“Each Party’s intended nationally determined contribution towards achieving the objective of the Convention as set out in its Article 2 will represent a progression beyond the current undertaking of that Party.”
This is the central outcome of a nearly two-week-long Conference of the Parties in Lima, Peru last month, and the nugget that commentators highlight as an encouraging sign in our decades-long effort to address climate change in an international forum. In short, all countries, including key rapidly developing countries like India and Brazil, agree to cut emissions for the first time. The extent of those cuts, however, are as-of-yet undisclosed, and while each Party is “invited” to “communicate their intended nationally determined contributions” prior to the 21st COP slated for Paris next December, and furthermore they ““may include, as appropriate, inter alia, quantifiable information,” doing so is entirely voluntary.
Alongside this timid but notable outcome, there were some clear fouls of note by the end of the meeting. We have been backing away from the lofty goals of the Common but Differentiated Responsibility clause--the critical Article 3 of the Framework Convention on Climate Change that stipulates that developed countries should take the lead--for years now, and never more acutely than in Lima, after which CBDR appears to remain alive in name only, with the addition of a new exit strategy, called “national circumstances,” to be invoked by any signatory. The implications of this clause are not yet clear, but presumably if your “national circumstances” get in the way of responsibility, say economic recession, or perhaps an over-reliance on fossil fuels development, you’re off the hook. In other developments, the Clean Development Mechanism, intended to offer a market-based strategy for investments in clean development in developing countries, has also largely fallen off the table. Pledges to the Green Climate Fund, established in 2011 and intended to become operational in 2015 to assist extremely vulnerable countries with mitigation but even more importantly adaptation, has raised a paltry $10 billion, nowhere close to the original goal of $100 billion, a goal that has already been acknowledged as woefully insufficient. (The amount needed to mitigate and adapt to climate change globally is now recognized as being closer to $2 trillion. Per year. For a few decades.)
Elizabeth May wraps it up: The outcome of COP 20 is “better than nothing,” but definitely “underwhelming.” Unfortunately, much as I appreciate May’s voice in environmental politics here in Canada, “Better Than Nothing” is no longer better than nothing. Perhaps the most significant marker here is the ’20’; our 20th meeting of heads of state to tackle climate change; 20 years during which greenhouse gas emissions rose over 50%, the consequence of which is we are now locked into significant and deleterious impacts around the globe. I would wager, had we not held the past 20 COPs, that number would not be more. To the contrary, it would likely be slightly less, since the meetings themselves have a rather heavy carbon footprint. What is more, while we may have the capacity to accommodate a 2 degree increase in average global temperature, we are headed rapidly into temperature regimes that are far beyond livable.
Do we keep forging ahead? During the next COP meeting, to be held in Paris this December, Parties are expected to agree upon a new, binding, post-Kyoto commitment. This particular COP is much-anticipated, and the sentiment seems to be this is our last chance at international cooperation to address climate change. Many have already given up on the UNFCCC, some conveniently so since they had no enthusiasm for the process in the first place, such as the current Prime Minister of Canada. Indeed, reliance upon the previous 20 meetings as an indication of likely success is liable to lead to despair.
However, I would like to suggest an alternative approach. Rather than solely looking back upon previous failures, the question we all should be asking, environmental sociologists included, is:
What can we do to make COP21 different?
First, let’s acknowledge just how monumental the task is, by the numbers. I like the following graph for its simplicity, produced by Tyler Durden for Zero Hedge, using the target emissions cap of 500 gigatons proposed by the IPCC as the total amount that would offer a 66% chance of remaining below a 2 degree warming:
Secondly, let’s look at international politics. Yes, we have come together as an international community at many times in the past, but this is different. The fundamental link between global warming and our fossil fuel-driven free market economies simply cannot be swept under the table, or addressed with a technological fix. Moreover, while climate change affects every corner of the globe, there is little by way of common ground to be reached once we look more closely into the vast discrepancies between responsibility for emissions, and vulnerability to impacts. The Parties at the negotiating table represent a small set of advanced industrial countries who have the lion’s share of responsibility for historic emissions, and which are filled with middle class citizens who are loathe to forsake the lifestyles those emissions have bestowed upon them combined with a super-elite heavily invested in fossil fuels industries; an equally small number of rapidly developing countries in a position to overtake those emission leaders in their efforts to follow in the advanced countries’ footsteps; and a very large number of extremely vulnerable least developed countries that have done very little to contribute to global warming in the first place. Only the latter have a clear and irrefutable interest in aggressive mitigation, and yet they have little mitigating of their own to do.
If we are to have a successful COP21 then, the onus is on Parties representing those countries doing the emitting, which means the onus is really on the citizens of those countries to generate that clear and irrefutable interest in aggressive mitigation that is currently missing. International agreements have always butted heads with state sovereignty after all, and while international pressure does hold some weight, politics remains at heart a domestic affair, and thus a successful COP21 hinges on domestic political pressure in some key countries in the coming year, including most importantly the U.S. but also China, India, Brazil, and yes, countries like Canada and Australia: even though they do not represent a large share of emissions, they nonetheless can and have had a notable and at times wholly deleterious influence on the outcomes of previous meetings.
Are there signs of hope? I believe the answer is yes, but those signs will need to be capitalized upon over the coming 12 months, and not just by the current cadre of climate activists. Climate change needs to become not an issue, but the issue, the issue that strikes at the heart not just of ecological sensibilities, but also of poverty, race, gender, democracy and equity. Naomi Klein, in her recent book, This Changes Everything, catalogues the mounting collective actions that have taken place across the globe in recent years, in the form of local oppositions to fossil fuel developments, divestment campaigns, and the growing number and size of marches and other forms of civil disobedience directed at climate change. She has convinced me that we are in fact seeing something new emerge: not only are linkages being drawn between climate change and fossil fuels in heavy black pen, we are also observing a considerable disenchantment with those key narratives that have defined our neoliberal era--the same era during which we have seen the most significant growth in emissions. Even the Pope has come out in support for the climate: he has stated his plans to weigh in to sway this December’s meetings.
What can we as environmental sociologists do to contribute? Most importantly, we can walk the walk. Be a role model for your students and participate in civil actions taking place in your neighbourhoods. But there is far more we have to offer, on the basis of the research we have been conducting for the past four decades. There are many important lessons we could draw from this research record, but three rise to the top of the list for me, and the more we can do to insert these lessons not just into peer-reviewed academic journals into public dialogues, the more we can shape those dialogues in constructive ways: First, we can highlight the fact that far more people are concerned about climate change than not, as our survey research shows consistently. This majority offers a tremendous, albeit latent political force that could be mobilized with effective campaigns that highlight climate change’s clear and present danger, a danger not only to other people at some future point in time, but rather to all of us, right now. Moreover, the number of people who reap significantly more benefits than costs of emitting greenhouse gas emissions represents a very small minority, to which our research on everything from the gross disproportions in emissions within and across countries, to the personal costs of consumerism can attest.
Second, we can highlight the machinery behind the skeptic discourse that has so effectively stifled constructive deliberations in many western countries. With the research done by environmental sociologists on climate skepticism, not to mention media studies, we are in a better position to soundly discredit this discourse, and its pundits, than anyone.
Finally, we can highlight the fact that current debates are only the latest chapter in a long enduring battle between the concentration of economic power and the just distribution of basic human rights. The evidence that ‘trickle down economics’ does exactly the opposite is mounting by leaps and bounds, and we can add to that litany the extreme inequities in the distribution of environmental risks, including climate risks.
Can we make Paris different? It doesn't hurt to recall that the French Revolution started in Paris almost exactly 200 years before the first Conference of the Parties, when French citizens pretty much dismantled every social institution that had defined European society up to that point, achieved without the benefit of the communications technologies we enjoy today. In the end, trying is always better than not, and trying hard is always better than just trying, particularly when we could not possibly have more to lose.