People from around the world recently gathered at a climate summit in Paris as part of a global effort to discuss and implement serious solutions to the global climate crisis. Unfortunately, most media outlets paid very little attention to that summit. Instead, they focused all of their attention on the not-so-serious solutions being discussed at the COP 21 climate summit.
The “Paris Agreement” [full text] that arose out of COP 21 is being widely hailed as a historic agreement that will set the world’s governments on track to solve the climate crisis. The fact that all of the 195 UNFCCC participating member states came to consensus about anything at all about the climate crisis is, in fact, historic. But if the goal of COP 21 really was to set the nations of the world on track to reducing their emissions and averting catastrophic anthropogenic global warming (AGW), then the Paris Agreement is a historic failure.
I don’t want to write a detailed analysis of the nuts and bolts of the Paris Agreement. If you want that type of in-depth analysis, I’ve included a list of sources at the end of this post. What I do want to write is a brief overview of some of the key points and an emphatic call to action.
Here’s my one-sentence overview of the Paris Agreement:
Governments of the world made an agreement that kinda-sorta says we should take action on AGW eventually, but doesn’t really provide any effective or binding plan of action for doing so.
This really is, in its own way, a historic agreement. Representatives of almost all of the world’s governments got together and agreed unanimously that something along the lines of the above statement is true. It’s very rare for something like that to happen, and it’s a very important thing for them to come to consensus on.
Is this agreement historic? Yes, in a sense. Is it an effective response to the climate crisis? No.
What characteristics would an effective response have? Here are a few important ones that come to mind:
- Science-based goals and strategies for mitigation and adaptation that will keep enough fossil fuels in the ground and enough natural carbon sinks in place to avert the increasingly catastrophic effects of anthropogenic global warming (AGW)
- Historic and current emitters of greenhouse gases making firm commitments to finance and otherwise facilitate all actions necessary to redress past, present, and future harms caused by their emissions, including but not limited to clean energy access for all people
- Direct involvement of the people of the world (“civil society”) in the process of developing and implementing solutions to the climate crisis, especially involvement of indigenous communities and other communities engaged in frontlines struggles for their lives, health, and freedom in the face of fossil fuel extraction
The Paris Agreement fails on all three of these counts.
- The very broad goals of “[h]olding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels” and “pursu[ing] efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels” have some basis in science. Really, no amount of anthropogenic global warming is safe. We’re essentially conducting a massive and very poorly-structured experiment in geoengineering, the results of which remain to be seen. But there is broad agreement that the consequences of anything above 2 degrees of warming would be catastrophic. The utter failure of the Paris Agreement from a scientific perspective is that it assumes that 2 °C of warming (A) is a fairly reasonable goal rather than a horrific technically-survivable scenario; and (B) can somehow magically be achieved without setting firm, specific, evidence-based, time-sensitive limits on fossil fuel consumption and other emissions sources. Even a revenue-neutral carbon tax — which does not guarantee that a specific amount of fossil fuels will remain in the ground — would be far better than the current lack of clearly defined methodology for limiting emissions. It’s like saying that you intend to stop your house from burning down, but you’re not going to make any firm commitments to call the fire department, and in the meantime you may or may not use a fire extinguisher, or a garden hose, or a teacup to pour water on the flames. Oh, and you may still leave the stove burners on because everybody’s got to eat, right? That’s about how much sense it makes to proclaim the value of a 2 °C or 1.5 °C target without agreeing on a decisive way to get there.
- Not surprisingly, finance is still one of the biggest unresolved questions. “Developed” nations have continued pledging money to help “developing” nations pay for mitigation and adaptation. But this money has been slow to materialize, and the whole plan will fall apart without it — and even if the pledged monies do ever materialize, they still don’t represent a just contribution based on how much these nations have actually profited from fossil fuel consumption while other nations suffered from its extraction and consumption. On a related note, the agreement actually exempts developed nations from liability for paying for “loss and damage” caused by AGW, instead saying that action should be taken to avert and minimize “loss and damage” in the future.
- “Civil society” was not involved in COP 21. Indigenous rights were excluded and ignored in the text aside from brief lip service in the introduction. That is an extremely important and heinous omission. Grassroots climate justice organizations were ignored and excluded. COP 21 was an event for government representatives and corporate representatives, not representatives of frontline communities most affected by the decisions being made. Mentioning the 1.5 °C target at all was seen as a great triumph for the representatives of small island nations and their allies — and to an extent, it was. Organizers from those countries had to struggle bitterly for that target to be included. But really, the fact that 1.5 °C didn’t emerge as a central goal was symptomatic of the exclusion of frontline communities.
Since our governments have failed to take serious action to avert the climate crisis — and in fact have worked closely with the fossil fuel industry and other industries to exacerbate the climate crisis — it’s up to us to develop and implement real solutions to this crisis. We must organize swift and effective actions to resist the extraction of fossil fuels and support the deployment of cleaner energy technologies and truly sustainable ways of living. We’re in Decade Zero; we must act right here, right now, to avert a downward spiral into ever more destructive disruptions of our climate and our human societies.
Let’s say for the sake of argument that you still have faith in the Paris Agreement as a historic step forward in solving the climate crisis. Even then, my call to action still applies to you. Why? Because currently, the chief enforcement measure of the Paris Agreement is public opinion. There are no clear limits on how much fossil fuels each country can extract, export, or consume. The non-binding pledges that each nation has submitted are woefully inadequate to deal with the crisis. If the people of the world really are going to strive for no more than 1.5 °C of warming — a goal that may already be out of our reach even if we stop all emissions tomorrow — then we the people need to take collective action to make this goal a reality.
Having said all of that, here’s my call to action.
Struggle for climate justice. I repeat, struggle for climate justice.
There are many definitions of climate justice. For a concept that’s only existed for a couple of decades, it has a surprising variety of interpretations. My interpretation in this case is fairly simple.
Climate justice means rapidly reducing and eliminating our greenhouse gas emissions so that present and future generations will not suffer the horrific consequences of further anthropogenic global warming, up to and including the deaths of millions of people and the multiplication of other threats to our peace and security.
The struggle for climate justice must include two components: the resistance program and the constructive program.
The resistance program is the most contentious and conflict-oriented component of the struggle for climate justice. It involves confronting the harms caused by extractivism wherever they occur. In some cases, this may involve very passive and peaceful activities such as vigils, rallies, marches, etc. In other cases, it may involve controversial and often illegal actions such as locking down to industrial equipment, vandalizing or otherwise tampering with property that is being used to extract fossil fuels, etc. Either way, the overarching goal of the resistance program is to slow down the extraction of fossil fuels and other sources of greenhouse gas emissions while we work on creating a zero-emissions society.
The details of the resistance program vary greatly depending on the circumstances on the ground in the frontlines communities. There are many climate-oriented resistance program groups out there. Rising Tide is an excellent example. There are others out there too.
The constructive program is often overlooked by people who are angry at the harm being done by the extractivists. However, it’s just as important as the resistance program, if not more so. How are people going to get their energy? How are people going to get their food? How are people going to handle all of the details of their lives, great and small, without relying on current infrastructre that generates massive amounts of greenhouse gases? We must work on the answers to these questions in our own communities and regions. We must come up with creative and practical solutions that empower people of all races, genders, sexualities, ages, abilities, religions, and so on. Otherwise, when the resistance program is successful, we will have no food, no water, no shelter, no energy, etc.
Developing practical solutions within the constructive campaign is actually one of the best ways to bolster the resistance campaign. It strengthens the demands of the resistance campaign a hundredfold.
“We can get all of our energy from sun, wind, and water. We can get all of our food from local farmers. Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t shut down this invasive extraction operation that threatens the health and lives of myself, my family, and my neighbors.”
The details of the constructive program are even more varied than those of the resistance program. Perhaps one of the most important aspects of this constructive program is vision. We must develop the vision of a society where we all work together to meet each others needs and do so without the use of fossil fuels or other harmful technologies. Once we can envision that, we’ll have a good response to the extractivists who insist that we must turn to them for jobs, energy, food, etc.
Creative arts and communication are also very important parts of both the resistance and the constructive program. I’m personally an author and seek to use my climate fiction as a boost to both the resistance and constructive programs. The dystopian aspects of my fiction serve to illustrate the destructive aspects of today’s society. The utopian aspects illustrate possible actions that we can take in the here and now to create a more just, more sustainable society. Together, both strands of my narratives serve as a catalyst for our transition into a more just and more sustainable society. If you are an author, artist, musician, poet, or any other creative type, your creativity will be invaluable to helping humanity understand and undertake this very difficult but very necessary period of transformation. You can take these seemingly abstract ideas and turn them into very personal and inspiring realities.
If you don’t know your role in all of this, that’s okay. Talk to your closest friends and family members for ideas and inspiration. All of us can in some way contribute to either the resistance program, or the constructive program, or both. Maybe for you, that will involve going to marches and protests. Maybe for you, it will involve writing some climate fiction, or hosting a film showing, or working on a website for a climate group, or teaching a class about solar energy, or teaching children, or any number of things. The important thing is that you find something related to this crisis and do it.
Do something. That is my call to action. Do something for climate justice. You may or may not know this yet, but you have the power to make a difference in your own life and the lives of those around you. Educate yourself, educate your friends, and take some sort of concrete action in pursuit of climate justice.
Analysis of the Paris Agreement
This list of sources (in no particular order) will be updated periodically in response to reader feedback. If you would like to suggest additions or changes to this list, please contact me.
- The Guardian: Claim no easy victories. Paris was a failure, but a climate justice movement is rising
- The Guardian: James Hansen, father of climate change awareness, calls Paris talks ‘a fraud’
- Grist: Here’s what you need to know about the new Paris climate agreement
- Grist: Green groups are deeply divided on whether the Paris Agreement is a win or loss
- CounterPunch: The Paris Climate Accords Will Cause the Planet to Burn
- CounterPunch: Paris Climate Deal: How Could They Do This to Us?
- CarbonBrief: Analysis: The final Paris climate deal
- CarbonBrief: Piers Forster: 1.5C is a brave new world