“By comparison to what it could have been, it’s a miracle. By comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster...So yes, let the delegates congratulate themselves on a better agreement than might have been expected. And let them temper it with an apology to all those it will betray.”
- George Monbiot. The Guardian, December 12, 2015
While headlines were still celebrating the “historic” Paris Climate Agreement, another one crept into the news: “Lake Poopo, Bolivia's 2nd-largest lake, dries up. Climate change has boosted temperatures, tripling evaporation” (CBC) While diplomats relaxed and enjoyed the sites of Paris after a couple weeks of negotiations, leery images emerged of the over 2000 square kilometres of new desert, spotted with millions of dried up fish carcasses and abandoned boats. While it took 21 years for these United Nations meetings to move beyond a debate about the reality of climate change, poor and working people around the world have been living with, and dying from, the consequences every day. So a Bolivian fisherman and his family would be justified in asking, “How does this new agreement make sure that its promises are kept?” They would then also be justified in spitting onto the dust where their lake used to be when told the agreement really doesn't have any way to do that.
So the bad news overall? Despite the hype and the urgency, the new Paris Climate Agreement will not save the planet. The good news though? The international movement for climate justice is growing and outpacing these flashy high profile meetings, and is making its own proposals for how to save the planet and build a better world for everyone at the same time.
The Climate Crisis is Real
Here's some more recent headlines from 2015:
“Earth has lost a third of arable land in past 40 years, scientists say” (The Guardian)
“2015 Hottest Year on Record” (The Independent)
“Will Humans Survive the 6th Mass Extinction?” (National Geographic)
“The Marshall Islands are Disappearing. Rising Seas are Claiming a Vulnerable Nation” (New York Times)
“Climate Change and El Niño May Leave 10 Million Hungry” (Time Magazine)
If anyone has any doubts about climate change and its devastating consequences, visit the NASA Global Climate Change website for a huge source of resources detailing the basic evidence, causes, effects, consequences and scientific consensus regarding the phenomenon which is threatening our very existence on the planet.
The NASA Evidence section points to 9 major indicators of climate change:
“Sea Level Rise: Global sea level rose about 17 centimeters (6.7 inches) in the last century. The rate in the last decade, however, is nearly double that of the last century
Global Temperature Rise: All three major global surface temperature reconstructions show that Earth has warmed since 1880.5 Most of this warming has occurred since the 1970s, with the 20 warmest years having occurred since 1981 and with all 10 of the warmest years occurring in the past 12 years.6
Warming Oceans: The oceans have absorbed much of this increased heat, with the top 700 meters (about 2,300 feet) of ocean showing warming of 0.302 degrees Fahrenheit since 1969.
Shrinking Ice Sheets: The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have decreased in mass. Data from NASA's Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment show Greenland lost 150 to 250 cubic kilometers of ice per year between 2002 and 2006, while Antarctica lost about 152 cubic kilometers of ice between 2002 and 2005.
Declining Arctic Sea Ice: Both the extent and thickness of Arctic sea ice has declined rapidly over the last several decades
Glacial Retreat: Glaciers are retreating almost everywhere around the world — including in the Alps, Himalayas, Andes, Rockies, Alaska and Africa
Extreme Events: The number of record high temperature events in the United States has been increasing, while the number of record low temperature events has been decreasing, since 1950. The U.S. has also witnessed increasing numbers of intense rainfall events
Ocean Acidification: Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the acidity of surface ocean waters has increased by about 30 percent.
Decreased Snow Cover: Satellite observations reveal that the amount of spring snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere has decreased over the past five decades and that the snow is melting earlier.”
The History of Failures
These are not new facts. Climate change has been discussed seriously by scientists since the 1950's, and the world's largest oil company ExxonMobil had been advised directly by its scientists as early as 1978 that climate change was real, caused by humans, and would raise global temperatures by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius this century. COP21 is called that because this was the 21st year of the annual meeting.
Before the COP (“Conference of the Parties”) meetings, there was a UN meeting in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro which created the still existing United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Much like the Paris Agreement, it called on governments to take action to avoid dangerous climate change, but did not specify what kind action or how it would be enforced.
Since 1995 the COP meetings have taken place annually to discuss a global approach to climate change. The 1997 COP meeting in Japan established the now infamous “Kyoto Protocol” which was meant to create legally binding agreement reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The United States, the world's largest polluter, stalled and never really participated along with many other major polluters. Canada officially withdrew in 2011
There was a huge amount of hope and enthusiasm from environmental organizations before the COP conference in Copenhagen in 2009. Unfortunately, “Hopenhagen” provided a huge letdown as backroom meetings controlled by the US resulted in a weak agreement that we never legally binding and was not fully adopted at the conference because of the chaos surrounding it.
COP meetings since have often been likened to the band on the Titanic which continued to play as the ship continued to sink into the icy waters of the Atlantic.
COP21 – Under Pressure
COP21 was held under a lot of pressure, as world leaders realized they were becoming more than irrelevant, they were becoming universally despised for their inaction on climate change. This has been propelled by the reemergence and the maturing of the global climate justice movement. After the Paris terrorist attacks, French officials banned what was supposed to be the largest climate march in history which was to coincide with COP21. Despite this, a coordinated Global Climate March broke records as the largest coordinated climate mobilization in history with over 785,000 people marching at 2,300 events in 175 countries on November 28 and 29 of 2015. This came soon after the largest single climate march in history which happened in New York on September 21 of last year, with over 400,000 people joining the “Peoples Climate March” and over 270,000 more participating in 2000 coordinated actions in 166 countries across the globe.
As we have reported consistently in Fire This Time, Latin American countries led by Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador have been leading a coordinated global effort to create a real alternative to the COP meetings. Disgusted with the failure of the COP meetings, Bolivian President Evo Morales initiated the The World Peoples' Conference on Climate Change and the Defense of Life. Over 35,000 people attended, and adopted the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth.
In January 2014, the first International Tribunal on the Rights of Nature and Mother Earth was held in Quito, Ecuador, and tried such cases as the oil pollution of Chevron-Texaco in Ecuador. A second tribunal was held at the end of 2014 during COP 20 in Lima, Peru. A second World Peoples' Conference on Climate Change and the Defense of Life was also held in Bolivia this year, again with tens of thousands attending and drafting concrete proposals based on moving beyond the current economic system which demands exploitation of both humans and nature.
So What did COP21 Accomplish?
Those who support the COP21 agreement say that creating a consensus among 195 countries with different realities and agenda's is a huge step forward. The deal requires any country that ratifies it to act to stem its greenhouse gas emissions in the coming century, with the goal of peaking greenhouse gas emissions “as soon as possible” and continuing the reductions as the century progresses. Countries will aim to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2°C (3.6°F) by 2100 with an ideal target of keeping temperature rise below 1.5°C (2.7°F).
Approximately 180 countries put forward voluntary “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions”, which detail their plans over the next 20 years to reduce emissions. There is also a requirement to submit a progress report every 5 years and a commitment for developed countries to make available 100 billion dollars of “new and additional” money a year for developing countries to help them adapt to climate change.
Unfortunately the agreement relies almost entirely on the goodwill of those who have facilitated the destruction of the planet to meet their voluntary commitments and stop destroying the planet. The agreement relies entirely on the vague language of, “as soon as possible” , “encouraged” and “should”.
Scientists point out that even if the 180 Intended Nationally Determined Contributions from different countries are met, the result would still be a rise above 2°C . There is also no concrete commitment from developed country to make a contribution to the Green Climate Fund’s promised $100 billion annually by 2020.
While Evo Morales proposed the creation of a Global Climate Justice Tribunal to be able to hold those who destroy the environment accountable, the Paris Agreement has no real structure of accountability despite the requirement for countries to report every 5 years.
Justin Gillis of the New York Times wrote, "The deal, in short, begins to move the countries of the world in a shared direction that is potentially compatible with maintaining a livable planet over the long term." Are we really supposed to be excited about an agreement that is only “potentially compatible” with a livable planet? Is that really our criteria? “Potentially compatible”! 2°C is when scientists think we go past the “point of no return” for causing an unstoppable climate crisis which will probably make earth uninhabitable for humans. Why would we risk even getting close to that?
What Was Canada's Role?
While the bar was set pretty low by the Conservative government in regards to environmental policies, the new Liberal government still managed to anger environmentalists and “win” two to the Climate Actions Network's “Fossil of the Day awards” during the COP21 meeting. The Canadian government made a big deal of supporting a 1.5°C limit for climate change, but itself never submitted a greenhouse gas emissions target. This being the most fundamental issue being discussed. The Canadian delegation also worked with the US to block even the discussion on compensating poor countries vulnerable to natural events caused by climate change.
Where to Go From Here?
The reality is that we've already been forced much too far down the road to climate catastrophe. The air and water are already too polluted. Too many trees have already been cut down. Too many species of animals have already been forced into extinction. Too many people have already died or been made refugees because their lands are no longer inhabitable and their waters are no longer drinkable. The status quo of over half the world's population living, and dying, on less than $2.50 a day should not be acceptable. We must do better.
With one hand “developed” countries like the US, UK, France and Canada sign the COP agreements, and with the others they sign new free trade deals such as the Trans Pacific Partnership which give corporations more power to cause even more environmental destruction. They also continue their wars and occupations across the globe causing irreparable damage to life and the environment in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria.
The solution is not just technological innovation. Humans are already technologically advanced enough to take advantage of the earth's resources to provide enough for a healthy and happy life for all 7 billion people which inhabit the earth. We are also not interested in solar powered tanks or “energy efficient” missiles.
The question is priorities. Do we prioritize profits and the rights of corporations to make as much as possible, regardless of the consequences for human beings and nature? Do we prioritize a rising stock market above a rising average income? Are we still waiting for the corporate profits to “trickle down” to us, even when it's clear all that is flowing is toxic sludge?
The question is ultimately pretty straightforward, and the millions of people around the world who are demanding, “System Change Not Climate Change!” understand that capitalism and its profit driven motor is not compatible with a healthy planet or with humanity. Think of what would be possible if all the resources currently dedicated to wars and corporate bailouts were put towards creating a healthy and sustainable society! A better and sustainable world is possible and necessary. It just won't be created at a COP meeting, but by the millions of poor and working people marching outside they are failing to silence.
Follow Thomas Davies
Back to Article Listing