MyTurn/Hynes: We can’t depend on politicians to lead the fight against climate change

Wednesday, March 02, 2016
*Archive Article*
Looking back on 2015, two international events rank as two of the most vital for the world’s future: the diplomatic agreement with Iran on nuclear weapons and the climate change forum in Paris. One succeeded, the other failed. Let’s examine the failure.

Just weeks ago, 195 countries signed a climate accord in Paris to reduce global warming emissions, with the goal of capping global temperature increase “well below” 2 degrees centigrade. Richer countries, including some wealthier developing countries, agreed to contribute $100 billion annually beginning in 2020 to assist poorer countries in meeting their pledged emissions cuts. Hailed by political leaders as “historic” and “binding,” and by President Obama as “the best chance to save the one planet we have,” it’s likely that only these self-congratulatory world leaders view the signed agreement with such optimism. True, such universal agreement among all countries on climate change is historic, following years of acrimonious debate on climate justice: that is, who is to blame for climate change; who suffers most of its consequences; and who should pay for the damages and losses of poorer, more climate-vulnerable countries that have not caused the climate crisis. In brief, the Polluter Pays principle.

How does the rest of the engaged world assess the climate accord?

Climate scientists’ response

Climate scientists skeptically welcomed this first global consensus on climate change, noting that meticulous climate science prevailed and “ultimately weathered relentless and well-funded attempts (by fossil fuel industries) to undermine its legitimacy.” However, Kevin Anderson of Manchester University’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change, UK and numerous other climate scientists portrayed a fatal disconnect between political goals of the climate summit and clear science facts on climate change. The countries’ pledged reductions in emissions are unhinged from the level of emissions cuts needed to keep global warming “well below” 2 degrees C.

Climate scientists concur that current pledges will lead to a world warming nearer to 3 degrees C (or 5.4 degrees F), with dire and uncontrollable consequences. To achieve well below 2 degrees C warming, the world must keep 90 percent of fossil fuels in the ground and achieve net-zero global warming emissions by 2050. Yet there is no mention of oil, gas, coal or fossil fuels in the climate accord. Johan Rockstrom of the Stockholm Resilience Centre added that no new coal plants can be built and the richest countries need to reduce their consumption 10 percent through smaller cars, smaller houses, and less airline travel (heresy in a capitalist world) to achieve 2 degrees C. Moreover, the climate accord omits shipping, aviation and military contributions to climate change, thus even steeper cuts in other emissions are needed.

The early and prophetic voice on climate change, James Hansen (NASA’s former top climate scientist) warns, from new research findings, that even the limit of 2 degrees C rise in global temperature is a “prescription for long-term disaster,” leading to an ice-free Arctic and sea level rise from melting ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica of an estimated 15 feet. Within 50 years, he forewarns, extreme sea level rise would submerge islands and thousands of coastal cities across the globe, including mega- cities like New York, Shanghai, Mumbai, Manila, Buenos Aires and London, among others.

In brief, the feel-good agreement is based on politics, not science. Moreover, while hailed as “binding,” it is, in fact, voluntary and leaves compliance to future generations of politicians — a mortal flaw, particularly given current U.S. Republican climate-denial politics. Concrete action is delayed another five years during which countries are to devise specific roadmaps with strategies to reduce their climate warming emissions to achieve their pledges in Paris. At consecutive five-year meetings, countries will bring pledges for deeper emissions cuts. By 2023, verification procedures will be established to assure that countries are meeting their pledges. So what happens if they don’t meet voluntary pledges? Confession?

Absolution, with an admonition to try harder? With the planet running out of time to prevent irreversible climate change events (some scientists think it’s already too late) annual or biannual meetings are urgently needed to revisit pledges to reduce emissions.

Meanwhile, in the next five years of planning will we experience another record of five consecutive years of global warming, as we just did (2011-2015), with cascading extremes of weather, deaths, climate refugees and irreversible environmental damage? In the brief life of the climate forum, extremes of weather in India, Norway, Britain and the states of Washington and Oregon caused record rain and flooding, killing hundreds in India, rendering tens of thousands homeless climate refugees — as if the fevered global climate was pleading for dramatic, durable and enforceable action at the Paris forum. Further, will the richer countries honor their voluntary pledge of $100 billion U.S. dollars annually beginning in 2020, given they lapsed on a similar pledge made six years ago at the Copenhagen climate forum?

The best of the conference came from people on the ground, outside the corporate- sponsored forum of country delegates. A strong consensus rose from the massive protests of climate activists, the dignified and prescient Indigenous peoples speaking out, and the 1,000 mayors gathered in Paris who committed to 100 percent renewables in their cities. The consensus being that we need to work at the local level for sustainable cities and towns, for 100 percent renewables and for resilience to climate disruptions. While we citizens urge and shame them, we cannot wait for tepid and conflict-ridden national governments — where ruthless profit-driven economics trump a habitable Earth — to lead the way.

H. Patricia Hynes directs the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice and is a board member of Nuclear- and Carbon-Free Future of Western Massachusetts.