I have to confess a certain reluctance in sharing my views about the Paris climate talks, knowing as I do that it’s all too easy to judge from a distance while so many wonderful, dedicated colleagues are in Paris trying to ensure that some kind of meaningful, tangible progress is achieved at COP21. And, after all, the talks have only just begun.
That said, a few things already seem pretty likely:
- There will be some kind of agreement reached, if only because negotiators are determined not to repeat the disaster of COP15 in Copenhagen.
- The agreement will be insufficient to limit warming to at or below 2° Celsius, the goal established six years ago. Left alone, the pledges submitted by countries to date will have us overshoot that mark by nearly 1°C or more. Therefore, the Paris agreement will be spun—in the words of Christiana Figueres (Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change)—as “the start of a long journey.” Even though the UNFCCC journey started fully 21 years ago.
- To square the gap between what’s pledged and what’s needed, we’ll likely hear increasing talk about “negative emissions” technologies, despite the fact that these technologies remain theoretical, unproven, or questionable at scale. It reminds me a little of that famous “then a miracle occurs” cartoon.
- A major sticking point to getting all countries to sign onto any agreement is the question of historical responsibility and the concern of poorer nations that climate mitigation not hamper their continued “development.” China’s President, Xi Jinping,said in a speech on the first day of the Paris talks that “addressing climate change should not deny the legitimate needs of developing countries to reduce poverty and improve living standards.”
- Another key question is whether the Paris agreement will be legally binding. In this, countries’ preferences may come down to their political realities at home. It’s kind of hard for President Obama to commit to a legally binding agreement (which would require ratification) when he’s busy trying to fend off Congressional attempts to undo his Clean Power Plan and block US contributions to the United Nations Green Climate Fund.
So at the end of this historic meeting we may well wind up with a nonbinding agreement that badly overshoots the 2°C target, doesn’t go into effect until 2020, ends ten years later, and counts on unproven technologies and unspecified promises of financial aid to countries most at risk. It’s hard to square that with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s opening admonition: “We cannot afford indecision, half measures or merely gradual approaches. Our goal must be a transformation.”
Despite all this, I happen to agree with those that believe an agreement in Paris is absolutely critical, even if it is woefully, dangerously insufficient – especially if that agreement has transparency provisions and legally-binding periodic reviews, which President Obama champions. It’s much easier to build momentum when you’re already moving forward, however slowly and haltingly.
It’s only day 3 of the meetings, but I’ve already come to one conclusion: As a society, we’re still stuck in the bargaining phase of Kübler-Ross’s Stages of Grief.
Yes, there’s actual bargaining taking place between climate negotiators at COP21. But I’m talking about a larger, more systemic bargaining that’s occurring: Our attempts to respond to the existential threat of climate change while holding desperately to our extractive, growth-and-consumption-based way of life. But as PCI Fellow Bill McKibben likes to say, “Physics and chemistry don’t bargain.”
It’s not only world leaders who are trying to mitigate the climate crisis while maintaining “business as usual.” Too many environmentalists are engaged in their own version of bargaining—placing their faith in the assertion that all our energy needs can be met affordably from wind, solar, and water technologies by 2050. Now, I would agree with this claim if we thought long and hard about what we mean by the word “needs.” But the (sometimes spoken but more often unspoken) expectation is that we won’t “need” to significantly change how we live.
The rationale, of course, is that “our way of life” is currently non-negotiable and so we must operate within the political realities of the day if we’re to have any hope of making some kind of climate progress. And that’s true to a point. In fact, it’s precisely what’s led to the kind of agreement we’re likely to get out of Paris—incremental, insufficient, with lots of prayers and promises that technology will save the day.
Ultimately, we have no choice but to move from the bargaining stage of grief to that of acceptance. The choice we dohave is what grief we’ll have to accept – the end of the American-style “way of life” or the end of humanity altogether.
This is where I’m focusing my efforts. It’s also where the U.S. climate movement can step forward yet again because, frankly, there doesn’t seem to be anyone else capable of doing it.
A couple of years ago, Rob Hopkins (founder of the Transition Network) and I argued in a co-authored white paper that the climate movement should embrace post-growth economics and invest some of their time, energy, and capital to building community resilience. We argued then, and still do, that local efforts to dramatically reduce energy consumption and produce sustainable energy and food are vital strategies to stabilize the climate. Not only do they help individuals and communities mitigate and adapt to climate change, they offer a compelling alternative to the American way of life that is setting us on a crash course with the real limits of nature.
Thankfully, I see five things that the climate movement has in its favor:
- Renewable energy costs are down and market penetration is up, while fossil fuel companies—thanks to low prices and increasing marginal costs—are hurting. Alternatives seem possible.
- Recognition of the climate threat has gained broad acceptance (the laughable views of recalcitrant deniers notwithstanding) and is finally reaching the point of international policy, however insufficient.
- Since Copenhagen six years ago, the climate movement has actually become that in more than name—an international movement that’s fairly well organized, is embracing direct action, and can be quickly mobilized.
- There is a growing awareness of links between the fossil fuel system/climate change and social justice, humanitarian crises, human health, and other planetary boundary issues. The climate crisis is a systems crisis.
- We have entered an era of new economic, energy, and climate “normals.” The benefits of economic growth and consumerism are being felt by fewer and fewer Americans. People are increasingly looking for an alternative.
In the six years between the failure at Copenhagen and the likely marginal victory at Paris, the climate movement has made great progress. But as we literally and figuratively leave Paris and return home, the hard but important and rewarding work really begins.