The Paris Agreement: Paper Heroes Widen the Climate Justice Gap

December 14, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

By comparison to what it could have been, it’s a miracle. By comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster….   The talks in Paris are the best there have ever been. And that is a terrible indictment.”  George Monbiot, The Guardian , December 12, 2015

Image Removed

Banner saying “COP 21 +3 Degrees Celsius” on fire at climate protest in Paris, December 12, 2015.  Photo by John Foran

The day after can be a source of regret, or a new beginning.  It all depends on how much we can perceive the importance of events in time, in history, in life itself.

On Saturday, December 12, in Paris, the negotiators at the COP 21 UN climate summit came to a final decision on the text they have been negotiating for four years, or six, or twenty-one by signaling their assent to a thirty-two page document, titled simply “ The Paris Agreement .”  Not quite a treaty, since it is not really legally binding in a strict sense, it gives the world its second global climate accord, superseding the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, and replacing it with a global map for our climate future agreed by all 196 parties to it, the nations of the world.

It’s just not a map to any kind of future we should want. 

Saving the World:  The Master Narrative

Scenes of relief and jubilation broke out on the floor of the closing plenary when Laurent Fabius, the President of COP 21, gaveled the session to a close amidst thunderous applause late on Saturday afternoon.  It was a huge diplomatic accomplishment to get the nations to agree to anything, as anyone who has ever followed a COP can attest.  And in this sense, it was a miracle, since going into Paris the parties were far apart on all the tough negotiating issues that had stymied progress over the years:  who should be responsible for emissions reductions, how massive adaptation funds should be raised and allocated to the Global South, and who would help climate-impacted countries recover from the loss and damage of catastrophic weather events.

Of the agreement, Laurent Fabius said : “It is my deep conviction that we have come up with an ambitious and balanced agreement. Today it is a moment of truth.”  Not shy about taking credit, Barack Obama said “ We’ve transformed the United States into the global leader in fighting climate change,” and tweeted :  “ This is huge: Almost every country in the world just signed on to the #Paris Agreement on climate change – thanks to American leadership.”  Al Gore was “visibly moved” and John Kerry announced “It’s a victory for all of the planet and future generations.”   French President François Hollande observed that “12 December 2015 will be a date to go down in history as a major leap for mankind.  It is rare in any lifetime to have a chance to change the world.”

Some international experts agreed.  Lord Stern, author of Why Are We Waiting? The Logic, Urgency, and Promise of Tackling Climate Change, proclaimed : “This is a historic moment, not just for us and our world today, but for our children, our grandchildren and future generations. The Paris Agreement is a turning point in the world’s fight against unmanaged climate change, which threatens prosperity and wellbeing among both rich and poor countries.”

Professor Hans Joachim (John) Schellnhuber, Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research effused : “ The spirits of Paris have defeated the ghosts of Copenhagen! Reason and moral combined at the COP21 to deliver a historical climate agreement that finally transcends national egotisms.”  In the view of Eva Filzmoser, director at Carbon Market Watch, “The French Presidency achieved a miracle in presenting a detailed treaty acceptable to all Parties. At first reading, the new global climate treaty is surprisingly positive. We are still looking for the loopholes.”

Most of the world press will by now have followed suit.  The message that goes out to the world will be the saving the planet one, tempered to some degree by any closer look at the details, and failing to credit the success of the climate justice movement in raising awareness about the issues, or noting its own, more nuanced and critical assessments, in the narratives that are being written at a furious pace.

Burning the World:  The Climate Movement Judges the Paris Outcome

First reactions from the climate movements, NGOs, and activists were decidedly mixed, and where one stood on the Agreement could be a political litmus test of where the climate movement’s fault lines and political sensibilities lie. 

Truly celebratory praise came instantly from the  42 million-member on-line movement Avaaz, in the form of an e-mail from Emma Ruby-Sachs titled:  “ We did it! – A turning point in human history”:

World leaders at the UN climate talks have just set a landmark goal that can save everything we love! This is what we marched for, what we signed, called, donated, messaged, and hoped for: a brilliant and massive turning point in human history.

It’s called net-zero human emissions – a balancing of what we release into the air and what is taken out – and when the dust settles and the Paris Agreement is in the hands of lawmakers, clean energy will be the best, cheapest, and most effective way to keep their promise. This gives us the platform we need to realize the dream of a safe future for generations!

Out of great crises, humanity has borne beautiful visions. World War II gave rise to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an enduring standard for our spirit and capacity as one people. The fall of Apartheid led South Africa to the single most bold and progressive constitution in the world.

Ambitious visions like these rely on movements to carry them into the mainstream, and on movements to make them reality in our everyday lives. Today is no exception .

Some of the trouble with this formulation is indicated by other large climate NGOs.  There were many shades of criticism, beginning with the cautious optimism of Greenpeace International Director Kumi Naidoo, who drew the balance sheet this way :

The wheel of climate action turns slowly, but in Paris it has turned. This deal puts the fossil fuel industry on the wrong side of history.

There’s much in the text that has been diluted and polluted by the people who despoil our planet, but it contains a new imperative to limit temperature rises to 1.5 degrees. That single number, and the new goal of net zero emissions by the second half of this century, will cause consternation in the boardrooms of coal companies and the palaces of oil-exporting states….

There’s not enough in this deal for the nations and people on the frontlines of climate change. It contains an inherent, ingrained injustice. The nations which caused this problem have promised too little help to the people who are already losing their lives and livelihoods.

The global movement, far more radical in its views than it used to be, went further.  In the words of Bill McKibben, “Every government seems now to recognize that the fossil fuel era must end and soon. But the power of the fossil fuel industry is reflected in the text, which drags out the transition so far that endless climate damage will be done. Since pace is the crucial question now, activists must redouble our efforts to weaken that industry. This didn’t save the planet but it may have saved the chance of saving the planet.” May Boeve, 350’s Executive Director, believes the Agreement can be used in the fight against the fossil fuel corporations and countries:“This marks the end of the era of fossil fuels. There is no way to meet the targets laid out in this agreement without keeping coal, oil and gas in the ground. The text should send a clear signal to fossil fuel investors: divest now.

The climate justice and radical spectrum was unequivocal in its condemnation.  In a spirited defiance of police orders not to assemble (the government gave in at the last minute), an estimated 15,000 or more determined climate activists gathered to protest the agreement’s crossing of “red lines” for the planet and to honor those whose lives have been lost to climate injustice.

Image Removed  

Some of the thousands of people who brought their “red lines for the climate that must not be crossed” to the Arc de Triomphe on December 12, 2015.  Photo:  John Foran

And at a gathering of thousands of activists who held hands in front of the Eiffel Tower on Saturday, Naomi Klein said what had to be said

Our leaders have shown themselves willing to set our world on fire and we will not let that happen.  Our mood today is not one of despair but rather a clarifying sense of commitment and purpose.  We knew that these were not the real leaders.  We knew that the leaders were in the streets, that the leaders were in the fields, that this city is filled with climate heroes. 

Despite their beautiful words, our leaders remained trapped in a broken system and a crashing worldview based on dominance of people and the planet and that worldview simply does not allow them to align their words, their goals, with their actions.  

And so the gap is increased between the rhetoric and the goal of safety and the reality of the epic danger they are allowing to unfold.  And the gap is increased between the expressions of solidarity with the most vulnerable and the reality of those leaders consistently putting the interests of the rich and powerful before the interests of the vulnerable, and indeed the interests of all humanity.

Our leaders have none of the courage that it takes to stand up to the corporate interests that are responsible for this crisis.  They can’t even say the words “fossil fuels” in this text.  So it is up to us to do what they so clearly refuse to do, which is to stand up to the polluters and make them pay.

And we will do this everywhere, using every tool that we can.  We will do it in the streets with protests like this one, and we will do it in the face of every single polluting project that they decide to try to roll out.

We are doing this already, and we’re winning….  This is a global movement.  Some of us call it Blockadia.  So we will take them on in the streets, the forests, and in the water.  In our schools, in our places of worship, and in our cities.  And we’re going after them with our art, with our culture, because as we know, the logic of austerity in incompatible with life on Earth….

We are accelerating the rollout of a society that is based on protecting life, on climate justice, on energy democracy….

As we go forward, we also have to acknowledge the grief, grief that we will not deny nor will we suppress, grief at what we have already lost, for those whom we have already lost.

And we acknowledge that there is also rage at those who could have acted long ago but chose not to, and at those who make that same disastrous decision still.

But mostly, mostly there is joy.  Mostly there is joy and resolve as we witness the next world taking shape before our eyes.  We used to think that it was our job to save the world.  Then we realized that we are really saving ourselves.  We used to say that were here to protect nature, and now we say that we are nature, protecting herself.

Under the title, “Too weak, too late, say climate justice campaigners” can be found an extensive compendium of radical opinion that emerged within hours of the outcome (the following indented quotes come from this very useful piece).

“This deal offers a frayed life-line to the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.” – Helen Szoke, executive director, Oxfam

“The US is a cruel hypocrite. Obama spoke about embracing the US’s role of creating the problem and the need to take responsibility. This is all talk and no action. They created a clause that excludes compensation and liability for the losses and damages brought on by climate chaos. This is a deliberate plan to make the rich richer and the poor poorer.” –Lidy Nacpil, Asian People’s Movement on Debt and Development

“We, Indigenous Peoples, are the redline. We have drawn that line with our bodies against the privatisation of nature, to dirty fossil fuels and to climate change. We are the defenders of the world’s most biologically and culturally diverse regions. We will protect our sacred lands. Our knowledge has much of the solutions to climate change that humanity seeks. It’s only when they listen to our message that ecosystems of the world will be renewed.” – Tom Goldtooth, Executive Director, Indigenous Environmental Network

“The Paris Agreement will be known as the Polluters’ Great Escape since it weakens rules on the rich countries and puts the world on a pathway to 3C warming.” – Victor Menotti, International Forum on Globalization

“The price tag for climate damages this century will be in the trillions, with much of that damage in poor and vulnerable countries. The US is responsible for much of that toll, but they don’t care and they won’t pay. With arm twisting of developing countries, they have language now protecting the richest and heaping devastating costs onto the poorest.” – Doreen Stabinsky, Professor of Global Environmental Politics, College of the Atlantic, Maine, US

“Close to 100% reductions are needed by developed countries already by 2030 for a reasonable chance of 2°, let alone 1.5° world. Paris had the opportunity to deliver radical pre-2020 action and did none of this. Developed countries’ refusal to commit to either cuts or necessary finance means we are sleepwalking into climate chaos.” – Niclas Hällström, What Next Forum

“The Paris negotiators are caught up in a frenzy of self-congratulation about 1.5 degrees being included in the agreement, but the reality is that the reductions on the table are still locking us into 3 degrees of global warming…. The bullying and arm twisting of rich countries, combined with the pressure to agree to a deal at all costs, has ensured that the agreement will prevent poor countries from seeking redress for the devastating impacts of a crisis that has been thrust upon them.” – Nick Dearden the director of Global Justice Now

“The deal fails to deliver the rules and tools to ensure that climate change doesn’t spiral out of control. Many in Paris seem to have forgotten the very people that this climate agreement was supposed to protect….  In spite of this result in Paris, people all over the world must push their governments to go beyond what they have agreed here.” – Teresa Anderson, Policy Officer, ActionAid International

The key organizers of climate justice actions by civil society during COP 21 were unanimous in their condemnation of the outcome.  “Rich countries have moved the goal posts so far that we are left with a sham of a deal in Paris. Through piecemeal pledges and bullying tactics, rich countries have pushed through a very bad deal,” said Sara Shaw, Friends of the Earth International climate justice and energy coordinator.  Asad Rehman of the same organization, who knows as much about justice issues at the COP as anyone, put it this way:  “ The iceberg has struck, the ship is going down and the band is still playing to warm applause.”

Attac France, one of the key climate justice organizations on the ground in Paris, active in every aspect of the mobilization of civil society, was equally critical.  Activist and spokesperson on climate issues Maxime Coombes said :  “The mandate given to COP 21, François Hollande and Laurent Fabius was not to get an accord at any price.  To use the terms ‘ambitious,’ ‘just,’ and ‘legally binding’ in presenting the Agreement is an intellectual fraud.  And to add a vague reference to ‘climate justice’ is contemptuous of all who have mobilized under its name for years.”  Attac spokesperson Thomas Coutrot added:  “The emptiness of this agreement reflects the powerlessness of governments to attack the true causes of climate disruption.  This comes as no surprise:  the greed of the multinationals, the fossil fuel energy, and the obsession with growth are considered untouchable.”

Danny Chivers and Jess Worth, who have been providing excellent coverage of COP 21 for The New Internationalist, evaluate the outcome in terms of the four criteria of The People’s Test developed by movement organizations from the global South.  These are:

1. Catalyze immediate, urgent and drastic emission reductions;
2. Provide adequate support for transformation;
3. Deliver justice for impacted people;
4. Focus on genuine, effective action rather than false solutions.

The title of their piece gives the answer:  “Paris deal: Epic fail on a planetary scale.”

Where is the Justice?

The central failures of what has happened in Paris have been underlined by the trenchant criticisms above.  Based on a year-long study of the process, actually stretching back to my first time inside the COP in Durban four years ago, and shaped by these roller-coaster two weeks in Paris, I offer here my first reflections on what is, by any measure, a historic moment in the sense that it will shape all our futures.

There are two huge gaps between the lines of the Agreement:  one of greenhouse gas emissions and one of elementary climate justice.

The INDCs that constitute the core of the Agreement’s stance on the greenhouse gases that are driving global warming faster and faster toward the cliff of extreme danger, give us a world of something over three degrees Celsius – in other worlds, Paris has been a completely unacceptable failure to take the kind of action that climate science is screaming for and the world’s people must have.

If anything, mentioning 1.5 degrees in the text only heightens this glaring hole at the center of the plan to save the planet, highlighting how far away our governments are from being able to rise to the greatest challenge that humanity has ever faced.

Of the 180 pledges received, only two have been judged “sufficient” by Climate Action Tracker , those of Gambia and Bhutan, whose share in global emissions is vanishingly small, and whose courageous actions are therefore symbolic, in both the sense of “only symbolic” and “visionary and humane.”

Kevin Anderson, Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, noted that “The Copenhagen text included aviation and shipping emissions, that together are as large as the emissions of Britain and Germany combined, but they are not mentioned in the Paris text.’  Overall, he finds the agreement “weaker than Copenhagen” and “not consistent with the latest science.”  This is put more colorfully but just as strongly by the United States’ most well-known climate scientist, James Hansen:  “ It’s a fraud really, a fake,” he says, rubbing his head. “It’s just bullshit for them to say: ‘We’ll have a 2C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.’ It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned.”

So, emissions remain essentially out of control, pace the optimists who make observations along the lines of “We have cut a degree or more of the business-as-usual scenario already, and we will do more and more as time goes on and the provisions for adjusting national pledges become increasingly ambitious.”  It is very hard for me to see this happening (and I’m an optimist too most days). 

The words “climate justice” and “just transition” actually each appear once in the Agreement’s preamble, but they are passed over as foreign notions held by unnamed others:  “ Noting the importance of ensuring the integrity of all ecosystems, including oceans, and the protection of biodiversity, recognized by some cultures as Mother Earth, and noting the importance for some of the concept of ‘climate justice’, when taking action to address climate change.”

In reality, instead of justice, the most vulnerable nations in the world have been betrayed by the global North and the big emitters like China and India. 

Loss and damage remain words on paper, with no permanent standing, no mechanism for finding the funds, and a clear statement that no one is “liable” to pay assist countries hard hit already by climate catastrophe like the Philippines and many others to come.  The decision text on this makes clear “that Article 8 of the Agreement does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation.”  :

“The idea of even discussing loss and damage now or in the future was off limits. The Americans told us it would kill the COP,” said Leisha Beardmore, the chief negotiator for the Seychelles. “They have always been telling us: ‘Don’t even say that’.”

Instead of this, developing countries are offered “ Comprehensive risk assessment and management, risk insurance facilities, climate risk pooling and other insurance solutions.”

There is no firm commitment from any country to actually make a contribution to the Green Climate Fund’s promised $100 billion annually by 2020.  These funds are for making the front-line communities of the global South more resilient to the inevitable disasters that even 1.5 degrees with serve up with increasing frequency.  Instead, developed countries are “strongly urged” to find “a concrete roadmap” to locate this missing money! 

There is nothing binding in the Paris Agreement that will force any government to act with compassion, responsibility, and more than words to bend the arc of climate change in the direction of justice.

And why should we expect otherwise?  The real problem with the COP process is that it can only produce a document forged by and for the world’s political and economic elites.  The most rapacious corporations in the world can carry on wrecking the planet, especially if they say the right things and make some gestures of awareness of the climate crisis.  The main mechanisms for bringing down emissions remain in marketized form, subject to every abuse that follows when we measure human needs and nature herself in the cold, hard terms of cash money.

Salvaging Something for the Future We Want

Enshrining the words “1.5 degrees Celsius” in a global climate accord opens a door to a house on fire, and will be turned into one of the most powerful memes of the global climate justice movement now.  We will finally turn the page on the COP process and get down to the business of transforming a world that has been broken by greed, callous disregard for life, and the slow violence that capitalism visits on the majority world, each day a little more cruelly than the last.

The climate justice movement has gained demonstrable strength in the course of 2014 and 2015, and here in Paris too.  The connections made here, the insights gained, the empowerment of activists of all ages, will be taken home to make deeper connections with the movements, organizations, front-line communities, and people who are already doing so much.  They will be used to try to stop the climate madness of the world’s political and economic elites, and the systems that have created it:  capitalism, patriarchy, racism, militarism, colonialism – all the operations of power in our warming world.  My guess is that at the end of the day, the network of networks that comprise the movement will be stronger than ever, going into the battles of 2016.

Image Removed

“Climate Justice Peace” spelled by thousands of activists across Paris, December 12, 2015

When we came into these Paris talks we had very low expectations. These expectations have been exceeded in how low they are. It’s what happens on Monday that’s the most important thing. Do we return to our capitals, do we build a movement, do we make sure our countries are doing their fair share? Do we stop the dirty energy industry, do we invest in new climate jobs, do we invest in community-owned decentralized energy? And most importantly, do we stand in solidarity with the millions of people across the world who are struggling for climate justice?” – Asad Rehman, quoted by Danny Chivers

It’s up to the movements, networks, artivists, thinkers, bloggers, organizers, and countless “ordinary people” to step up in 2016.

We will create the worlds we dream of together, no matter what it takes, and we will fight to keep them alive in our hearts and our communities, helping Mother Earth defend herself, and in the process, rising to the great challenges of our time, step by step, win or lose, come what may.

Tags: climate justice, climate justice movement, COP21, international climate change agreements