The Paris climate conference produced an international agreement for curtailing global warming, but resistance from some leaders, particularly Republicans in the U.S., makes the prospect for its implementation doubtful and thus dangerous, writes Lawrence Davidson.
By Lawrence Davidson
Paris was certainly 2015’s center for ticking bombs. The year was bracketed by major terrorist attacks in Paris first in January (murders at Charlie Hebdo’s offices) and in November (shootings and bombings that killed 130 people at several locations) and ended with a December environmental conference which, given its non-binding results, opens the door to even more terror, albeit of a different kind, into the next century and beyond.
The 21st Conference of Parties, or COP21, ended in Paris on Dec. 12. If you are not familiar with the name or acronym, it refers to the latest gathering of nations (195 of them) looking toward a collective decision to limit global warming by slowing the release of greenhouse gases. Following the conference closure there was a short spate of positive reactions that has now been followed by a rather ominous silence.
Until very recently there was a large number of people — mostly business people, lobbyists and politicians — who denied that human practices, such as the use of fossil fuels, had any significant impact on planetary warming, and some dismissed the idea of warming altogether. These numbers seem to have shrunk, and most of those still adhering to such notions are not often heard in public. This muted opposition helped pave the way for the at once limited and over-hyped result achieved at the Paris conference.
The overall goal of COP 21 was an international agreement that would hold global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels by 2100, and then reduce the amount of warming even more in the years following. This goal was certainly agreed to in theory, but the conference also left us with no convincing reason to believe that the goal will be met in practice.
According to Science (18 December 2015), the publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, commitments were indeed made to pursue relevant “technological development,” mobilize “climate finance,” enhance transparency in the reporting of overall greenhouse emissions and have developed nations acknowledge their “legal responsibility” (but “without liability or compensation”) for the damage global warming is doing to poorer nations.
All of this is well and good in a half-hearted sort of way, but it should be noted that the entire deal will only go into effect in April 2016 if “55 countries representing 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions have formally signed it.” And even if this happens, subsequent follow-through in terms of the reduction of greenhouse emissions is still hypothetical.
Thus, as the Guardian newspaper reported on Dec. 12 in a confusing, contradictory way: “The overall agreement is legally binding but some elements – including the pledges to curb emissions by individual countries and the climate finance elements – are not.”
That should be quite sufficient to instill serious doubt about the ultimate outcome of COP21. Nonetheless, reactions were still upbeat. Everyone wanted to find the glass half full. Many climate experts, when asked if there was something about 2015 that made them hopeful, pointed to the Paris conference.
Michael T. Klare, writing in Tom’s Dispatch on Dec. 13, proclaimed that as for those advocating the continued use of fossil fuels, “the war they are fighting is a losing one.” The transition to renewable forms of energy is inevitable. However, looking at the next hundred years, no one would say with certainty that the conference’s decisions would actually make a crucial difference.
Thus, Andrea Germanos writing in Common Dreams on Dec. 12 quotes commentator George Monbiot in reference to COP21, “by comparison to what it could have been, it’s a miracle. By comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster.”
Why a Disaster?
The Science article cited above puts the situation in historical context. “The individual national climate plans in the run-up to the meeting could still result in as much as 3.5 degrees centigrade of warming by 2100.” At 3.5 degrees we can expect sea levels to rise anywhere from 3 to 7 feet.
Science goes on to explain that “much of the agreement’s promise hinges on the fine print to be hammered out in the coming years. And the provisions for individual nations to curb emissions further – crucial if the world is to limit warming to 2 degrees centigrade or less – has limited legal bite.”
In truth, even the 2 degree goal is insufficient. Those at most risk, such as the Pacific island nations, wanted to hold the line at 1.5 degrees. However, their fate, which in some cases is already terminal, was not deemed important enough to warrant the sacrifices the rest of the world would have to make to meet this demand. This in itself is a very bad sign.
There will, of course, be increasing efforts by environmental organizations, seeking to mobilize mass sentiment, to bring pressure on governments and industries. As one such mass movement leader declared at the end of the COP21 conference, “Now it is time to hold them [national leaders] to their promises. 1.5? Game on” (Common Dreams, Dec. 12).
No doubt such mobilization, like the hope for investment in renewable energy technology, will be very important in the long run. That it can achieve its ambitious goal in the short run is doubtful because there are other, even larger, organizable masses out there who will resist rapid, necessary change.
For instance, there are the inward-looking elements of the populations and leaders of the United States, China and India – the world’s biggest contributors to global warming. In the United States at least a third of the voting population is supportive of the conservative, anti-regulatory Republican Party that currently controls the congressional side of government.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, the chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has dismissed the COP21 agreement as “no more binding than any other agreement” on global warming made in past.
China has recently admitted that it has been underreporting its coal burning in recent years. This calls into doubt that nation’s collective will to meet its COP21 pledges. To do so will unavoidably impact economic growth and increase unemployment with all the accompanying political consequences.
A major part of India’s pledge to lower and/or compensate for growing greenhouse emissions is the preservation and expansion of the country’s forests. However, approximately “275 million Indians subsist on resources extracted from forests,” including forest wood itself, and past efforts at conservation in this area have led to political unrest and significant cheating through official corruption.
It is not that these three countries won’t make efforts to, say, move to renewable energy whenever and wherever feasible. They will. However, it is both politically and culturally unlikely they will be able to do enough to hold down warming to 2 degrees, much less 1.5 degrees.
At this point one should ask what the Marshall Islands in the Pacific have in common with lower tip of Manhattan on the Atlantic coast of the United States. The answer is that both are threatened with inundation by 2100. In the case of lower Manhattan, it might be possible to build a sea wall to temporarily hold back the rising sea level. No such effort is possible for the Marshall Islands. It looks as if that island nation, with its roughly 53,000 people, is doomed.
The prospect that 195 nations can successfully coordinate their efforts to put in place policies that, over the next hundred years, will negatively impact their economies and the standard of living of significant numbers of citizens is far-fetched. Not impossible, mind you, but from a historical point of view, highly improbable.
What is probable is that local interests will promote denial long enough to make the necessary sacrifices politically unachievable. They certainly have done so this far. That means our grandchildren will almost certainly live in a very different atmospheric and geographic world than we do. And, of course, going forward, no one should invest in seashore real estate.
Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest;ã€€America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.