The Fate of the World Changed in Paris—but by How Much?
If taken seriously, the commitments made at COP21 could spell death for the fossil-fuel industry. That’s a big “if.
By Mark Hertsgaard Nation magazine
Thanks a lot, Republicans. You weren’t in Paris physically, but you still managed to prevent last week’s global climate summit from reaching an agreement that would give humanity a better than iffy chance of avoiding catastrophic sea-level rise, scorching temperatures, and killer floods and drought in the years ahead. An iffy chance is better than none, and government and civil-society leaders worldwide left Paris pledging to build on the agreement so it becomes a floor, not a ceiling, of ambition.
Nevertheless, on both scientific and humanitarian grounds, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is correct to say that the Paris Agreement “goes nowhere near far enough.” And the main reason why it doesn’t are his Republican colleagues in the United States Senate, which would have to ratify any bona fide treaty the Obama administration might have preferred in Paris.
The Paris summit was by no means a failure; its accomplishments deserve the adjective “historic.” By aiming to limit temperature rise to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels and “pursue” a goal of 1.5 C, the world’s governments went further than ever before in defining the allowable amount of future climate disruption. This was a case of moving the goalposts in the best possible way.
What’s more, both developed and developing nations pledged to entirely eliminate emissions of greenhouse gases “as soon as possible,” in effect promising to de-carbonize the global economy. Thus the leaders of both of the world’s climate change superpowers, the United States and China, praised the accord, with President Obama hailing the agreement not “perfect” but “our best chance to save the only planet we have.” A headline in The Guardian said the agreement heralded “the end of the fossil fuel era.
But the celebratory tone of politicians’ statements, news coverage, and even most of the comments from non-governmental organizations in Europe and the United States overlooks how lethally punishing this agreement will be for huge masses of people in the Global South. It also skips past just how far short the agreement falls from what science demands—and science does not compromise.
Even if the largely voluntary provisions of the Paris agreement are fully implemented, literally tens of millions of people in poor and vulnerable regions such as Bangladesh, the Marshall Islands, and much of Africa and Asia are being doomed to homelessness, impoverishment, and death, with children predicted to bear the brunt of the suffering. That such a heartless future is applauded as success in the Global North only reminds us how tragic, indeed criminal, it is that fossil-fuel interests and the politicians they buy have blocked serious climate action for the past two decades.
The best way to lower the death toll and improve civilization’s future prospects is for civil society all over the world—climate-justice advocates, community and religious leaders, business and financial executives—to push harder than ever to turn the noble but non-binding aspirations declared in Paris into rapid, concrete transformations of our energy, agriculture, consumerist, and other socioeconomic systems. We can build a better future than what currently awaits us, and the Paris Agreement can help, but only if the resistance of the old order—as personified by the climate deniers and foot-draggers in Congress and their paymasters in the fossil-fuel industry—is routed once and for all.
The world changed in Paris last week, but it is crucial to be clear about how much. Setting a 1.5 to 2 degrees temperature goal marks a massive potential shift in the global economy. If governments at all levels and businesses, investors, and organized consumers around the world take action, starting now, that is commensurate with the 1.5 to 2 C goal, as green leaders such as Germany and California have begun, it could indeed spell the end of the fossil-fuel era.
The key words, however, are “if” and “starting now.” And here the Paris agreement again bows to the abstinence of Republicans on Capitol Hill. Governments are not required to reduce heat-trapping emissions by a single molecule, much less by a scientifically appropriate amount; they are required only to publicly declare how much and how soon they intend to make reductions and then report them transparently after the fact. Nor need these voluntary reductions begin until 2020, thereby inviting five more years of digging our global climate hole still deeper before changing course, a calamitous choice.
We can build a better future, but only if the resistance of the old order is routed once and for all.
“Don’t wait one more day to shift to clean energy sources.” It’s easy to dismiss celebrities who speak out on issues of the day, but the actor Leonardo DiCaprio got it exactly right when he delivered this plea to a gathering of mayors, governors, and other “sub-national” officials on the sidelines of the Paris summit. Waiting until 2020 to cut heat-trapping emissions invites disaster.
If humanity wants a decent chance at hitting the 1.5 C target—which is essential for the survival of millions of people and of such sensitive ecosystems as coral reefs, which are a foundation of the marine food chain that provides one in six humans with the bulk of the protein in their diets—greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2020, scientists say, not merely increase more slowly, as the Paris Agreement envisions. Peaking by 2020 is also critical for the earth’s snow and ice-cover. Polar ice sheets are already melting at a terrifying rate; lose Greenland and West Antarctica, and we unleash an eventual 80 feet of sea-level rise, dooming our descendants.
The Paris Agreement almost certainly would have been stronger in these and other respects if the Obama administration had not been constrained by Republicans’ hostility to acknowledging, much less fighting, man-made climate change.
Secretary of State John Kerry admitted as much to fellow negotiators in the final hours of the talks. “He said he wished that we could include specific dates and figures for emissions cuts and financial aid [to help developing countries adapt to climate impacts and choose clean over dirty energy], but he explained that this could trigger a review by the US Senate that could scuttle the entire agreement,” a delegate from a Mediterranean country told The Nation, requesting anonymity because his government is a US ally.
The big question after Paris is whether the agreement signed there, despite the weaknesses imposed by congressional Republicans (and others—Saudi Arabia was no angel), will send a sufficiently strong signal that decision makers worldwide start making fundamentally different choices more or less right away.
Al Gore, who in recent years has transitioned from the public to the private sector and reportedly made tens of millions of dollars investing in climate-friendly companies, is unabashedly optimistic. “This universal and ambitious agreement sends a clear signal to governments, businesses, and investors everywhere: the transformation of our global economy from one fueled by dirty energy to one fueled by sustainable economic growth is now firmly and inevitably underway,” Gore said.
The smart money was already moving in this direction before Paris. The plummeting costs of solar, wind, and energy efficiency were one motivation. Another was the growing drumbeat of warnings from such impeccably establishment voices as the International Energy Agency and the governor of the Bank of England that the vast majority of the earth’s remaining fossil fuels must be left in the ground to honor the 2 degrees target, raising the risk of trillions of dollars in stranded assets.
Including the 1.5 degrees target in the Paris Agreement ups the ante considerably. Hitting the 2 degrees target requires getting the entire world economy off of fossil fuels by roughly 2050, an all-star panel of climate scientists explained at the summit, but hitting the 1.5 degrees target accelerates that scheduled by a decade or two.
This means that not only coal but also oil and gas must be left behind, and sooner than almost anyone imagined. Thus 1.5 degrees amounts to a death sentence for the global petroleum complex as currently operated. It is only logical, then, that companies such as ExxonMobil and Chevron and petro-states such as Saudi Arabia and Russia will fight to the death to avoid it.
It is tragic, indeed criminal, that fossil fuel interests have blocked climate action for the past two decades.
Overcoming the resistance of the status quo in this and many other manifestations of the fossil-fuel era is the moral imperative of our time. Hans Schellnhuber, one of the world’s most eminent climate scientists and a top adviser to Pope Francis as he prepared his climate change encyclical, Laudato Si’, made a point in Paris of highlighting the importance of the fossil fuel–divestment movement, which he portrayed as a modern-day descendant of the 19th-century movement to abolish slavery. “It will be job of civil society, including business leaders, cities and the investor community to finish the job that national governments have begun here in Paris, said Schellnhuber. “In particular I’d like to mention that the divestment movement will be crucial.
Perhaps the most encouraging, and game-changing, development in the climate struggle in recent years has been the emergence of a mass movement dedicated to climate justice—for all people, all generations (including those yet to come), and all species.
Global in scope and vision, local in strength and focus, unswayed by blandishments of insider status or incremental progress, this movement is grounded in commitments to democratic process, economic fairness, and human solidarity. It is still often underestimated by the powers that be, even as it accumulates an increasingly impressive string of triumphs, from pushing in the United States until President Obama and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton finally rejected the Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline to surprising nearly the entire international community by lodging the previously dismissed goal of 1.5 degrees in the final Paris Agreement.
More triumphs are needed, the challenges ahead are staggering, and too many innocents will suffer before it’s over. But Paris, and all that made its imperfect but exhilarating result possible, tells us that this struggle is not in vain. Victory is possible. Victory is necessary. And the path to victory is its own reward.