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A friend called the day after the late-night conclusion of the Conference of the Parties 21 (COP 21), the much-heralded United Nations climate summit in Paris last month. He knew that Jane Lapiner and I had participated in the UN event and he wanted to share with us his pleasure at the acceptance of the Paris Agreement by 195 nations. He was very happy and thought we would be, too. “HappY”is not exactly what I was feeling at the time. Nor was Jane. Neither of us were exactly unhappy, either, at the outcome of the long process that culminated on the evening of the 12th of December.
It was not, in fact, until our friend called, filled with enthusiasm for the vaunted Paris outcome, that I realized that what I really was at the conclusion of COP 21 was scared. Still scared. The same fear that had eaten at us leaving COP 19 in Warsaw in 2013 and again leaving COP 20 in Lima in 2014 gnawed once again.
With some significant variants, COP 21 held truer to UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) form than we had hoped: hammer out a modest agreement favorable to the richest countries and their economic interests, provide sufficient inducements or threats to convince the poorer nations to go along, call it an incomparable victory, chortle about it before the world press and then go home. Go home, that is, if you’re home is still standing and unflooded.
That’s where the fear comes in. It comes from the recognition eating at the edge of our awareness that there are deep vulnerabilities that once again could have been more adequately addressed in the process but were not. Some of the original fear had to do with the fact that earlier in the weeks before both COP19 and 20 huge typhoons had wreaked havoc on the Philippines and other parts of Southeast Asia. One, Super Typhoon Haiyan, in November 2013, was savage on an historic level. It killed 6000 people and rendered a million more homeless in a few hours. A map of the world’s weather just after COP21 itself looked like a crowded dart board where every one of the numerous darts represented either a massive flood or a famine-threatening drought
We’ve lived on the north coast of California for 45 years, long enough to know that great storms are not unusual here either. Storms that form far to the northwest in the Gulf of Alaska strike land here first on their easterly track. They strike with unabated, ocean-bred ferocity, their strength often driving them across the entire continent. Add a little more intensity from a warmer ocean or steeper pressure gradients and the enhanced wind and rainfall will start our watersheds unraveling. Waiting for us at home though, after COP 20 last year was not stormy weather but instead the early stages of what was to prove an intense drought in California. Drought or deluge! Our new climate reality?
But in Paris there was little concern about recent weather. We had just witnessed an expression of out-and-out jubilation that took place in the 1500 seat plenary room late in the evening of the 12th of December. It was infectious. The celebration was for the completion of the long, tough deliberations between representatives of the 195 nations or ‘parties’ gathered in the suburban Le Bourget convention center. It was an attempt to forge an agreement that could help modify human-induced climate change and thus, it was hoped, change the course of the future for human beings and their civilizations. Important stuff!
Many people in the huge room had actually shed tears of joy and relief that closing night. Humankind had just taken real steps, it seems, to dodge the bullet and avoid a grim fate. We seemed to have a chance. The leaders of the COP basked in the warmth of the seemingly endless ovation and sought to be magnanimous in their acknowledgements, through smiles and hand gestures, of their debt to the whole crew.
Even in the press room, hardened reporters from many nations who were gathered around the scores of big TV monitors let out hoots of delight and applauded loudly for Laurent Fabius, a decorous man who is long time Secretary of State for France and served as President of COP 21. Fabius first gave in without discussion to last-minute US demands, clearly driven by a desire not to be encumbered legally, for two substitutions in the agreement text in which the imperative “shall” became the conditional “should”. (How different human history since Moses might have been had God decreed it to be written that “Thou should’t kill?) Minister Fabius then pounded his desk with what looked to be a rather flimsy gavel given the weight of the occasion, and declared the deal done. The Paris Agreement had been confirmed by Ministers from 195 nations. And the self-congratulations began in earnest.
There followed that night another two to three hours of brief speeches, most by Ministers or higher ranking representatives of most of the 195 nations but a few at the very end were representatives of civil society. Almost all joined with greater or lesser fervor the unrelenting din of praise though a few voiced concerns in moderation. It wasn’t until almost the last speech that an alternative view of the event first emerged in earnest in the great plenary room. A girl from India named Aneessa, no more than 18 years old, passionately represented the Climate Justice perspective.
The lack of ambition in this room is palpable. You did not “achieve” anything. All you achieved was silencing the voices who stood in your path, and allowing power to run its course. You achieved business as usual.
Still, the celebrative spirit prevailed. By the time the quibblers, the unimpressed and the overtly critical (Can one ever forget ‘the niggling nabobs of negativity”?) started to creep out of the broom closets where the coerciveness of such blatant satisfaction had momentarily stuffed them, the world press had already weighed in. It, too, at first, pretty much followed the celebrative party line but with fairly strong caveats. Justin Gillis in an analysis for the New York Times (12/12/15) managed to communicate the ambiguity surrounding the COP even in its so-called victory. “The Agreement itself,” he wrote, “will not save the planet.” But, he went on, “ the political system of the world is finally responding in a way that scientists see as commensurate with the scale of the threat.” In an effort at resolving ambiguity if nothing else, one is forced to ask, had we really dodged the end of the world?
What the Math Tells Us
Not hardly. Celebrate as you will, the math said that given the total of the voluntary emissions reductions and financial commitments (INDC’s – Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) of each of the Parties (Nations), world average temperatures were likely to increase to a peak of over 3 degrees C warmer than when they started their fated rise early in the industrial revolution. Since less than one degree C has already created such meteorological havoc, 3 degrees is sure-fire catastrophe. Even the target of 2 degrees C determined at COP 17 as the highest livable rise was now attracting the grim sobriquet of genocide among representatives of the most vulnerable nations, AOIS (Alliance of Small Island States) and the LDC (Least Developed Countries).
Salymeel Huk, a brilliant and kindly Bangladeshi scientist with the International Institute for Environment and Development expressed that 2 degrees C means over 100 million people in low-lying countries will likely be displaced or dead. A new lower target—1.5 degrees C—arose early on at the conference with considerable backing and even made it into the agreement text but only on an ‘if possible’ basis.
It is worth being reminded that the affable, intense climate scientist, Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change at the University of Manchester in England, had informed us in Paris that it was a well-kept secret that a 1.5 degree rise was “already in the rear view mirror” and that only a complete elimination of all use of fossil fuels by 2030—less than 15 years off—would allow us to hold at even the much maligned 2 degrees C. (It’s sobering, in this regard, to recall Selameel Huq’s estimates of losses to low-lying populations at that temperature rise which, according to Anderson’s time-line, is now ordained.) This was the stark reality against which the “ambition” of participating parties and organizations must be judged.
Anderson’s carbon accounting might be painful in its unflinching rigor but it is certainly more reliable than the way the fossil fuel people like to count. That’s known as ‘negative carbon emissions accounting’. It occurs when carbon pollution is ostensibly removed from the atmosphere–as opposed to preventing these emissions from entering the atmosphere in the first place–and then stored in underground in abandoned mines or emptied oil reservoirs or sequestered in soil or forests thus making a somehow calculable amount of space available for more emissions.
This class of technological solution is called Carbon Sequestration and Storage (CSS) Few if any of these “solutions” have yet been proven to work on a real-world level and some even in concept are out-and-out preposterous (changing the PH of the ocean, for instance, or shooting massive quantities of reflective particles into the stratosphere to repel sunlight) Big polluters love them like they love the idea of carbon trading. They provide unsubstantiatable rationales for the continuation of such pollution even though there is in actuality no more available space “out there” for their emissions.
For them, sequestration and storage, and the dishonest science and accounting that goes with it extends the rationales supporting the otherwise bleak future their industry faces. It is economic black magic, lengthening their corporate working lives far beyond what the atmosphere can bear. It is apparently based on the assumption that the laws of physics can be ignored without great consequence. For us mortals, especially those living in the wrong places, it is the end of life as it has been known.
The real downside, though, of this form of accounting—and why my friend’s good cheer over the Agreement worried me so—is that, according to Pete Smith, Professor of Soils and Global Change at the U. of Aberdeen (Scotland, UK)….
It risks giving us a false sense of security that we will be able to engineer our way out of climate problems….people will likely take false comfort that technology will save us.
This may be the point at which we have arrived–seeking false comforts, a new form of denial. The fossil fuel companies—those Gods of the Markets and Ultimate Purveyors of Power–are facing their seemingly inevitable demise. And indeed, if we are to survive, they can’t, or at least not for much longer and not in their present form. They are seeking, though, at least temporary absolution and societal permission through unlikely but certainly polluting technologies and we need to be clear about that.
The Hardest News from Paris
This is the hardest news from Paris. A last insult from the coal, oil and gas guys is that they are right now, in this post-Paris euphoria, lining up at the doors where the Feds hand out money for technical climate change research. In their case the research is for projects like CSS and new twists on biofuels and GM crops which succeed only at keeping the companies in the game a little longer and waste better research opportunities. Meanwhile emissions continue to build at unacceptable rates.
We are playing Russian Roulette with the climate and every year more of the cylinders of the gun to our heads are loaded until there are no empty chambers, no homelands—eco-regions—that are not under climate siege. We, the thousands gathered in Paris all returned to homelands, too many of which are coming to fit into the UNFCCC category of nations suffering ‘Loss and Damages’.
A Simple Choice
We have a simple choice before us. We can continue for an indefinite, probably short time, to accept the enterprises, modestly rearranged, of the fossil fuel giants–the so-called ‘low carbon economy’. (It’s pretty much the rule that when you see ‘low carbon economy’ it means that the fossil fuel industry still has a hand on the throttle as do many other large corporate entities who damage or pollute much of what they touch and then have the temerity to call what they do Green.) The ‘low carbon economy’ can only promise us a brief extension of consumer comforts and convenience while the planet continues to heat up.
Or we can take up the torch of the “Just Transition”, a massive societal reconfiguration that requres mobilization on the level of what we accomplished in order to win the 2nd World War. This will indeed involve a lot of hard but exhilarating work and likely the only shot we’ll have at long term survival.
What then will be the role of the UNFCCC? This is another thing that scared us about our friend’s pleasure at the Paris outcome–how little seemed to be getting done through the COP process relative to what science—and increasingly what the weather outside our windows—was telling us. We recognized that we were going home from this enormous planet-wide dialogue with insufficient assurance that we were on a path that will promise some level of security down the line from the vagaries of a climate going rogue.
Though it was pleasurable to see such a near-unity of celebration for it, the Paris Agreement is still thin soup given the urgency of the need. It is also important to keep in mind, even though it too is frightening, that the amount of carbon being emitted into the atmosphere annually still has not peaked. It is still growing and at 400 parts per million is as high as at any time in the past 800,000 years. So how are we going so far astray when the consequences are already staring us in the face? In the Paris Agreement it says that we should work to get to the peak of global emissions “as soon as possible”. How’s that for precise temporal boundaries? What about “immediately”?
The Corporate Presence
The answer is tied up with the question about the UNFCCC’s future role and about how it does its business. There has always been a fairly strong corporate presence in the functioning of the organization. It has been there, in fact, from the first environmentally-oriented UN summit in Stockholm in l972. COP 19 in Warsaw in 2013 was referred to as “the corporate COP”. Corporate logos, literature and banners were ubiquitous. The government had organized a week-long coal summit right in the middle of the COP which was just then struggling with the budding awareness that dirty old King Coal was doomed. Increasing corporate dominance, though, was becoming the rule in public life. Frustration with the size of this presence in the Polish National Stadium was the main reason that over 800 civil society reps walked out two days before the event ended.
COP 21, if anything, was more corporate. Business associations and coalitions that were largely new seemed everywhere. There were venues both within and without the COP established for the convenient access of corporate representatives to people from governments and commercial associations all over the world. Around $U.S. 40 million of the $170 million it cost the UNFCCC just to bring off this event came from corporate “sponsors”, including two of France’s major energy producers, EDF and Engie. Everywhere contacts between business and government, business and business, were being made, lessons learned, new terminologies discussed.
The IETA and Climate Smart Agriculture
The IETA. (International Emissions Trading Association) the hard-core carbon trading reps were there again running side events and lengthy carbon business tutorials for hundreds of black-suited climate commerce neophytes who were seeking instruction on the new Green tools, the language, and the new synchronicities and cross-over advantages that might make possible the full-on deals of the future.
One event we attended in IETA’s conference room was especially troubling. The topic of the panel discussion was Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA), the corporate sector rookie that promises to help bring new Green tools and techniques to farmers all over the world from large to very small. It is seen as the agricultural companion to REDD +, the mechanism developed through the UNFCCC to employ carbon offsets and trading as a means of protecting native forests from abusive and often illegal harvest. (Responsibilities for these outcomes too often lie at corporate doors.) It ostensibly allows a natural forest to retain its carbon or become more effective carbon sinks. It does not, though, avoid the dangers of inaccuracy and corruption inherent in calculating carbon values nor does it take into account the needs of the indigenous communities that have lived in and preserved these forests for millennia.
The Climate Smart Ag. people waxed poetic about improved crop yields which at the same time vastly improve soil and reduce water use. You don’t have to really strain to get to the commercial current running underneath—the sales of manufactured nitrogen fertilizers and GMO seeds. The people running this discussion would have had a little more credibility if “they” weren’t Cargill, Kellog, Yara (the large French synthetic fertilizer manufacturer) and other mammoth corporate agribusiness entities working to expand their markets and revenues. Seems that, in addition to higher crop yields,(and indebtedness to the fertilizer manufacturers) there are carbon credits available for improved soils—like the forests in REDD+ deals, the soil itself in CSA actions fills the role of carbon sinks which can be translated into carbon credits and be bought and sold by those seeking to extend their right to burn fuels and produce emissions maybe in a whole other part of the world. Topsoil For Sale! Get your carbon-rich soil right here? You gotta love the market.
We Mean Business
Just down the hall from IETA the latest Business Kids on the block had their new gaming-the-system center. The We Mean Business Coalition advertising “ economic opportunity through bold climate action” put out a daily newsletter for the two weeks of the conference, The Bottom Line. The terminology employed by The Bottom Line is shamelessly “business speak” but with a wrench toward the faux environmental. Such terms as “sustainable growth”, “green economy”, “climate smart” pepper their pages. It’s as if they had just discovered “environmentalism” entirely anew, a basically foreign language they were trying with limited success to speak.
The organization prides itself on “helping to secure economic opportunity through bold climate action.” It brags of forming a coalition of 280 companies and 144 major investors with access to over $ 26 trillion US. This collection of financial interests lined up under their slick corporate logos, is amassing troops once more on the border of a green world they have in the past only known how to exploit. But they have renewed enthusiasm to connect nature with business.
Picture this; Associations like We Mean Business and the IETA are like huge battleships, each with their own defending fleets of Destroyers– corporations, lobbyists, consultancies, lenders or other, smaller associations or coalitions, their brands subsumed under one larger brand or banner in an enormous Armada. They are arming themselves, gaining the language of comity with the environment and environmentalism but all the time preparing to sail into new foreign waters and to attack non-profit social heretics, anti-neoliberals and would-be regulators with the true flag of Markets Uber Alles unfurled like the Jolly Roger while the crews with swords clenched between their teeth join in and sing as best they can the anthem of the new world order, The Markets Shall Decide.
Other business Armadas are the Low CarbonTechnology Partnerships Initiative (LCTPi) with its 82 Destroyer-corporations, The World Business Council for Sustainable Development ,WBCSD with over 200 Destroyer-Corporations under their aegis and the International Energy Agency (IEA), IETA with 48 Destroyer-Corporation and 24 Consultants (Cruisers?) and others. I suspect if one were to study the provenance of these great fleets, the majority of them would turn out to be quite new. Also salient is how many of them have the words Climate, Sustainable, Carbon, Environmental, Eco or Green both in their titles and painted prominently somewhere on their hulls.
If, by the way, you think this battleship analogy attributes an unlikely level of aggressiveness to world corporate climate enterprise, read the following from Peter Bakker, President and CEO of the WBCSD. Bakker overtly claims on the association website that we need to “accomplish a massive level of transformation…the LCTPi Is the vehicle for this change and it will deliver transformational low-carbon solutions that are good for the planet as well as being good for business”. Who needs government leadership when we’ve got the LCTPi? Who needs environmentalists any more? Certainly not the planet! And remember what Calvin Coolidge said, The Business of the Planet is Business. Did I get that right? The blue planet, third planet from the sun, The Planet Business.
If only that $16 trillion that the We Mean Business Coalition hordes away didn’t come with requirements to repay and with a solid profit, we might actually be able to restore some of the planet’s natural wealth. Or how about those US $80 to 100 billion the villainous fossil fuel corporations get each year from government subsidies worldwide to help them find more oil that we can’t any longer afford to burn or even unearth If only “giving back to the source” were a more compelling value rather than, let’s say “Unleashing innovation.” This is a role regularly invoked by business in their suggestions of how they help–usually preceded or followed by “Unlocking investment.” These ambitious concepts summon up images of a flock of young, extremely well paid Silicon Valley hi-tech engineers in their underwear swinging around creative new-age offices on ropes, or maybe of a rabid pit bull let loose in a pre-school.
There is one more example of corporate influence on the climate change challenge, this one both categorically different from the We Mean Business coalition or the IETA and only slightly less untrustworthy. A 27 year old organization named Conservation International held a side event late in the first week of COP21. It was a well-organized discussion, propitiously named Business + Nature, (I swear I didn’t make it up. Had I, I wouldn’t have had the temerity to put Business first) with a panel composed of heavy gauge corporate execs including Rob Walton who has just stepped down after running Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, for 22 years. (Rob, his sister and two brothers each have a net worth estimated to be over US $34 billion.) Rob is also an officer of the CI Board of Directors. Leading off the whole presentation was Peter Seligmann, CEO and co-founder of CI.
The curious might ask what Rob Walton was doing at the UN climate summit and being treated with respect bordering on adulation. What credentials did he have to permit him to pontificate in front of an officially ordained international audience on what business might be able to do for nature? To label CI’s game “elitist” would be a very large understatement. Their projects often have some limited environmental value but rarely include consideration of benefits for impacted communities. The worldview into which their enterprise fits has no place, it would seem, for concepts such as labor, unions, equity, indigenous rights, fair-share, living wage or any of dozens of other terms used to describe tools that help meet the real needs of communities, families and individuals who actually inhabit the places where corporations operate or the places that are affected by those operations
Only one thing has been consistent in the advance of climate change and the predictions of that advance by scientists. The many science panels, rather than being heavy-handed in their predictive capacity have almost always been too cautious. The ongoing retreat of the great glaciers of the world, the calving off the enormous chunks of land ice into the sea, the frequency of return of massive storms, heat waves and flooding, the fires that never get put out–all continue to leap further ahead of studiously projected expectations and create God knows what feedback loops. And here we are announcing with great pride and enthusiasm that “we” have come to an agreement to do what amounts to a very little bit and maybe we’ll step it up in a few years or maybe not; it’s up to each country.
The overall sense of the agreement to most close observers is that coal, oil and gas are on their last legs and that the future of solar and other renewables is here. That may be but it would be foolhardy in the extreme to take it as a done deal. Nothing is a done deal in the Paris Agreement. Everything is qualified, limited, cautious, partial, conditional, non-committal. And non binding—to be reviewed in five years and then again in another five years and…..
Now we have another well-founded fear–when COP 21’s timid initiatives don’t work and things get worse as they are bound to and the status quo powers, led still by the zombie oil companies, claim that their demented technological solutions alone are doable, we panic and go for the bio engineering okey doke. We let them start filling the sky and the sea with yet even more unmanageable crap all in the name of new urgency. Or maybe they finally succeed in convincing us that we can count the uncountable and base actions on the smoke and mirrors of so-called carbon markets. Should we trust the corporations which have done so much to create this mess by giving them their head in trying to clean it up?
If the job that most needed to be done in Paris was to get high-level representatives of 195 countries into one big room, so to speak and to come out with a document onto which they all signed, and which committed them all, sort of, to take some modest steps on climate change, then COP 21 was a success.
If that job was, instead, to agree to work together immediately and vigorously, as science says is required, to launch an all-out effort to restore damaged ecosystems, protect endangered communities and try to save our civilization from massive damage caused by fast-moving human-driven climate change, then we failed.
What’s left to us now is dramatic action—what should have been undertaken 20 years ago. We need to wire and/or rewire much of the planet in the next 15 years turning entirely to renewable sources of energy and at whatever expense. (There will be some places where ‘unwiring’ is more appropriate.) The bad news is that it is logistically far the greatest challenge human kind has faced and it will cost hugely in dollars, labor, material. The good news is that it is technically feasible–solar is already as cheap or cheaper than equivalent fossil fuel installation and operation. And there is more than enough money out there in the world still. Some of it just needs to be redirected. We can do this. We have no choice but to try. There are no real alternatives and no further excuses.
For those who might think that Marching Orders are no more than a useless cry in the dark: what actually provides cause for hope is not necessarily anything that the UN has done or failed to do. It relates to the tremendous momentum currently behind alternative energy. According to a formal announcement just today (January 18th, 2016) distributed by the UNFCC itself to the 3000 members of the COP 21 Accredited Press Corps, solar energy is now cheaper to produce than oil or gas (coal production is in rapid decline). It makes what has been known in the energy industry for a while sort of official. Meanwhile, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon himself announced that alternative energy installation and distribution has recently added new employment in the US at five times the rate of the fossil fuel industry. Fifteen years to rewire the world seems, in this new light, just a little but less unlikely.