A capital climate consensus

Political leaders and environmentalists are hailing the Paris Agreement reached over the weekend as the first binding international deal on combating climate change. The agreement has been welcomed here in Australia by a government deeply committed to the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, as well as organisations committed to seeing the end of the coal era, such as the Greens. So does the new deal reflect genuine advancement in the campaign to restrain greenhouse gas emissions or are environmentalists suffering from Stockholm Syndrome?

The spectre of failure at Copenhagen back in 2009 haunted the lead-up to the Paris summit this year. Billed as the summit that would save the world from runaway climate change, Copenhagen ended in disaster and acrimony. No formal deal was reached, Barack Obama was accused of being a spoiler and a number of South American nations were cut off from receiving international aid after refusing to accept the last-minute, non-binding ‘accord’ that was drawn up.

Six years ago, the mood across the international climate movement was one of despair. Environmental groups and nation-states vulnerable to the impacts of climate change were calling the entire international process into question. It was all about delivering for big business and the fossil fuel lobby, they argued, and the voice of the people was being ignored.

The Secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the body tasked with coordinating and facilitating the climate negotiations, has spent the last half a decade rebuilding trust and faith in complex international mechanisms as a solution to climate change. Environmental organisations reinvested in the process and it was again built up as the last chance to secure a global deal designed to limit greenhouse gas emissions to a safe level. The recent strategy of the mainstream environment movement has been to push individual governments to commit to ‘serious’ action in Paris.

Fast forward six years from Copenhagen and the world finally has a deal that is not only supported by the pro-coal mining Coalition government but also welcomed by the anti-fossil fuel Greens, along with many environmental non-government organisations. To explain the apparent contradiction, let’s first look at the key details of the agreement that was reached.

The Paris Agreement formally binds countries to work towards preventing an increase in the global mean temperate of more than 2 degrees Celsius. However, environmentalists and representatives of small island nations, those most at risk from climate change, are hailing a non-binding reference to limiting temperate rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius as a win. 1.5 degrees is what scientists currently regard as the highest temperatures can rise before environmental tipping points are reached and the climate is catastrophically changed.

In reality, both the references to 2 degrees and 1.5 degrees are meaningless given countries are only bound by the domestic plans they submitted prior to the deal being reached. If these plans (for example, Australia’s much maligned ‘Direct Action’ policy) were fully implemented, global temperatures would rise by nearly 4 degrees Celsius – well beyond the safe range. Yet despite having no practical impact, the reference to 1.5 degrees is politically adept as it ensured vulnerable countries remained invested in the process, and didn’t walk away like in Copenhagen.

References to human rights, originally included in the draft agreement, have all been deleted from the operational parts of the final deal. There are no mechanisms that force countries to comply with even their initial weak plans, and a new mechanism of five yearly reviews seems redundant given the urgency of the issue. If it’s all bad news, why are environmentalists and the Greens hailing it as a step forward?

One of the points being highlighted by groups like Greenpeace and 350.org is the fact that all countries, including those that have historically denied the existence of climate change like Saudi Arabia, have finally accepted the need to address the problem. But since the agreement doesn’t require Saudi Arabia to limit its oil extraction and exportation industry by one barrel, the fact that they supported the deal smacks more of realpolitik and a wish to no longer be seen as an international pariah than a genuine conversion to the cause of tackling climate change.

So we have a climate deal that on one hand pays token respect to the interests of small island nations by vaguely promising to limit warming to 1.5 degrees, but on the other allows countries like Saudi Arabia and Australia to continue mining and burning fossil fuels unabated. This paradox highlights the farcical nature of the international process and the outcome it has delivered.

It makes sense that United Nations officials and governments across the globe, including Australia’s, worked around the clock to secure something that could be presented as a real international agreement. The growth of the climate movement over the past two decades shows that the issue is one ordinary citizens take seriously. Governments need to be seen to be acting with authority not only to prioritise issues voters care about, but also to actually protect the populace from threatening external catastrophes such as climate change. Failure to reach something that could be presented as a deal in Paris would further have weakened the authority of governments already reeling from dissatisfaction in the aftermath of significant economic crises. The lack of an agreement would have been a blow for the whole concept of international climate negotiations.

Despite what many environmentalists have been pleading for, however, no national government is going to travel to an international conference and cede sovereignty by accepting a global treaty that overrides their domestic policy agenda. The Australian government was never going to return from Paris promising the shut down the coal industry, even though we know that’s part of what is needed to avert catastrophic climate change. The challenge governments and other actors face is how to channel popular discontent with the status quo into a process that ultimately maintains business as usual.

It’s not clear exactly why so much of the environment movement, as well as political parties like the Greens, remain so invested in the current international process. Certainly they have been cleverly co-opted into the process, but after years of failure, the main purpose their involvement and praise seems to be to legitimise a system that is ultimately about serving elite interests and retaining the existing balance of power across society. The fact that Paris is being hailed because it did ‘something’ and didn’t end in absolute disaster should be a clear sign as to how limited the current framework is. Environmentalists would be better off calling out the agreement for what it is – a fraud, in the words of renowned climate scientist James Hansen, rather than spending their energy convincing people their interests will be served by a system far removed from the concerns of ordinary citizens.


Image: Takver / Flickr

Osman Faruqi

Osman Faruqi is a Sydney writer and broadcaster.

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