4C Letter to signatories, Dec. 24, 2015 -- After Paris

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24 december 2015

Dear friends,

The Paris climate conference has come and gone, amid more positive publicity than climate matters have received in years. Nonetheless, despite celebratory verbiage in much of the media, editorials in quality newspapers like the Guardian, Financial Times and The New York Times, savvy columnists like Martin Wolf, environmentalists like Michael Brune of the Sierra Club, many scientists, and most of the climate activists working for the Climate Action Network, agree that the accord reached at the end of COP21 was no more than a welcome but tentative first step in the direction of solving the world’s most dangerous problem. And, they add, it was also a warning, in its terrible inconsistencies, its huge gaps and the lack of a binding treaty, that much more needs to be done, and quickly. (For a Daily Climate listing of some thirty-five articles on the:Paris results, click here. For a 4C News Digest of global reactions to the Paris accord, click here. For a lament from the Indian subcontinent that details the accord’s inadequacy, read Kiran Nagarkar’s “The Devil Is In the Details”. )

The fact that the assembled representatives of 196 nations actually agreed to approve a climate accord at all justified a sense of relief, even joy, after the disappointments of so many previous climate conferences. But the joy was tempered by the realization that humankind had to reach the point where catastrophic climate change had already begun before preventive measures could be agreed to. It was even more tempered by the disparity between the praiseworthy spirit of the accord – rhetoric that promised commitment on the part of the signatories – and its letter, which avoided legal obligations. It was the absence of such obligation to act according to the spirit of the Paris agreement that permitted India, only two days after the Paris agreement, to announce that it would double its coal production by 2020, that allowed the British government to announce a two-thirds cut in its solar energy subsidies, and the United States, to end a long-standing ban on the export of crude oil. In fact, neither of the maximum warming goals targeted in the accord – neither the “below two degrees Celsius” nor the preferable but near-utopian “1.5 degrees”—can be reached with the announced goals of the 150 countries that have offered them. To the contrary, a sizzling 2.7 to 3.5 degree increase has been calculated as the outcome, if those countries do what they promise.

Behind these shadows over the euphoria generated by the Paris agreement are the persistence of the problems that have for decades blocked action at the annual climate summits sponsored by the UN. One of the most obvious has been the lobbying by fossil fuel producers and users, accompanied in the U.S. by campaign funding of congressional opponents of climate action, and in the EU by the creation and manipulation of loopholes in the EU’s emissions trading scheme that made a mockery of it. Such lobbying has long paralyzed adequate government policies. This in the face of the fact that since the late 19th century, scientists like the Swedish Arrhenius have known that increasing atmospheric CO2 would bring about dangerous warming.

Stymying action at a deeper level, however, have been the built-in mentalities of consumer capitalism, which prioritize individual acquisitiveness and “growth” over the health of the commons. Hence the difficulty, in an economically globalized world, to empathize with the suffering of poorer peoples, more immediately exposed to the ravages of extreme weather. Hence also the inability to conceptualize the advantages for the future of a sustainable economy and the fear in wealthier countries that a serious and rapid transformation of the energy base of industrial society would require a scaling back of material expectations, a surrender of the aspirations of consumers as well as producers for growth and profits. Combine that fear with the wide-spread anxiety in modern economies of job impermanence, fostered both by the outsourcing of industrial employment to low-wage countries and the computerization (and “flexibilization”) of many white-collar jobs, add to it the current 1984-like manipulation of fear of ISIS terrorism in Western cities, and it is a minor miracle that COP21 was not simply a repeat of Copenhagen.

Paralleling these inhibitions so prevalent in the wealthier countries, there has also been the insistence by developing countries (including China, whose GDP now matches that of many developed ones) that the climate problem has been caused by the same 19th century industrial development of Western powers that permitted them to colonize the rest of the world and that therefore the industrialized global North had to take the lead in dealing with the problem. Supporting this insistence have been two factors: the drive of various Asian countries to rival Western economic power (and in the case of India, to match the economic success of its Chinese neighbor), and the long-standing resentment in many Asian countries of the imperialist past and neo-colonialist present of most Western states. Adding to the other obstacles in the West to taking action, this finger-pointing reluctance of the developing world to accept equal responsibility for action has long been used by the more conservative populations in North America and Europe to defer serious action.

That it was nonetheless possible to overcome all of these barriers to even the beginning of a global effort to halt catastrophic warming has been the result of four conjoined factors: The most immediate force pushing governments to an at least rhetorical recognition of the need for action has been the worsening impact of climate change itself on world populations, which is changing the attitudes of citizens as well as ruling elites. The killer heat waves of last summer in India and Pakistan, the flooding of Chennai, of much of the Philippines, of major Chinese cities and of the north of England, the droughts and wild fires in the western United States and in Australia, are all signals few can ignore. They are the result of a global warming of nine-tenths of one degree, less than half of the two degrees long upheld as the threshold of dangerous climate change.

Secondly, there is the increasing economic viability of renewable wind, solar and water power as an alternative to fossil fuels. The cost of photovoltaic solar panels in the U.S. fell by 50% in the last five years [http://cleantechnica.com/2015/08/13/us-solar-pv-cost-fell-50-5-years-government-report/], and are expected to fall another 40% by 2017 [http://reneweconomy.com.au/2015/why-solar-costs-will-fall-another-40-in-just-two-years-21235.] The cost of wind power fell by 66% between 2009 and 2015.

Thirdly, there is the global movement of activists and ordinary citizens, lobbying banks, insurance companies and pension plans to end their investments in fossil fuels and in some cases (as Urgenda did in The Netherlands) using the courts to oblige governments to reduce carbon emissions. New organizations such as 350.0rg and Avaaz, have been particularly effective in mobilizing demonstrations of hundreds of thousands all over the planet and have everywhere been joined by older ones – Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club, Oxfam and the rest. The Guardian newspaper supports these actions with extensive news coverage and its own well-publicized “Keep it in the ground” campaign.

Finally, there was the organization of the conference by its French hosts, led by their climate-friendly foreign minister, Laurent Fabius. The French did everything they could to make their guests comfortable in luxury accommodations at Le Bourget, on the outskirts of Paris. And they acted from conviction.

At the Doha climate conference of December 2012, Fabius had begun his speech with a remarkable: “Si la Terre pouvait parler, son message aujourd’hui serait simple: Mayday, Mayday, Mayday” [If the earth could speak, its message today would be simple: Mayday, Mayday, Mayday”]. In Paris, Fabius matched this rhetoric with all the diplomatic skills for which the French are famous. Somehow, he managed to push not only the United States, China and India, but also Saudi Arabia and Poland, both completely dependent on the extraction and sale of carbon fuels, into a document specifying the new and more radical goal of a 1.5°C limit to global warming.

All these factors underlay the change in mood that the Paris breakthrough – rhetorical though it may be – epitomizes. But the danger now is that instead of the concrete, legally binding steps we need to quickly cut carbon emissions, we are likely to see a new burst of greenwashing, focused on CCS (carbon capture and storage), nuclearization of the energy supply, and more loophole-ridden emissions trading schemes. In particular, we can expect that India will justify its 2020 doubling of coal use by pointing to the CCS potential in the new coal-fired power plants. We know that the UK, while cutting its solar subsidies, is planning an expansion of its nuclear power plants, and it has long been obvious that China as well as the U.S. are looking to replicate the ETS that has failed so miserably to cut emissions in Europe.

One of the principal omissions in the Paris accord has been any mention of “bunker fuels”, the jargon term used in climate circles for fuel used in international aviation or shipping, an area where renewables cannot substitute for carbon-based fuels. While the EU, under pressure from its climate-conscious Parliament, was able in 2012 to overcome intransigent opposition from international carriers, as well as from the US Congress, to include a watered down ETS coverage of aviation fuel, the idea has remained particularly contentions on the international level, as has a carbon tax on shipping fuel. Both forms of carbon taxation strike at the heart of global society’s (and particularly the global tourist industry’s) demand for cheap vacations in exotic locations and cheap consumer goods, which are the substitutes offered citizens (transformed into consumers) for the loss of the security earlier given them by the post WWII welfare state. ”Bunkers” are now at the heart of each country’s greenwashing potential: the claiming of reductions in greenhouse gas emissions while in fact transforming them, making them “disappear” in cheap imported goods and Shangri-la vacations, which are the bread and circuses of every modern imperium.

To conclude: one cheer for Paris, which has reignited public awareness of the gravity of the situation. And three cheers for the citizen activists of the climate movement who now have the task of preventing the worst and transforming the vague aspirations of Paris into a future at least minimally worthy of the human species.

Season’s greetings,
Arthur Mitzman, coordinator, Concerned Citizens against Climate Change


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