answered before acting, it warns.

Nearly a quarter-century after Bush left the White House, the United States, and the world, finally seem ready to act. Fortunately, the accord does not require congressional approval, since it is not a treaty, but Congress can still cause trouble by refusing to fund initiatives called for in the agreement. Members who are prone to such resistance should think a little harder.

One of the main objections centers on fears that the move away from carbon fuels will be economically painful. It may be so, and in some areas more than others. But business opportunities will also flourish as the world seeks to identify cleaner power. That is already happening in Buffalo, as SolarCity prepares to open a giant solar panel plant here. Indeed, Western New York could be a big winner in this agreement.

The fact is that the world is changing, and the United States dare not be left behind. A new economy is in its developmental stages and this country, for its own well-being and that of the rest of the planet, needs to be leading the charge into a cleaner, safer future, not hiding from it. This agreement will help to do that.