Saturday, July 18, 2015

From the People’s Climate March to Paris

On the bus

Rochester sent two busloads and several hundred other folks to the historic People’s Climate March in New York City on September 21st.  When you wake up at two in the morning and crawl onto a bus with many other excited folks anticipating a day of cheering with 400,000 others demanding action from their leaders on Climate Change, you don’t really have any idea whether it will do any good. Should I just have stayed in bed? Will this particular march matter? Or more cynically, does anything an ordinary individual can do at this point in time (where business as usual is condemning us to at least a 2C world and no end in sight) make a difference on a scale and time frame that will matter? It is hard to see all this as you look sleepy-eyed into the dark, complicated future where salvation depends on unlikely noble actions of many people. Indeed, there is no historical equivalent to this manmade Climate Change crisis and certainly no precedent to guide us.

On the road to sustainability

At the UN Climate Summit 2014 in New York City two days after the march, many of world leaders pledged to take action to curb greenhouse gas emissions, thus setting the stage for the COP20 Climate Conference at Lima, Peru. That Lima conference was preceded by a historic US and China agreement that gave a shot of adrenalin to the possibility that the biggest polluters might start getting serious. Lima in turn set the stage for the November/December COP21 Paris Climate Conference, another step in a twenty year succession of promises, caveats, and haggling over what actually defines sustainability and what would constitute a fair deal. Lima was, like most of the other climate talks, a success only in the sense that it didn’t fail.

It should seem obvious that sustainability means humanity thriving while trying to curb the excesses of development. But 190 countries jockeying for the best deal for themselves and doing as little as possible to make Paris a success makes it all problematic. Unlike the prisoner’s dilemma (the reasoning that seems to guide each country’s strategic positioning in each of the past climate talks), where there is at least one scenario where one prisoner is set free, for Climate Change, no country will walk away unscathed.

One of the goals of the COP21 Paris Treaty is to avoid another debacle like the UN climate conference in Copenhagen. This time around carbon emission pledges are being tracked very carefully. You can track those pledges here: Who has pledged what for 2015 UN climate pact? Yet there is still much to be ironed out. In the first place, comparison among country’s pledges (or INDCs) are impossible because most countries are using different metrics. Secondly, they are only pledges and may have little effect if they aren’t binding. Thirdly, most experts agree that even when all the pledges are added together they don’t add up to the agreed 2C goal. And finally, many scientists believe that the 2C goal is set too high and will result in catastrophic warming.  
Another critical aspect of the COP21 is the Green Climate Fund, which is an attempt to help the developing countries cope with the damages that the developed countries caused. As of July 10, 2015, 35 countries have announced: USD 10.2 billion—5.8 announced and signed, 4.4 announced but not signed (Status of Pledges and Contributions made to the Green Climate Fund, Green Climate Fund). Is this enough? Probably not even close.  

Kitchen table conversations on Climate Change

When asked by host Greg Dalton of Climate One (listen to this podcast (THE ROAD TO PARIS: CHRISTIANA FIGUERES AND WILLIAM REILLY (June 16, 2015)) what should Americans be talking about at kitchen table conversations on Climate Change, Christiana Figueres (Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)) said (paraphrasing):   …there’s GOT to be a kitchen table conversation…, … so the people begin to understand the impact of what we are doing…, … there is so much awareness of this issue outside of the US instead of inside…, … I talk to people around the world who already have Climate Change having direct impacts on their life…, …already they are witnessing the migration of trees, trees are ‘moving’ up the mountain because they no longer have the temperature…, … it’s about experiential pain…,   

The greatest tragedy in this worldwide crisis is that so many who are going to be affected are not engaged or understand the gravity of the Paris treaty. Within the United States, our politicians do not have conversations amongst themselves on Climate Change, and I am pretty sure our local media editors are not having a conversation about the crisis of our age either. Throughout history the greatest tragedies occur among those who didn’t even have a chance to talk about the most important events in their lives. Those hapless farm boys on both sides of the conflagration at the start of our Civil War, eager to get out of their chores and find some new adventures, had no idea that they would be mowed down by the hundreds of thousands and left to languish in their hot, dreary tents dying from diseases for which there was no cure, had had no say in the way people of one color treated people of another color, but paid the full measure of their devotion to a cause they didn’t understand regardless.  We in the developed world are not having a conversation about the inevitable events that will affect everyone, including future generations.

Putting the heat on the Paris treaty

This statement from “Top climate envoys confident Paris on course for success”: “… although scientists say it’s well short of what is required to avert disaster” -- isn’t just a caveat, it’s a disaster. The likelihood of a treaty that only mandates plans for taking climate actions, but not the actions themselves, is not really a sign of hope at this late date. The political 2C goal is too high; even a 2C world is too hot, and we aren’t going to be able to achieve 2C anyway under the accumulated pledges being made so far. The numbers aren’t adding up.

But countries (well, the developed countries anyway) are getting excited because they are likely to make some kind of agreement at Paris, which might be a platform from which to make better agreements down the road. Maybe. Maybe not.

This is leading towards a pathetic Paris Treaty and we must ask ourselves (even in the light of the past twenty years of failed climate agreements) whether this is OK. Should we accept the good (any agreement no matter how toothless) and thereby kill the chance for the perfect? Should we just hope 190 countries just sign something and hope for the best?  

Or should we heed climate scientists (over 97%) who say  we are on a trajectory that is leading us to dangerous tipping points and therefore nothing less than a treaty with a very aggressive approach that will actually keep temperatures down to a sustainable level will actually work in a world where physics (not politics) rule?

To be at a point in human existence where we must ask ourselves these incredible questions is one thing. To sit back and stay silent while our fate and the fate of all living things on this planet is being decided by what looks like a very watered down agreement is quite another. If we remain sleeping during this momentous trip to Paris without voicing our concerns, are we merely consumers of this planet or citizens of it?

Time passes.

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