guest blog by Daniel Voskoboynik, This Changes Everything UK
For all the dispiriting truths I know about the world, inside of me I still carry impulses of hopeful naiveté: that there are no bad intentions but misguided ones, that things are being constantly improved, that there are always saviours somewhere, that all problems find their cures. These intuitions, engraved in me through innocence and illusion, come and go, but never have they encountered such a direct challenge than during the two weeks I spent at the Paris climate talks.
Over the past weeks, I’ve struggled to make sense of the fallout of Paris. Beyond the assured opinion pieces and the neat narratives, lies an unsettled confusion about what we should understand, and what we should do next.
There is much to parse about the accord itself, and confident conclusions, encased in tidy turns of phrase, seem elusive. But below are a few stories and fragments that inadequately attempt to look back at what was decided, and what may lie ahead.
“The iceberg has struck, the ship is going down and the band is still playing to warm applause.” – Asad Rehman
“The COP is a Conference of Polluters. Or better perhaps: a Conference of Procrastinators.” – Nnimmo Bassey
Saturday, 12th of December. In central Paris, fifteen thousand people take to the streets, unfurling long red lines of cloth along the boulevard Avenue de la Grande Armée. Each line symbolizes a limit of climate safety, a boundary of survival that cannot be crossed. Thousands of crimson flowers are raised to honour the uncountable victims of climate violence, terror and war.
A few miles away, in the refurbished hangars of the Le Bourget, the near-final draft agreement is released to the public. Swarms of negotiators rush to find copies. After a few hours of stock-taking and assessment, the diplomats file back into the main hall, amid buzzing expectation of a “done deal”.
But a nervy two hours pass, as rumours of a collapse emerge. Approval of the deal is delayed due to a “typo”, as the US delegation objects to the inclusion of the legally-binding word “shall” in a section of the agreement. Paul Oquist, lead negotiator for Nicaragua, simultaneously approaches French officials insisting on an opportunity to publically concerns around the text. Huddles of diplomats form. Heads of state make hurried phone calls.
Suddenly, the huddles scatter and French foreign minister Laurent Fabius takes to the stage. “I see the reaction is positive, I hear no objection”, he says. Visibly shaking, he pounds his gavel. After two weeks of sleepless negotiations, the Conference of Parties have adopted the Paris Agreement.
Applause erupts. Cheers, ovations, embraces, sweep through the hall. Beaming politicians exit the plenary hall into the media light.
“This is momentous.”
“History is being made.”
“An achievement of the world.”
“A major leap for mankind.”
“A monumental success for the planet and its people.”
“The most beautiful and peaceful revolution”.
Over the next hours, most of the delegates leave the premises to celebrate in the night. The media caravansary packs and embarks toward new stories. Workers and technicians begin dismantling the impermanent conference site. In the emptying main hall, the observer constituencies of Indigenous peoples, labour unions, women, and youth give their testimony. Aneesa Khan, the spokesperson for the Climate Justice Alliance, addresses those remaining:
“The self-congratulation in this room is palpable…The denial in this room is palpable…The lack of ambition in this room is palpable…But dear delegates and political leadership: the indignation in this room is also palpable.”
“Real hope, if it is to arise at all, will do so from a bare assessment of the scale of the challenge we face.” – Professor Alice Bows-Larkin and Professor Kevin Anderson
Unlike in photographs, the colours of morality sharpen over time. Arguments reasoned in the past appear unthinkable today. The ethical confusion that reigned around issues such as slavery, suffrage or the acceptance of Jewish refugees, seems absurd in a modern light. Dissident and “radical” voices, marginalized at the time, become uncontroversial as years pass.
We look back at history, often in amazement at its blindspots: how could people think that way? How did they not realize?
We look back, often with certainty, confident that we have learnt the lessons and corrected our myopias. Yet the lessons are evasive. The ethical clarity afforded to the past rarely translates to the present. Our moral instincts persistently fail us.
The Paris Agreement has been widely lauded by politicians, media outlets and commentators as a milestone, a landmark, a major victory in the struggle to thwart extreme climate change. But it is worth scrutinizing the triumphalism, and appraising what the agreement actually entails:
Temperature and Ambition
The largest source of praise for the Paris Agreement is its inscription of an aspiration to keep “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C” and “to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C”. But aspirations are of meagre worth without concrete steps to fulfill them. The agreement contains no binding obligations, numbers, policies, or standards, that outline a route to stay below 1.5°C, or 2°C for that matter.
A few days after the summit, UK Secretary of State Amber Rudd admitted of the 1.5°C goal: “how we will get there is going to be a challenge for us all.” She’s right. That’s because staying below 1.5°C requires drastic and deep emissions cuts starting years ago. Five years’ worth of current emissions exhausts the carbon budget for 1.5°C degrees.
Staying behind the 2°C guard rail is no easy feat either. The action pledges submitted by countries take us far above 3°C of warming, and actually taking the 2°C threshold seriously will require sharp emission reductions, that no high-emitting country is currently willing to contemplate. The European Union for example, would need to cut emissions by 80% by 2030.
These flagrant deficiencies make the agreement little more than a ruse of rhetoric, with perilous implications. As climate scientist Kevin Anderson noted,“[t]o the poor, climatically vulnerable…, typically non-white, living in the southern hemisphere, the current [Paris agreement] is somewhere between dangerous and deadly.”
The End of Fossil Fuels?
The agreement has also been extensively heralded as the “end of fossil fuels”, the “nail in the coffin” for the hydrocarbon era. But this is disingenuous. Here’s what the text actually says:
“Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that peaking will take longer for developing country Parties, and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with best available science, so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century.”
The language is purposefully murky, but what it fundamentally translates to is that parties aim to reach what is known as “greenhouse gas neutrality” or “net-zero emissions”. This means balancing what we emit with what we remove from the atmosphere.
So countries will continue to emit in a decreased way, but what they emit will be compensated by “sinks of greenhouse gases” that will absorb emissions. Sinks can be natural (such as oceans or forests) or artificial (such as carbon capture and storage).
What governments are really banking on are artificial sinks, otherwise known as “negative emissions technologies”, that could actively remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere during the second half of this century.
The problem is that none of these technologies actually exist or work yet at the scale we need them to. Yet a reliance on these untested, inexistent techniques is implicitly embedded in the agreement, and in the scientific projections underpinning it.
In other words, we are allowing countries to exceed emissions targets andovershoot carbon budgets, hoping that future technologies will then clean up the mess they’ve made. Rather than accept the imperative of decarbonisation (reducing emissions to zero), we have instead furnished an arrangement that enables polluters to continue burning fossil fuels, and empowers governments to further procrastinate on addressing the root causes of climate change.
To illustrate the staggering absurdity of the situation, its worth examining one of the potential “negative emissions solutions”. The solution most courted by governments is BECCS (Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage), a technique which doesn’t exist yet. BECCS involves planting and harvesting copious amounts of plant mass (such as trees or tall grasses), burning that biomass in power plants to convert it into fuel and energy, capturing the carbon released in the process, and then storing the carbon underground for millennia.
Deploying BECCS at the scale necessary to tackle climate change would require 500 million hectares of land, an area more than one and a half times the size of India. Assuming it’s even possible, there are significant indications that such an endeavour would severely threaten food security, the safety and land rights of people, biodiversity conservation, soil quality, and water availability.
This reckless methodological gamble is highly telling though. We clasp at false solutions and imagined breakthroughs, we move the goalposts, because we are simply not prepared to implement policies that drastically reduce our emissions now. We are so fearful of challenging the high-carbon status quo, of staring the sun in the eye, that we resort to wishful, techno-utopian thinking, with perfunctory regard for the potential consequences.
But unless the exigencies of science and justice genuinely displace the seductions of short-termist politics, then a viable solution is out of reach.
“Imperfection” as the Enemy of Good
There are gaping absences in the agreement. There are missing words: refugees, fossil fuels, agriculture, carbon budget. There are missing sectors, exempt from the accord: shipping, aviation, the military. There are missing commitments: duties to protect Indigenous rights, women’s rights, workers’ rights, human rights.
And overall, the most glaring absence is a dimension of justice. Since the outset of UNFCCC negotiations, equity has been a bedrock of the process. The recognition of the disproportionate historical responsibility of rich countries for causing climate change, the necessary transfer of rights to emit from rich to poor countries, and the obligation of rich countries to provide financial resources to support poor nations in climate change mitigation (cutting emissions) and adaptation (coping with the effects of extreme weather), have been pillars of the international climate regime. But due to the efforts of the richest countries, the Paris Agreement weakens that very regime.
The framing of “historical responsibility” has been excised from the text, weakening the already tenuous obligations of the richest countries.
Climate finance is in a state of limbo. The petty $100bn rich countries have committed to providing each year from 2020 onwards is just 1.8% of the total subsidies fossil fuels received in 2015, according to a study by the International Monetary Fund. Climate finance is not a technicality; it is the money needed to weave safety nets for the poorest and most affected communities.
Other elements of justice are also ignored. When it comes to loss and damage (reparations for affected communities), a clause has been included to ensure that there is no “basis for any liability or compensation”; in other words, the most vulnerable countries have been stripped of their right to seek indemnification from the biggest polluters.
The deal also contains virtually no measures to ensure protection for current and future refugees, fleeing the furies of climate-fueled disaster, conflict and poverty. Given the context in Europe, with barbed walls erected and vicious xenophobia, it is shuddering to think what kind of ruthless politics might greet the refugees of the future, who will far outnumber those fleeing their homes today.
Across history, racial, gender, disability and economic justice movements have ceaselessly raised questions around human disposability: who sits where in the hierarchy of care? In the eye of politics, who has worth and who doesn’t? Whose voice is heard, and whose dismissed? Whose priorities are heeded, and whose downplayed?
If we want to decipher the justice of a decision, we have an obligation to listen first to the voices of those most affected by that decision. As Cornel West says, “the condition of truth is to let suffering speak”. Our stances should be grounded in the urgency of the afflicted.
The missing elements of the deal, crucial to the world’s most vulnerable people, have been interpreted by many officials, commentators and civil society groups as “imperfections” of a largely positive agreement. This “it’s not perfect but” approach, suggests that there are some legitimate concerns about the agreement, but that in the large scheme of things, they’re not what matters.
But whose considerations define what is vital and what isn’t? Political pragmatism for some is morally impermissible for others.
After the text of the Paris Agreement was released, Ethiopian activist Azeb Girmai described it as “the saddest day for all the poor people in the world facing loss and damage day-in and day-out.” A few hours later, in nearby halls, many delegates and observers watched Fabius’ gavel fall, and jumped in joy.
Our memory is short-lived. As time passes and the urgency of climate change becomes ever more apparent, we forget that widely-held expectations and demands around international negotiations have weakened.
This can be best understood by examining the architecture of the Paris agreement, which rests on a system of ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contributions’ (INDCs). These are voluntary pledges with no basis in science or justice that are made individually by governments to cut emissions.
In 1991, during early negotiations around the initial UN Convention, a Pledge and Review agreement was proposed by Japan. It was swiftly dismissed, given a broadly held consensus that any agreement on climate change must firmly incorporate the historical responsibility of developed countries and contain legally binding obligations. As former Indian negotiator Chandrashekhar Dasgupta observed: “[A]n approach that was summarily rejected as inadequate at the outset of the climate change negotiations, is being hailed today as a great advance!”
Optimism is a potent, and often necessary, form of coping. It sutures our doubts, and eases our fears. In politics, it can allow us to exchange honesty for narrative, accountability for strategy.
People cannot live on gloom alone, and there is a undeniable role for shrewd optimism. But we cannot fail to recognise that many of the explanations for our inaction on climate change lie in our abject failure to confront the dimension of the issue. Twenty-five years on from the first report of the IPCC, we are still dangerously distant from a path to safety.
A month on from Paris, the honeymoon has ended. The ink has dried and the gushing rhetoric has quietened. Countries have returned to familiar habits. Purported climate leaders are struggling to meet their own deficient targets. New fossil fuel projects have been unveiled, and environmental programmes shelved.
Sometimes, the drafted epilogue trembles: “armed with the knowledge, we weren’t able to.”
As the early horrors of Nazi occupation in Poland unfolded, Szmul Mordechaj Zygielbojm fled the country and set out to alert the world. With a counterfeit Dutch passport, he made his way to Belgium, the Netherlands, France, the United States, and the UK, touring and lecturing. Using informers across Nazi-occupied Europe, he compiled extensive evidence about the unraveling extermination of the Jews, and used it to try rouse politicians and public from their indifference.
During an interview on BBC Radio, he pleaded: “In the name of millions of helpless, innocent, doomed people in the ghettos, whose unseen hands are stretched out to the world, I beseech you, you whose conscience is still alive: Expunge the raging shame which is being perpetrated against the human race.”
But his urgency met patience. His shocking warnings were treated with incredulity. Political considerations took precedence over human life.
In April 1943, British and American government officials met in Bermuda to discuss how to aid European Jewry. The officials stood firm behind a “rescue through victory” approach, arguing that the most effective way to save European Jewry was to win the war. Potentially viable alternative options, including engaging in negotiations with Germany to release Jewish populations, were dismissed, largely due to fears of interfering with immigration quotas and triggering an anti-Semitic backlash.
Word of the Bermuda Conference’s failure reached Szmul in London. So did news of the deaths of Manya and Tuvia, his wife and son murdered inside the Warsaw Ghetto.
On the 11th of May 1943, as the Warsaw Ghetto burned, Zygielbojm wrote a letter addressed to Poland’s exiled heads of state, Allied governments, and “the conscience of the whole world”:
“The latest news that has reached us from Poland makes it clear beyond any doubt that the Germans are now murdering the last remnants of the Jews in Poland with unbridled cruelty. Behind the walls of the ghetto the last act of this tragedy is now being played out. The responsibility for the crime of the murder of the whole Jewish nationality in Poland rests first of all on those who are carrying it out, but indirectly it falls also upon the whole of humanity, on the peoples of the Allied nations and on their governments, who up to this day have not taken any real steps to halt this crime…I cannot continue to live and to be silent while the remnants of Polish Jewry… are being murdered…By my death, I wish to give expression to my most profound protest against the inaction in which the world watches and permits the destruction of the Jewish people. . .”
The next morning, Szmul Zygielbojm took his own life to join the millions.
The past is not a reservoir from which we can blithely retrieve justifications for our own political arguments. But it is a constant warning, a benchmark of caution, a ringing reminder to never forget that the world is graced by many Zygielbojms, facing blindness with veracity, restraint with urgency, imploring us to confront apathy, insisting that power answer to justice, that the present answer to the future.
A more beautiful world is always possible, always unreachably near. It is constantly being built: in the grace of every kind word, in every embrace, in every hour given to others. My innocent intuitions force me to hope that this other world can be built with kindness, truth, reason and gentle persuasion alone.
But politics is about strength, about the mechanics of new powers displacing old ones. So with climate change, the candid question becomes: can we unfurl a transition of sufficient velocity to really change the world? Can we assemble enough power, in enough time, to stop catastrophic climate violence, to enable communities to face the coming furies, to ensure that we do not become a divided world of fortresses?
This a challenge that exceeds every summit, every campaign, every intent. The temptation to look away, to clutch onto distractions, is always present. But we must face the fact that to ignite the tectonic shift in power needed to tackle climate disruption, we will need to array forces like never before. The case for transformational change will have to gain mainstream relevance and public support. To get there, environmental movements must articulate ambitious visions of renewal that speak to people’s daily needs and struggles: safety, nutrition, education, violence, water, housing, health, jobs, transport, discrimination, time poverty, and well-being.
There are imperatives. Our pervasive high-carbon economic infrastructure, predicated on the use of fossil fuels, must be rapidly remodeled at a pace unseen in human history. Democratically-owned renewable energy and affordable public transport have to be rolled out. Waste, in all its forms, needs to be diminished. The astonishing human toll of pollution has to be curbed.
We need to alter our economies of precarity and austerity, and question the religiosity of indiscriminate growth that drives them. We need to care for the elderly, the young, the sick, the lonely, the vulnerable. We need to address longstanding racial and gender injustices through comprehensive reparations and economic programmes.
Climate finance trickling from the richest to the poorest countries will have to be increased. Funds already being disbursed need to be channeled towards effective programmes, not false, profiteering solutions.
As climatic impacts affect the availability of vital resources, we must also notforget that the furies of the atmosphere can easily unleash the furies of humanity. Scarcity and deprivation may open up dangerous political space for the forces of prejudicial blame. To impede a foreseeable rise in xenophobia, racism, militarism, and securitisation, we must also weave together a politics of compassion.
The task is daunting, unimaginable at times. There is no reassuring science on how we can do it, only a rich history to draw inspiration from, and a few general principles of guidance. We have to join efforts, show genuine allyship, abandon dogmatic approaches, build unlikely affinities, pool resources, popularize shared messages, and mobilize. We will have to inform the uninformed, galvanize the world-weary, and reach out to new groups of people. We will have to turn to each other, bridging our divisions and working across borders.
The stakes rob us of patience. Over the last weeks, an exacerbated El Niño has wrought effects of devastation across the globe, offering us a glimpse into just how unprepared we are to face a new emerging normality.
If left unchecked, climate violence spells the reconfiguration of our world. But if we unleash a real transformation that can slash emissions, halt pollution, improve public health, and offer people more dignified lives, then we can pry open the possibility of achieving a more beautiful, a more just world.
I left Paris having seen two sides of the world. On one face, the insidious evasiveness of power. Our dogged ability to elude truths that hurt. The callousness of those who can afford it.
On another, the spirit-shaking strength of people. The precious courage of those resisting the lashes of climate and extractive brutality. The defiant dignity of those refusing to see today as tomorrow.
Genuine hope can never be vanquished; it is indeed the last thing we lose. With climate change, there is at least a chance to avert, or at the very least allay, an unthinkable unraveling of pain.