Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Taking Sides with Planet Earth

With the rush of commentary emanating out of Paris, and the unblinking pace of statements, drafts, positions, and proposals, I have found it all a bit overwhelming, and difficult to stop and take stock. But as we reach the final days and hours, I want to record a few main impressions:

  • 1.5 degrees C: it was for me a welcome surprise to see this ambitious number take a prominent place in the discussions. Many scientists have criticized the 2 C measure as arbitrary and too permissive to avert serious harm. Now many of the G77 states, with the support of US ambassador Todd Stern and the 'high ambitions coalition,' are trying to get the lower number into the agreement. Secretary Kerry says it will be 'aspirational,' not really a set goal. Still, the accelerated pace it implies--much larger reductions by 2030, elimination of fossil fuels by 2050--will be a salutary recalibration--if it makes it into the agreement.
  • Legally binding rules for transparency, accountability, review, and recalibrated goals: with careful support from the US, even more careful support from China, muted opposition from India and others, this concept may make it into the final agreement, and that will be big news. Without it, the conference will have failed--no question. The current INDC proposals clearly won't get us where we need to go. 'Ramping-up', coupled with verifiable trust, has to start the day after everyone goes home. These binding measures address those gaps in trust and performance. They will be the conference's most important outcome.
  • Finance: this sticky question feels hopelessly unresolved. The OECD says on behalf of wealthy nations that we're almost there, i.e. close to the magic $1 trillion over 10 years. Developing nations say the books are cooked, with double counting, old money called new, loans instead of grants, corporate instead of public funding. There is no clearly correct path through this thicket. What seems obvious to me is that it's a hard thing to ask for, given the US political paralysis, the downturn in China and chronic low-growth in Europe. The fact that China, Brazil, and other newly richer nations are willing to consider being net donors is good news. The fact that climate justice demands more from the reluctant rich is indisputable, but who can make it happen?
  • INDC promises, as far as they go, are great--the 'bottom-up' strategy has been a remarkable success so far--but are they real? One essential driver--higher carbon pricing to accelerate the conversion to renewables--has been off the table from the get-go. The parallel process, where giant corporations come to Paris and promise to convert their energy sources to renewables, is impressive in its way but is it trustworthy? Massive public investment in scaled-up solar and wind would look more reliable to me, but where is that capital coming from? The conference has been the scene of a hundred proposals for meeting its goals, but the overarching question of capital allocation is addressed in piecemeal fashion at best. 
[Update: Yesterday [12/9] Ségolène Royal, France's minister of the environment and energy, tweeted that the [private] financial sector must take responsibility for raising the capital necessary for a low-carbon economy ("Le secteur financier a la responsabilité de mobiliser les capitaux nécessaires à la transition vers l'économie bas-carbone
  • Which leads me to the big question that has hovered over this process from the start: can the capitalist world-system address this existential question in a meaningful way? All the technical diplomatic maneuvering happens within that framework. Promises will be kept or broken, progress accelerated or slowed, through political and financial mechanisms driven by that market system. For all the hopeful rhetoric, structural impediments--think Koch brothers, ExxonMobil, and the Republican Party if you're American, but their equivalents are everywhere--are at risk to delay and pervert the process. The world's political leaders (and their financial backers) have bumbled and fumbled with this issue for 25 years, and Paris, though much smoother than Copenhagen, is an adjustment, not a radically new departure.
I was struck by two articles--one by a Hindustan Times editorialist, the other in Le Monde by 'agro-ecologist' Pierre Rabhi--who call for a complete reorientation of our human perspective. Harmony with nature and ecological balance, not so many carbon parts per million or renewable Gigawatts, are their goals. Not a series of adjustments, however comprehensive or sincere, but a wholly different way of living on the earth--that, these authors suggest, is the only way out.

The Paris conference did not take place in that register. The anti-capitalist rhetoric of Naomi Klein and others was marginalized to a Paris suburb and ridiculed by Andrew Revkin in the New York Times. So be it. The mainstream alternative, the COP with its 195 nations, its 50 page memorandum with 800 bracketed alternatives, its corporate sponsors and incremental adjustments, is an impressive achievement in a world so riven by differences. But is it enough? No. Can it ever be? I doubt it, not enough to avert huge climatic disruptions, suffering, human die-offs, global civil strife. That's the bleak underside of the Paris summit. I admire the many dedicated civil servants and climate advocates who have made it happen, and will (I suspect) bring it to a reasonably harmonious conclusion. But at the end of the day, I think we need to be guided through this wilderness by prophets rather than politicians.

1 comment:

  1. As I come to the end of this year-long project, I thought I'd post a comment, just to see if I could. How about the rest of you--anything to say?