Everyone is the mother of victory; No one is the father of defeat. Do we claim COP21 as a success, and risk watching it being used by fossil fuel failures to carry on burning humanity, and so become complicit in defeat? Do we claim COP21 was a failure, and risk being the naysayers who didn’t recognise the work needed to bring fossil fuels (instead of humanity) to an end? This Loki-esque question about our motives, about our fears for how we might appear, may seem beside the point if the fundamental question is “Was the COP a success or a failure?”And there are screeds of excellent articles assessing the outcome of the Paris COP Agreement, the Agreement that is now the world’s governments’ roadmap for addressing climate change.
- The New Internationalist describes the Paris deal as an ‘Epic fail on a planetary scale’ (see their cartoon history of climate negotiations) and conclude that, although “The Paris Agreement aims to keep the global average temperature rise to ‘well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C’” in fact “the emission cuts contained in the agreement are based on voluntary pledges called ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contributions’ (INDCs) that governments drew up individually before the talks, . . . [and] are going to lead us to 3.7° warming of the planet.”
- George Monbiot superbly sums up the talks, saying: “By comparison to what it could have been, it’s a miracle. By comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster.” He writes that: “A maximum of 1.5C, now an aspirational and unlikely target, was eminently achievable when the first UN climate change conference took place in Berlin in 1995. Two decades of procrastination, caused by lobbying – overt, covert and often downright sinister – by the fossil fuel lobby, coupled with the reluctance of governments to explain to their electorates that short-term thinking has long-term costs, ensure that the window of opportunity is now three-quarters shut. The talks in Paris are the best there have ever been. And that is a terrible indictment.”
- Climate Code Red say the “plan is nothing more than business as usual. Worse, all possible gains of increased efficiency in vehicles or energy use in buildings will be negated because of increased and growing consumption [emphasis added]”. They argue: “The coup de grace in Paris was the formation of the ‘High Ambitions Group’, a grouping of developed countries led by the United States and the European Union and developing countries like the Marshall Islands and the Philippines”. While pushing for a “legally binding, ambitious and fair deal that would set out long-term targets reflecting current scientific knowledge about climate change”, this group secured ambitious targets, while allowing the USA and others to get “rid of the long-standing principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ (CBDR), which became subordinated to the idea that “all parties must share” in the load regardless of its historical emissions”.
- The Economist says that “the agreement surpassed what had been anticipated, delivering a range of compromises that all parties could live with” and, most crucially, sending a signal to investors [emphasis added] that “the united governments of the world say that the age of fossil fuels has started drawing to a close”. However, they point out that the Agreement “says nothing concrete about how much anyone has to do”, and that “bottom-up processes, rather than unenforceable UN mandates” are needed to “drive up the level of action”.
- Similarly, Tasneem Essop, head of the WWF delegation, says “The Paris agreement is an important milestone”, but WWF adds: “While the Paris agreement would go into effect in 2020, science tells us that in order to meet the global goal of limiting warming to 1.5C or well below 2C, emissions must peak before 2020 and sharply decline thereafter. The current pledges will provide about half of what is needed, leaving a 12 to 16 gigaton emissions gap.” However, echoing the point that a crucial signal is being sent to investors, WWF’s Samantha Smith concludes: “We are seeing the start of a global transition towards renewable energy. At the same time, we’re already witnessing irreversible impacts of climate change. The talks and surrounding commitments send a strong signal to everyone – the fossil fuel era is coming to an end.”
- And Avaaz’s positive reaction had me welling up as I read their optimistic take on the talks. It was unbearable reading what I hoped was true while being fully aware that the ‘3.7 degrees and rising’ trajectory continues. Avaaz titled its response ‘Victory! The end of fossil fuels has begun . . .” Following up with: “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.” Reading this I allowed myself to feel – as they no doubt intended – the unbelievable relief I would feel if/ when we collectively side step this mass murder on a scale Dr Strangeglove and other terrorists can only dream of. Feeling that, welling up, I realised how much effort goes into remaining numb in the face of this, how much collective effort, hope and care is locked away in the coping strategy of frozen numbness.
What if the fundamental question is not “Was the COP a success or a failure?” but “Can we use the COP to make fundamental change?” and if so: What change and how?
The fossil fuel lobby will be delighted if our painting the COP as a failure means that it signals no change to the market, does not damage their share price and future projects, and so changes nothing.
Likewise, they’ll be delighted if our painting the COP as a success means nothing changes because we think that governments will take significant action without unprecedented pressure.
Either response means allowing them to continue to define the future, which means there won’t be one.
As ever, the trick is to refuse the way those in power seek to frame the question.
Meeting a Parliamentary committee in Kenya last month, one MP asked me “Are you here to protect Mt Elgon or help the squatters?” He was framing the question in the way both sides frame the [real] climate change debate: “Are you going to protect the environment, or help the poor?”
Here is 350’s Bill McKibben, following up on the Avaaz positive clarion call to arms with a powerful article in today’s Guardian titled ‘Climate deal: the pistol has fired, so why aren’t we running?’
“With the climate talks in Paris now over, the world has set itself a serious goal: limit temperature rise to 1.5C. Or failing that, 2C. Hitting those targets is absolutely necessary: even the one-degree rise that we’ve already seen is wreaking havoc on everything from ice caps to ocean chemistry. But meeting it won’t be easy, given that we’re currently on track for between 4C and 5C. Our only hope is to decisively pick up the pace . . . the only important question, is: how fast . . .
“You’ve got to stop fracking right away (in fact, that may be the greatest imperative of all, since methane gas does its climate damage so fast). You have to start installing solar panels and windmills at a breakneck pace – and all over the world. The huge subsidies doled out to fossil fuel have to end yesterday, and the huge subsidies to renewable energy had better begin tomorrow. You have to raise the price of carbon steeply and quickly, so everyone gets a clear signal to get off of it . . .
“The world’s fossil fuel companies still have five times the carbon we can burn and have any hope of meeting even the 2C target – and they’re still determined to burn it. The Koch Brothers will spend $900m on this year’s American elections. As we know from the ongoing Exxon scandal, there’s every reason to think that this industry will lie at every turn in an effort to hold on to their power – they’re clearly willing to break the planet if it means five or perhaps 10 more years of business as usual for them.”
What Avaaz, Bill McKibben’s 350 movement, and all the committed campaigners and scientists seek to create is a global mood/ movement/reality in which it is clear that investments in fossil fuels are going to be left stranded on a shrinking sandbank, while renewables surf into the economy of the future.
That is one of the two most urgent tasks we face. When a boat springs a leak, almost all attention needs to be on fixing that small but utterly significant hole, while some needs also be paid to the direction of travel – the second task. There’s no point fixing the hole, or securing renewable energy, if the boat is still powering us towards the rocks of social and ecological chaos.
In contrast to the action Bill McKibben invites us to get our teeth into right NOW, Kevin Anderson sums up the fantasyland of business as usual. He talks of the “techno-utopian framing of the Paris Agreement”. One that is “premised on future technologies removing huge quantities of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere” rather than on binding agreements for immediate cuts to emissions now. He concludes that we have to make:
“Fundamental changes to the political and economic framing of contemporary society. This is a mitigation challenge far beyond anything discussed in Paris – yet without it our well-intended aspirations will all too soon wither and die on the vine. We owe our children, our planet and ourselves more than that. So let Paris be the catalyst for a new paradigm – one in which we deliver a sustainable, equitable and prosperous [emphasis added] future for all.”
Andy Skuce stated this very clearly a few days ago in ‘The Road to 2 degrees’:
“If we are to achieve a stable climate, we will need to reverse this growth in emissions over a much shorter time period, while maintaining the economies of the developed world and, crucially, allowing the possibility of economic growth for the majority of humanity [emphasis added] that has not yet experienced the benefits of a developed-country middle-class lifestyle.” And he concludes that: “Had the world got its act together twenty years ago it could have adopted climate policies that were effective, feasible and fair. Of those three characteristics of good policy, at best, we now only get to pick two.”
Last week, George Marshall, in explaining ‘Why we fear terrorism more than climate change’, wrote:
“Climate change struggles to find a compelling narrative because it has no external enemy. We are all responsible, simply by living our lives and caring for our families [emphasis added].”
I’ll now pick up on all those places I’ve added emphasis.
It’s not just whether or not we choose to return wholeheartedly to the fray of this battle for a future, it is also the way we frame the debate, the direction of travel, that determines the outcome.
George Marshall, having argued that campaigning on climate change is so hard because we are all causing it, and because its consequences are so vast and measured in scientific data, but not yet, for most of us, experienced as immediate and specific, says:
“We are, above all, storytelling animals. Climate-change campaigners and scientists . . . mobilise narratives of imminent threat by focusing on enemies with clear intentions, be that Exxon, Shell, billionaire deniers or politicians, hoping to turn base data into emotional gold.”
But this is not a strong enough story on its own: a story of enemies out there, when we know just how deeply our actions implicate us in this process.
We need a far stronger story, but if so, then that story is going to challenge each of us as much as it challenges the 1%/ fossil fuel failures/capitalism/ whatever we choose to call ‘them’. .
The words and phrases I’ve highlighted point to the assumption that our well-being depends on a system of economic growth. They point to our having been persuaded to believe that this growth is essential for prosperity, and that the ‘Global North’ has benefited from it and therefore the ‘Global South’ should too. How dare anyone ask the poor to forgo the emissions benefits of the rich?
As mentioned above, at a meeting with a Parliamentary committee in Kenya last month (and, yes, I fly there regularly), one MP asked me “Are you here to protect Mt Elgon or help the squatters?” I noted, above, that he was framing the question in the way both sides frame the [real] climate change debate: “Are you going to protect the environment, or help the poor?”
However, the real story of prosperity and well-being is quite different, almost the opposite. But to say ‘the opposite’ is to fall into the trap the paradigm sets you.
Luckily, we had to go and have a cuppa before the Parliamentary committee could see us, so I had the time to think how to respond, the time one normally only has afterwards – in fantasy – when it is too late.
Returning to the room I suggested that the real question was:
“Will we protect Mt Elgon in the only way possible: by securing the community lands of those whose ways of life has protected, sustained and been sustained by it?”
There is no opposition between the needs of the environment and the needs of the poor and the rest of us. Believing there is such an opposition is the first move in the old colonial game of divide and rule.
Resources are infinite if we treat them as finite, but vanish if we treat them as infinite.
There is plenty to go round if we limit the amount billionaires take for themselves, but not if we believe that our prosperity relies on their wealth.
Believing that in the end power and life comes down to money, means being persuaded that scarcity is the order of the day, that we must strive to have more than enough just to be sure to have enough (“your house is at risk”, “shares can go down as well as up”, “what about your pension”, “be realistic, knuckle down and do what you’re told”). In that framing, the question is: who has money, who doesn’t, and it’s never enough.
Remembering, instead, that in the end it all comes down to humanity, to how we live and how we die. That it comes down to making choices about the kind of society we live in and are willing to work for. In that framing, there can always be far more than enough of the effort, collective action, and achievement, more than money alone could ever be able to buy.
There are so many straightforward solutions that – implemented – would mean creating a society we could all relax and work hard in; and by doing so, take care of other societies, places and people. The contrast between that world, and living in the way we currently are (in a system so designed that we are daily implicated in the exploitation and death of other people, places, societies and ecologies), is maybe similar to the contrast between living in a war zone and living in peace: a zone that cuts right through us.
Here are just a few of the straightforward solutions that I’ve tripped over in the last few days:
- Solving flooding doesn’t need more investment in defences, just less investment in offences.
- The basic income for all has been tried and succeeded before. We can do away with poverty rather than the planet.
- There are other straightforward ways to end poverty, even (or especially) in the worst economic times. One town in Austria demonstrated this in the midst of the Great Depression. Their solution was so simple it was made illegal.
The solutions are in front of us: Do we revitalise and renew our world, or allow the enrichment juggernaut to persuade us to remain part of it, as it uses us up and spits us out?
Do we continue to frame this as the needs of the environment vs the needs of the poor, or do we see how this is just divide and rule, and decide to refuse the deception and instead to end poverty in a way that recognises what true wealth is, and in a way that secures our ecologies too?
As George Marshall says, we need to change the story we are telling ourselves.
But the story needs to go far deeper than defeating enemies.
- We need to overturn the story we have been told about what ‘reality’ is, when the story we have been told is so clearly the opposite of realistic.
- We need to be clear about campaigning with all our might against the fossil fuel lobby, but know that they are the tip of the iceberg, an iceberg that is so much deeper, that cuts through, numbs and freezes our hearts.
- Above all, we need to remember that progressive change never happens from above, it happens from below through an ability to sustain each other and resist.
Change happens by contagion.
Suddenly realising that we are not isolated and alone, one among billions, but head over heels, hundreds to zillions, connected and effective, our every act – helpful or unhelpful – rippling out.
Looking deeply into the despair of what we are doing to our world, yet taking the leap of action grounded in hope despite all that.
That is what the fossil fuel system doesn’t want. And this is what we are capable of.