Paris Climate Deal is a COP(21) Out
James Hansen’s Crystal Ball
James Hansen offered a prescient warning about the outcome of COP21 when he wrote, “Watch what happens in Paris carefully to see if all the leaders do is sign off on the pap the UN bureaucrats are putting together, indulgences and promises to reduce future emissions, and then clap each other on the back and declare success.” Unfortunately his premonition came true. And when I learned that the final agreement was signed, and observed world leaders and even some environmental groups cheering like we just destroyed the Death Star, I reached out to my friend Joe Solomon who was with me in Paris to ask him if I was missing something, or, worse yet, crazy.
Luckily Joe confirmed my sanity, but in this confirmation he also acknowledged the truth about the Paris Climate Deal – that it’s nothing more than a COP(21) Out, littered with “ambitions” that are largely suppressed by legalese and bereft of enforceable, legally binding emission reduction strategies. Furthermore, the agreement does not even kick in until 2020, allowing major greenhouse gas emitters to do as they please for four more years, time we do not have. Because when it comes to addressing climate change, with respect to the variable of time, we are already dangerously in debt. There are certainly elements of the deal that warrant enthusiasm, but it’s the missing elements that really define a deal that can only be described as anemic.
The other thing that is really important for people to understand is the difference between two seemingly small, one syllable words that actually are among the most defining words of the whole agreement: “should” and “shall.” Should connoting and idea of, “maybe” or “perhaps,” and shall connoting, “must,” “will” or legally binding. To put this into perspective, the word “should” appears 40 times throughout the text of the agreement as compared to the words “women” and “indigenous,” which appear only twice and five times respectively. The word “shall” does appear 143 times, but nowhere as it pertains to the reduction of fossil fuel emissions or addressing some of the main contributors to climate killing emissions such as runaway free trade agreements like NAFTA and TPP.
That’s troubling enough, but even more so is the fact that the word “should” almost always precedes the words “women” and “indigenous.” For example, the preamble of the agreement reads, ” Parties should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights, the right to health, the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and the right to development, as well as gender equality, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity.” This sentence alone defines the agreement in a nutshell – a perfunctory enterprise that fails to adequately and legally address the environmental and social atrocity experienced by women, indigenous people and people of color worldwide. For it is these groups, especially those from island and coastal nations, who stand to lose the most, who have already lost the most and who this deal ultimately let down.
Reactions Back in The USA
Meanwhile back home in the United States, President Obama followed the script James Hansen warned to a T announcing that, “We met the moment,” and called the deal, “tribute to American leadership.” But some of his final words were what drove me over the edge, reminiscent of when the Yankees blew a three game lead over the Red Sox in 2004, “Today we can be more confident that this planet is going to be in better shape for the next generation.”
Really Mr. President. How can you even think about saying this when your political party is in the process of making
a deal that would lift a ban on exporting crude oil that would increase emissions to the tune of 108 million cars annually and create a crude cycle of events that consolidate Big Oil’s power and eviscerate any possibility of passing climate policy ?
How can you say this when Big Oil receives subsidies of $21 Billion annually? How can you say this when frontline communities of color are still treated as ineffable entities while they disproportionately suffer from cardiovascular diseases, cancer due to environmental racism and displacement via environmental gentrification? What future are you talking about and who do you really think will benefit from it without a massive shift from how we deal with the challenge of climate change and the industry most responsible for exacerbating it? I would recommend that you take a look at Senator Sanders’ new Climate Protection and Justice Act to see an example of the steps it will take to actually address climate change from the perspectives of emissions and justice.
A Tale of Two Geographies
My experience at COP21 showed me that the whole thing was based on disparate geographies. There was the Global North vs. The Global South and there was what happened inside vs. what happened outside, in the streets, cafes and meeting spaces in Paris proper. Inside the COP (specifically the restricted “Blue Zone” area) there was lots of “Big Talk,” while outside there was where the “Big Plans” were happening. Because it was outside where there was an actual exchange of ideas between global frontline communities, actions that garnered world attention to what must actually be done to avert global catastrophe and it’s where the real alliances were forged.
My friend Bill McKibben exemplified this time and time again such as when he led a trial against ExxonMobil for lying to the world about climate change that brought a global coalition of witnesses together from Nigeria, Finland, the South Pacific and New Orleans, and when he took time to address the HBCU delegation and highlight the importance of their presence and leadership at COP21.
Outside the COP is where we saw alliances formed with the Indigenous Environmental Network, other U.S. Environmental Justice groups and Via Campesina who marched in solidarity with climate migrants who have been forced to flee their countries. These are the groups and people who understand what was at stake in Paris and how global leaders largely failed us.
Danny Chivers and Jess Worth from New Internationalist Magazine offered one of the best analyses of the climate deal, because they compared it to a four point “People’s Test”:
1. Catalyze immediate, urgent and drastic emission reductions;
2. Provide adequate support for transformation;
3. Deliver justice for impacted people; and
4. Focus on genuine, effective action rather than false solutions.
On all these fronts, Danny and Jess state the COP agreement fails because, “Scored in this way, the Paris Agreement is a disaster for the world’s most vulnerable people. The headline target of 1.5 degrees and eventual decarbonization look good on paper but there’s no sign that governments are willing to make them a reality yet. Paris could mark the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel industry, but much more needs to change before that becomes a reality.”
Post Paris People’s Movement
And so what does this mean moving forward? I believe it means more organizing, more direct action, more defiance and embracing the idea that climate change is an interrelated network of oppressive systems. It’s caused by a synthesis of human activities including emissions, and catalyzed by past and present human policies that continue to subjugate, objectify and increase vulnerabilities. Policies and systems like these cannot be vanquished by environmentalists, but by abolitionists.
Another new friend of mine, Wen Stephenson, in his latest book What We Are Fighting For Now Is Each Other compounds this point in a chapter called, “The New Abolitionists.” In it he states, “And so I want to say a word for the radical – and for the kind of radical movement that has made possible, politically and socially, things that were previously unthinkable. The kind of movement that responds to a situation that is itself radical – radically threatening, radically unjust – in which people are forced to decide who they really are, and what their conscience requires of them, and what they must do.”
Similar to Wen’s book I see this agreement as a call to arms, a call to the new abolitionists to do what is necessary to survive. We have license to do this, especially in the United States where we celebrate a document every year that reads, in part,”When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
The same document goes on to say, “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
The course of human events and the long train of abuses etc… is climate change, and we have every right to declare the causes which impel us to separate from global catastrophe caused by climate disruption. We also have a responsibility to make sure this happens as quickly and decisively as possible.
So while I am measurably content about the agreement, I am not ready to dance a jig. And for those who do see this as a time to celebrate, I would recommend holding on to your champagne until New Years Eve.