I confess. I am a COP junkie. In Copenhagen I stood for hours outside, in a blizzard, waiting for a special pass when normal passes were suddenly restricted mid-conference. I was in the Blue Zone cheering when the Paris Agreement was gaveled. I remember heartbreaking impasses in Cancun, Marrakech, Bonn and all the others. I know the shortcomings of Paris, the cheating with the Clean Development Mechanism, the scandalous manipulation of ignorance underpinning Sustainable Development Goal #8 (right to economic growth) and absurd framing of SDG#1 (eradicate poverty), as if poverty were a disease rather than something implicit in SDG#8, but all that hasn’t stopped me from going back for more.
I surely am aware that Sustainable Development is an oxymoron when one extends ecosystem thinking to planetary systems. In nature, nothing sustains. Rather, there is a progression from juvenile growth to carrying capacity, regenerative, steady-state systems, disturbance, decay, collapse, and repeat. We should never aspire to sustainability unless we first ask, what is it you wish to sustain? If what you wish is an impossible USAnian lifestyle for all imposed by militarism and nuclear weapons, well, good luck with that because that is unsustainable from simple biophysical realities — resource production and waste absorption on a single, unassisted planet.
The simple truth of it is, there is no way out of our climate emergency without an emergency committee to organize a coordinated global response. You might say the United Nations is a poor choice for that role and I would agree, except that all the other choices are far worse.
The United Nations of 2019 is not the United Nations of 1945 any more than Russia is the Soviet Union or modern Israel resembles the State of Israel in 1948. One could argue, and many do, that just as the League of Nations dissolved in disgrace after failing to prevent the Second World War, the UN should cease to exist now after failing to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, the War on Terror, or the climate crisis. I am not of that opinion, because I have watched the UN process for more than 70 years and I know that any new organization would have to go through exactly that painful process all over again. This time, there simply isn’t time.
As it has grown and matured from its original Rooseveltian vision, the UN has learned a thing or two. It has learned that its Security Council is an outmoded relic that is unfortunately hard-wired into its charter. It has learned that there are big bullies on this planet that think they have a God-given right to beat the UN up, berate and scapegoat it, starve it of dues, or ignore it whenever it pleases them. It has learned that the best way around those sorts of impediments is strong multilateral, multistakeholder multiculturalism; covenants on human rights, biodiversity, disarmament, climate change and indigenous peoples; and that from the scarce successes (11 Nobel Peace Prizes) and abundant failures, a well-honed process will produce ever-better agreements, enforcement mechanisms, and deterrents to miscreants.
The 25th Conference of Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was to have met in Santiago, Chile next week. Then Chile fell apart with street protests, initiated by a rise in the subway fare but exposing pent-up rage at neoliberal economics: rising cost of living, privatization of public resources, and escalating wealth inequality — to beggar the poor. The climate summit could have cancelled and postponed further discussions until COP26 in Glasgow in 2020, but the UNFCCC decided each meeting is too important to miss and instead made a last-minute switch to Madrid.
The issues urgently needing to be discussed track an agenda established at the time of the COP21 Paris Agreement in 2015 and evolving through the successive meetings in Marrakech, Bonn and Katowice. Like all COPs, the first week will be taken up with opening statements by each of the 198 parties to the Treaty, reports by various working groups and committees, and the latest catastrophic warnings from the top science advisory organizations. The first week is intended to endow national delegations with both the frustrations of how little has been accomplished and the paralyzing fear of what is coming at them very fast now. It is intended to stimulate an adrenaline rush of fight or flight. Get angry or go home.
My hope is the US delegation will do both. More likely they will stick around, oil their monkey wrenches, and do whatever they can to postpone real action. It would not be anything the UN hasn’t seen before and is kind of expected, like Saudi Arabia opposing sanctions on oil subsidies or India claiming its 400 new coal power stations are within its development rights. The US, which supports both these positions and much worse, is generally seen as the bad boy, version 5.0 (Bush-Clinton-Bush-Obama-Trump). US delegates often lie in stealth until the second week, and then pounce to break up any ambitious moves that could undermine their gas fracking business or adversely impact the political philanthropy (Greek: “man-loving”) of ‘Ol’ King Coal,’ Charles Koch.
Nonetheless, Paris was passed in spite of US monkey-wrenching, and its roadmap now calls for wholesale strengthening of responsive action in light of the latest science. Indeed, Paris was carefully crafted to ‘follow the science.’ As UN Secretary General António Guterrez has set out, countries gathered in Madrid are expected to:
- “Listen to the Science” — Agree to the latest IPCC Roadmap and specifically,
- Cut emissions 45% by 2030, 75% by 2040, net zero by 2050;
- Adopt enhanced Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) before the Paris Agreement’s first 5-year Stocktake in December 2020;
- Agree to a full moratorium on coal by end of 2020;
- Shift taxes from people to carbon and stop subsidizing fossil fuels;
- Improve Art. 6 — with strong rules on double-counting and social and environmental safeguards;
- Agree to a fixed timeframe for a decision on Common Timeframes; ie: when are account ledgers of all parties to be balanced for the planet?
If you look at these agenda items for a moment, you immediately grasp how many devils there are in details. And yet, the process to dispatch them, devil by devil, is moving ahead in earnest with 197 countries participating.
Even if Extinction Rebellion were to achieve all its goals and shut down the machine, it would still have to go through this kind of process to avert extinction.
Even if Greta Thunberg’s School Strike won universal recognition and nations agreed to her demand that they listen to the science, a process like this would be required to make any lasting change in the way the global economy presently functions. In fact, the Paris Agreement already resolved to ‘listen to the science’ so what is happening at COP is what comes next once you actually do that.
Even if James Hansen, Naomi Klein, and other UN critics call the process a sham and urge people to boycott it, they cannot save us from our nearly certain fate without it, or something constructed very much like it — predicated on fairness standards such as transparency, equal access, equal vote, recognition of injustice-endowed disparities, and so forth.
And then there are the rogues, pirates, and other ne’er-do-wells. These are countries and transnational participants who are determined to game the UN system to their own misbegotten ends. They see the exercise as realpolitik in stark Kissinger or Bolton terms — winners and losers; rather than a drift towards near-term human extinction that must be averted at all costs, even to the point of sacrificing your own nation (as Kirabati, Marshall Islands, and Seychelles will) and dying with honor.
Fact: only 67 countries have committed to enhance their NDCs, even though the emissions reductions as presently committed would assure 5 to 7 degrees rise in global average temperature this century and extinction of all nations and their inhabitants well before then. Those 67 with honor represent only about 8% of current emissions.
Among the 131 countries generating the other 92% of emissions who are missing: US, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, Australia, Japan, EU, India, China, S. Korea. Apparently they think present goals are enough for now. Anything more is not politically possible, they think. And they know that anyway, they won’t meet even those lame goals, which is why they insist on only “non-binding” agreements.
At present, the world subsidizes fossil fuels to the rate of 7 trillion dollars/year, or about $150/ton of CO2 emitted, not counting military expenditures and veterans’ care. If all the non-agricultural and non-urban, marginal or unproductive lands were forested, and amended with biochar, atmospheric carbon could be taken below 300 ppm in approximately 40 years. Ice would start to reform at the poles. Greenland would stop leaking into the sea. Paying $150 per ton of carbon sequestered might accomplish that.
Amazingly, there are environmental organizations that oppose trees. Anything having to do with climate repair, like agroforestry, waste-to-energy, biochar, or direct air capture technology, is opposed by Biofuelwatch, Econexus, the Indigenous Environmental Network, and the Global Justice Ecology Project. Why? Planting trees lets the bad guys off the hook, they say.
Every year we see nothing but empty promises and non-binding commitments, while ecosystems and peoples around the world are devastated. Floods, fires, sinking islands, monstrous hurricanes are becoming the norm, while the UN, world governments and corporations continue business as usual.
But this year, the COP is adding insult to injury by putting forward so-called “nature-based solutions” schemes. Also called “business for nature,” these climate schemes are designed to commodify and privatize everything from forests to oceans to native grasslands. They plan to use them as carbon or biodiversity “offsets” to enable corporations and governments to continue polluting and destroying the Earth, while pretending they are part of the solution. These schemes also include the so-called “bioeconomy” including the use of deadly monoculture tree plantations to feed production of energy, chemicals, plastics and more.
So, to attend COP25, I will have to make my way through Madrid each day past the the sit-ins and the red t-shirt volunteers holding placards decrying biochar and trillion-tree initiatives. I will do that because we need to save them too, and I know their protests will not get that job done.