As soon as the gavel came down on the COP21 climate negotiations opposing interpretations of it began to surface.
The official narrative was, inevitably, overwhelmingly positive. French President Francois Hollande described it as “a major leap forward for mankind”. Barack Obama said it demonstrated what was possible “when the world stands as one”. British Prime Minister David Cameron was less circumspect and said: “We’ve secured our planet for many, many generations to come”.
There were those, however, who saw more reason to be pessimistic. James Hansen, NASA scientist and environmental pioneer described the Paris negotiations as a “fraud, a fake really”. It’s not surprising that such authorities as George Monbiot have already weighed in against the deal. The duplicity of Cameron pursuing polices like airport expansion – albeit delayed – whilst still making claims like the one above is breath-taking. Not only is Cameron pursuing policies so completely at odds with one another, but he even apparently used the climate negotiations as a convenient opportunity to lobby fellow European politicians about his plans for renegotiation of the UK’s membership of the EU. Nothing like getting your priorities right.
A global mandate
In truth the Paris deal, the culmination of top-level intergovernmental negotiations, will never be capable of delivering the change needed on its own. 1.5°C of warming is to Paris what 2°C was to Copenhagen. As gratifying as it would be to believe, the sudden prevalence of the latter figure doesn’t make it immediately any more likely that global temperatures rises will remain below it, any more than the same was true after the 2009 negotiations.
The success of the Paris deal is not that world leaders reached an agreement and all the brackets got edited out. It was that the alternative had become politically unviable. A repeat of the failures at Copenhagen would not have been countenanced. Since then the dogged, sometimes unconnected work of the global environmental movement in all its ramshackle glory forced these issues to the table, and kept them there. The victory belongs to those scientists whose work now has a cast-iron seal of approval. Also to the campaigning by and on behalf of the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, who are simultaneously least able to deal with dangers not of their own making.
The ultra-cynical might read the deal itself, and the fanfare greeting its arrival, as the latest play by an entrenching global elite. Is it just a vast tactical withdrawal? An attempt to take the heat out of the debate? On some level, it might be, but it really doesn’t matter. The COP21 deal has already removed a significant psychological barrier to progress. The whole context of the debate is now favourable to radical change, whereas before it was not. Previously the question was: action or not? Now it is: what action, and how fast?
Moreover the show of global unity has internationalised this freshly-minted discourse. It will no longer a viable argument to say that China or India is polluting so why bother to reduce our own emissions? All are now bound by the same text, and discrepancies in the future should lead to pressure on the outlying countries, rather than acting as an excuse for inaction at home.
The power of words
The only victory that matters is to actually limit anthropogenic warming. The key to that victory is to now take the signatories of the deal at their word. Everyone who cares about the climate needs to draw the obvious conclusions, publicly and repeatedly:
To meet our targets the vast majority of carbon has to stay in the ground.
From now on investment in the fossil fuel giants is losing bet.
There needs to be a revolution in renewables, starting now.
This is the challenge of our generation, of our millennia, and no effort will be too great in attempting to meet it.
Monolithic, centralised state structures alone are not sufficiently powerful or agile enough to provide the solutions necessary; power needs to be exercised by, not just in the name of, the world’s citizenry.
We have been provided with the agreement and now must take the action. There must be deeds to match the words.