Opinionista Jeff Rudin 4 January 2016

Reflections on Cop 21: The fire next time is NOW

The secret is out. COP21 was never about climate change. Like all previous gatherings, the Paris conference was about the economics of profitability. Behind the facade of climate change, the substance of all 21 COPs has been protecting or advancing the profit maximising interests of the world’s major corporations, through the governments of the countries in which they are domiciled.

Who would be a party pooper, especially at a time of the year when much of the world is taken over by wall-to-wall Christmas and New Year parties? Only a fire would merit the cessation of merriment. What happens, however, when the party organisers say there is no fire, or if some of the sober party-goers acknowledge the fire, but add the reassurance that everything is under control, and that the party can continue with only a few disruptions? When the “fire” is climate change, establishing what is really going on is rather important, and not least for the fact that everyone on earth is directly and inescapably involved.

In December 2015, world leaders gathered in Paris for the 21st annual United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP21). They came united in both their unprecedented acceptance of the scientific evidence, and their commitment to a binding, urgent and ambitious agreement, if a climate catastrophe was to be avoided. The official outcome of COP21 was that the world has been saved: There is no fire. The French president, François Hollande, proclaimed: “This is a major leap for mankind”.

Barak Obama, the US President agreed: “This agreement represents the best chance we have to save the one planet that we’ve got.”

Not to be outdone, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, effused: “We’ve secured our planet for many, many generations to come – and there is nothing more important than that.”

Sceptics disagreed with these self-congratulatory assessments. For them, there is indeed a fire, but it is now – for the first time ever – under control. Dirk de Vos, an energy specialist and frequent Daily Maverick contributor, speaks for many when saying: “For the most part, COP21 is acknowledged to be a surprising success.”

The journalist, George Monbiot provides a more nuanced assessment: “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 first compelling evidence of COP21 being a disaster occurred minutes before the agreement was hailed as a miracle. That was when the single word “shall” rather than “should” almost derailed the outcome. “Shall” would have made the agreement mandatory on everyone. By contrast, “should” is no more than an invitation to honour the terms of the agreement. Even Sipho Kings, the Mail & Guardian’s indefatigable environmental correspondent downplays this to a “grammatical error”. Having corrected this grammatical slip, France’s Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, presented the supposedly binding agreement to the world. What needs emphasising is that the outcome of a non-binding agreement was the only possible outcome. In due course, we will attempt to answer why this should have been the case. For the time being, it bears returning to look more critically at De Vos’s assessment of the agreement being “for the most part” a success.

COP21’s failure was unmistakably signalled even before it started. Rather than implementing their own principle of doing what is “required by science” – greatly reducing global greenhouse gas emissions to ensure that the global temperature increase did not exceed 2°C – all 196 countries agreed, in 2014, that each of them would individually decide what they were prepared to “offer” in Paris. Predictably, no country chose to offer too much, lest it placed their major corporations at a disadvantage in the competitive global market, which has no place for climate change. It was thus known months before Paris that COP21 could not meet expectations. Everyone knew that, even if all 196 countries unprecedentedly enforced all their own pledges, the “tipping point” of runaway climate change would still be exceeded by dangerous margins.

The Paris Agreement did no more than formally endorse this outcome. The most optimistic prediction post-Paris is a 3°C global temperature increase. All African countries endorsed this outcome, even though knowing full-well that this means a 5°C increase for Africa. African governments have knowingly condemned future generations to summer temperatures in which 40°C will be the new normal, and rising sea levels will threaten coastal cities. In South Africa, drought will become even more frequent and prolonged. Current staple crops will disappear, and the interior will be without livestock.

COP 21 had all the scientific numbers needed for informed action. Just one set of these numbers merits repeating. Climate science estimates that to have no more than a 66% chance of keeping the temperature increase below 2°C, the climate can cope with a maximum of an additional 1000gt (gigatons) of CO2 as from 2011. By 2030, the COP21 pledges would have used up at least 723gt of the available 1000gt, with emissions then being 40gt per year. At that rate, the rest of the available CO2 budget would have gone in seven years. In other words, by 2037, the world’s total CO2 emissions would have to be reduced to, an impossible, zero!

COP 21 does, however, offer five-yearly “reviews”. The implication is that these “reviews” will somehow achieve what Paris – like all previous 20 COPs – failed to do. Such an outcome would indeed by miraculous! Indeed, COP 21 forces us to ask whether the supposedly miraculous agreement is cynicism at its most extreme, or the most desperate of self-deceptions. What is clear beyond doubt is that the major players at COP21 knew there was no chance of a binding agreement based on what was required by science. Given global expectations created in part by their own assurances, they additionally knew that presenting the Paris Agreement as anything less than a resounding success was not an option.

But COP21 did produce one truly unexpected commitment. Although COP21 singularly failed to agree on reducing greenhouse gas emissions to a level that keeps the global temperature increase to 2°C, it has nevertheless agreed to an even lower temperature – 1.5°C – and, thus, to an even more substantial reduction of greenhouse gas emissions! Is this unconscionable cynicism or self-deception? Or is it giving African governments – for the 1.5°C standard is an African one – something to take back as their ‘success’?

It is now time to return to the deferred mater of why COP21 had to give short-shrift to climate change. The French President unknowingly provides a clue. Opening COP21, Francois Hollande observed:

Our greatest challenge is to go from a globalisation based on competition to a model based on co-operation, where it will be more profitable to protect rather than destroy.”

Business Day, the mouthpiece of South African business, expressed similar sentiments some years earlier:

If climate change is to be taken seriously, it needs to be made more profitable for firms and countries to abide by carbon-reduction agreements than for them not to.”

The secret is out: COP21 was never about climate change. Like all previous COPs, the Paris conference was about the economics of profitability. Behind the facade of climate change, the substance of all 21 COPs has been protecting or advancing the profit maximising interests of the world’s major corporations, through the governments of the countries in which they are domiciled. Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of the UN’s body on Climate Change, acknowledges this reality when describing the COP21 pledges as being driven by economic self-interest. South Africa’s leading climate change official puts this even more pithily. Responding to critical voices from civil society in the build up to Paris, she let slip that the outcome of COP21 would be nothing more than “a trade agreement”.

However, the outcome could have been very different. What is missing is far greater democratic control of even elected governments. Contrary to popular belief, taking effective climate change measures does not mean a return to pre-industrial life. Governments are eager to spread the idea of there being an unavoidable choice; either what they call economic development, or the climate change prescriptions required by science.

Even within a capitalist economy such a trade-off is real only for the vested interests in the various fossil fuel and related industries, including the banks and similar financial institutions. While it is true that these interests involve most of the world’s largest financial, mining and manufacturing corporations, and that this truth needs to be confronted, the vast majority of us do not have to face the awful dilemma of having to choose between combating climate change or economic chaos with a return to pre-industrial living.

A different type of economic development is not only consistent with addressing climate change but also, simultaneously, with people-centred economic development. This win-win prospect is easy to conceptualise. It requires no more than governments being effectively accountable to the people who elected them, rather than the complex of fossil fuel corporations and financial institutions primarily responsible for anthropocene climate change.

It further requires a consistency from governments that impose austerity measures on their electorates with the claim that the alternative means debt, and that debt means mortgaging future generations. This concern about future generations must mean giving primacy not to avoiding debt, but to ensuring the very existence of future generations. The science accepted by COP21 is the same science that alerts governments to climate change being incompatible with the continued existence of our species.

Being consistent therefore means that governments must take the lead in reversing climate change. Governments must themselves take full responsibility for doing what they know must be done to minimise greenhouse gas emissions. This means elected governments setting the pace, rather than outsourcing the future of humanity to unaccountable and unelected markets. Governments do this in wartime, and we should expect nothing less from them when the very existence of humankind is at stake.

Taking such action has an additional attraction at a time of global economic recession, which has, moreover, left trillions of dollars sitting unused for want of suitably profitable investment opportunities. For South Africa, this means the state, using its Constitutional authority, to act on the public interest, will directly ensure:

  • The fastest possible introduction of renewable energy, in all its various forms;
  • Retrofitting of all public buildings with appropriate renewable energy;
  • Retrofitting of all publicly funded or provided housing with appropriate renewable energy, and
  • Introduction of an integrated, safe and affordable public transport system which means the large-scale removal of private cars from the roads and a rapid transfer to rail of heavy haulage

The above is just indicative of what needs doing, and of the huge economic development required if climate change is to be taken with the seriousness it clearly deserves. Part of this win-win economic development in South Africa would be the creation of much needed jobs at a time when unemployment, poverty and inequality are the three main ills identified by all parties represented in South Africa’s Parliament. And, yet, our government does little about climate change. What it does, instead, is to support the fraud of the Paris Agreement. A democratic deficit thus seems to be the main reason why all the COPs, at which all governments are present, continue to produce nothing more than unequal trade agreements that privilege the already privileged.

The Paris Agreement serves to deflect such considerations with its claims of there being no need for climate change panic: There is no fire.

Since the adoption of the Agreement on 12th December, 2015 has overtaken 2014 as the hottest year since records began 136 years ago. Smog in Beijing is causing the banning of all commuter traffic and the shutdown of all factories and manufacturing facilities. Floods are now wreaking havoc in Britain. In addition to climate change and linked to its causes, the world is crossing a number of “planetary boundaries”, each of which represents a planetary emergency. These boundaries include ocean acidification; loss of biological diversity; the disruption of the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles; water shortages; land cover disruption and growing pollution from synthetic chemicals. What all of this points to is that our habitable world is in deep danger. The fire next time is NOW. DM

NB The Fire Next Time is the title of James Baldwin’s 1963 book on race relations in the US

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