Whatever Happens Next, This is What COP21 Lets Us Do Against Climate Change

The Paris Agreement has been signed, as of Saturday December 12, and Le Bourget is closing up shop. The forty thousand people gathered there have largely dispersed; thousands more floating on the fringes of COP21 are also leaving. And Paris, which has been beautifully welcoming (every metro station fitted out with guides for lost conference-goers), will no longer have to deal with quite so much bad French within its city limits.

The outcome: 21 years after the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change came into effect, we finally have an international climate change agreement – a step that is perhaps 20 years overdue, but still welcome. Signed by almost two hundred nations (to be ratified as legally binding next year), the agreement acknowledges that the world must go fossil-fuel free, sets out a game plan to do so and a review process to ensure countries hit their targets. It also has detailed provisions to set up financial flows from developed to developing countries to aid climate change adaptation and mitigation.

Was COP21 a success? As with any agreement that involved heavy compromise between so many conflicting parties, it depends on your perspective. If your perspective is that an agreement about limiting the consumption of fossil fuels should somewhere contain the phrase “fossil fuels,” then perhaps not. Diplomacy means word games, and the Paris Agreement is filled with them. Try to understand what the universal target for limiting temperature rise actually is within this document, and again it depends: “well below” 2 ºC is there, juxtaposed with assurances about “efforts to limit temperature increase” to 1.5 ºC. The former is what the USA and others fought for – the latter, small island nations. However, national commitments to emissions cuts still indicate a 3-4 ºC rise, a target which nobody on this Earth wants.

The actual analysis of the Paris Agreement and its impacts might end up a job for the historians. We know we have the political backbone now for global collective action against climate change: the next step, as everyone has spent two weeks saying, is to use it. Whether or not this agreement was a success will depend entirely upon what we, as a global civilisation, do next.

For now, admitting to the myopia of the present moment, a few thoughts about the process I have seen glimpses of over the course of two weeks at Le Bourget.

Addressing global inequalities in a world at risk

One of the biggest fights in climate negotiations over the past twenty-odd years – and one that also showed up in various forms in Paris – has been over the inclusion of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR) in a universal climate agreement. Equity refers to the need to acknowledge historical responsibility for climate change, and to apportion the responsibility for fighting it accordingly. Likewise, CBDR says that economic level should be taken into account while demanding emissions cuts from nations. The initial detailing of CBDR in the early ’90s only had two economic levels – developed and developing – which have since been expanded.

What this argument really boils down to is whether to acknowledge global inequality while addressing climate change, and if so how. Countries such as India, China, Brazil and South Africa have led the movement to say that we should, while developed countries have argued that the world is flatter now than it was in the early ’90s – citing economies such as India, China, Brazil and South Africa as examples of that fact. India has insisted that it needs to grow further, that energy is needed for that growth, and that therefore India will continue expanding its coal industry until its investment in renewables has bears fruit.

The resulting debates at COP21 led, at times, to some rancour in civil society discussions. Equity and CBDR were ultimately retained in the Paris Agreement, and while I cannot speak to the unresolved issues between negotiators after that concession, disagreements clearly still remained in civil society. I wandered into one panel last Friday afternoon where it seemed like if there was fruit on hand, it would have been flying.

That level of hostility was unfortunate, because at its root this issue has little to do with coal or unconstrained development. The combined natural and human disasters produced by climate change will play on pre-existing fault lines. They will take the global inequalities we have today and amplify them. In his book Late Victorian Holocausts, Mike Davis attributed the emergence of the so-called ‘Third World’ to just such a climatic effect – waves of El Niño-inspired drought combined with the ravages of empire producing famines in the late nineteenth century, which killed tens of millions across the tropical world. The resulting weakening of countries in the tropical belt, he wrote, still has its traces in global inequalities more than a century on.

We are going to see more extreme weather events and more human conflicts; some of that is no longer in our hands. What is in our hands is making sure that some countries are not less prepared for it than others – and economic level alone does not tell us how prepared a country is. Global inequalities matter when we talk about climate change, because even beneath the sheen of an emerging economy there is often still weak infrastructure, meaning weak climate resilience. Natural disasters reveal those infrastructural fault lines, as the recent floods did in Chennai.

Infrastructure takes capital and energy both to build and to maintain. And thus that troika of contentious words at COP21: “India,” “coal,” and “development” (no less contentious within India than outside of it). The debate, however, is far too vital to let it fall into the traps it did in the civil society sections of Paris. The arguments I witnessed here were simplistic and self-evident: naturally we need to rid ourselves of dirty fuels, and it’s also true impoverished countries need to raise their human development index. But at this moment, the human race is like a patient on life support with poison coming through the tubes. No one doubts anymore that we need to stop the poison. But how we do so does matter; developing countries need to be able to build good, resilient infrastructure along the way, to weather what’s coming. A healthy debate about energy and development pathways was sorely needed at COP21 – but a nuanced one never seemed to occur.

Economic versus moral imperatives

Whether or not we manage to address global inequalities, the human cost of climate change will be great. I went in to COP21 thinking that the need to safeguard human beings and the natural world would be at the top of everyone’s priorities at Le Bourget: in words, at least, if not deeds. This is the face of climate change the public sees: the polar bear adrift on an ice floe, the vanished rainforest, the human child whose family has fled from drought, the woman who lost her family to flood. How else to drive compromise except through our own capacity for empathy – and our fear that the people we are close to might be next?

In the end, it was the how else that preoccupied me. During the war of brackets that broke out at COP21, first ecosystem health and then human rights were snipped out of the purpose section of the agreement. Human rights ended up in the preamble, along with the list of priorities under human rights – gender equality, indigenous rights, intergenerational equity, food security, and a just transition in the workforce. Confined to the preamble these guiding principles have no actual power, said Kashmala Kakakhel of the Women’s Environment and Development Organisation: they are not part of the plan outlined in the operative part of the text.

A question from Jannie Staffanson, representing the indigenous Sami people of northern Scandinavia, has been on my mind since last Friday: “How can the purpose of these negotiations not be people?” How indeed? What else are we doing this for?

One answer, with the “moral imperative” whittled out of the text, is the economic imperative to resist climate change. On my plane out of Paris on Saturday, a helpful journalist in the next seat gave me a quick lesson on the economic impetus to shift to renewables. Not only is there a growing recognition among corporate leaders that fossil fuels are not economically sustainable, and not only are wind and solar energy becoming equivalent to fossil fuels in cost, but renewables present a growth market. They are actually more profitable to invest in than fossil fuels these days. All that the business sector really needed was the political go ahead, which Paris did provide.

Nigel Topping, CEO of We Mean Business, explained on Monday that Paris had sent a “strong signal” to businesses that they can be confident moving forward with decarbonisation and investment in renewables. “Companies that don’t move fast enough will have a retrograde industrial policy,” he said.

Of course, if the primary driver of action against climate change is an economic imperative, our solutions may not be the same as if the primary desire was to reduce suffering. Solutions will overlap – it makes sense from both standpoints to get rid of our dependance on fossil fuels. But in the economic view, it may make less sense to have a system where the haves give money to the have nots (no strings attached) so that the latter can cope and build future resilience. Thus, in Paris, the painfully slow pace at which national commitments trickled in to meet a promised $100-billion yearly fund to finance adaptation and mitigation in the developing world.

Right now, many bets seem to be on the economic imperative weaning us off of fossil fuels. And maybe it will. If market forces move towards decarbonisation, that could have greater momentum than anything the squabbling political actors at COP21 were able to muster.

But that draws me to a question that has occurred to me many times in the past two weeks: If we are drowning, does it matter how we’re saved?

If we want a better world than the one that’s sinking us, maybe it does.

Holding fast to red lines

The global grassroots movement for climate action is driven by a moral imperative – but for that movement to be more effective, it needs a stronger voice in state-led planning. Many civil society members at COP21 complained about their limited access to negotiations. When I asked Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace on Friday what argument negotiators gave for cutting human rights from the operative text, his answer was an angry: “They gave none.” The entire process occurred out of sight.

For the vast numbers of activists, artists and concerned citizens who converged on Paris for COP21, everything went on out of sight. Some groups told me they had a member “on the inside,” as if covert ops were required to get a view of the negotiations. A group of southern African women farmers staying at my hostel lacked such access; they tried and failed to set up a meeting with negotiators in Paris. And the barrier went both ways: for most of those sucked up into Le Bourget, there were only a few echoes from the civil society movements outside.

But those movements were substantial. I caught a glimpse of the action at my hostel, which had been taken over for those two weeks by a group called Place to B. Place to B organized daily talks (by speakers including Naomi Klein, Vandana Shiva and Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman) and innovation sessions to talk about climate action. Immersed in COP21, I seldom had time to do more than express appreciation for the day’s program over my morning baguette with cheese. But on Friday evening, returning from a bustling Le Bourget where everyone seemed ready to stay up all night, waiting for the final agreement, I found a moment’s quiet back at the hostel. There was a similar anticipatory agitation all around me, as I began packing for my flight.

An Australian activist named Margi O’Brien, one bunk over in my room, told me that the atmosphere those past two weeks had been phenomenal. Having been involved in environmentalist movements since the ’60s, she could feel change happening, people coming together from across the globe in common cause. All that was missing: a direct link between all of that energy and the negotiations.

“We feel like we’re talking to the wind,” she said.

At midday on Saturday, just as negotiations reached their final hours, that energy was channeled into demonstrations. Originally planned as civil disobedience, the demonstrations were given the official go ahead by the government only on Friday, as all such public gatherings had been banned in the wake of the Paris attacks.

Later on, Laure Ducos of BLOOM, a marine conservation group, told me what the “Red Lines” demonstration felt like on the ground. Beginning at the Arc de Triomphe, it transformed from a peaceful and musical morning assembly along the Avenue de la Grande Armée into a sit-in at the Eiffel Tower by afternoon. “When I arrived at midday, everyone was singing,” Ducos said. There were trumpets playing, drum beats sounding, people from many countries encouraging the world to uphold human rights and keep fossil fuels in the ground. “People didn’t know each other, but they were fighting for the same cause,” said Ducos. “We all have different approaches, but they all converged on climate justice.” Words she would use to describe the gathering: “Happy. Energetic. International. Poetic.”

Red banners were spread down the avenue, representing the lines we cannot cross to avoid the worst effects of climate change – red tulips to pay tribute to those that climate change has killed and will kill – red umbrellas turned to the sky.

On 350.org’s website, an organisation that has already spurred the de-investment of $3.4 trillion from fossil fuels, this is the explanation given for the Red Lines demonstration’s name: “In order to avoid dangerous climate change we know we must keep at least 80% of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground. We must completely decarbonise our economy before 2050. Keeping these fuels in the ground is our movement’s red line.”

Did COP21 deliver on those limits? Not even close. Does that make the Paris Agreement a failure? Again, it’s too soon to say. For the first time in history, COP21 has given us a political backbone for real action against climate change. The next step is that action, and Paris brought together decision-makers who are now dispersing back to their homes with strengthened convictions – part of an expanding network of souls who are intent on not letting the world drown.