by Laughlin Artz
Editor, Context News
Having spent the last two years covering exclusively the situation of climate change and for the last year the COP21 climate change negotiations, I find myself in a world that is shockingly surreal, given the gravity of the situation.
As I listen to the endless parade of heads of state, national delegates, humanitarians, artists, billionaires, scientists, and the occasional obligatory movie star, one thing strikes me above all else: No one is having the conversation that from my perspective is the only one that matters. That is, “What is it actually going to take to end the climate change crisis in time?” For my money, I think that’s all that really matters. And that conversation is glaringly absent.
What is the language here, since it’s not the language of what it’s going to take really to end the crisis in time? It is the language of generalization and rationalization, conversations based in best efforts, hope, “progress”, and optimism. The conversation here is not one of ending global warming, a conversation that would include hard data, specific actions, real strategies and plans, and straight talk about the gap between where the COP21 agreement leaves us and what is needed to resolve the crisis in time.
Yes, there is the occasional “we realize that this agreement is not enough.” However, the person saying that never follows it up with exactly how “not enough” it is, or what the actual plan is to bridge the gap of that specific “not enough.” Instead, the speaker of the moment meanders into an eloquent story about the deprived child she/he met on the way to the conference who is counting on “all of us” to save her future. And by gosh, somehow since we’re all just such great folks with such big hearts and such noble intentions, why of course, we’re gonna do just that. Translation: “I have no real grasp of the situation, no idea exactly where we are, how much time we have until it all really hits the fan, and which actions need to be taken to produce what results by then, such that we have a realistic shot at keeping the climate’s temperature increase to a maximum of 2 degrees C above pre-industrial level.”
And so with that as the case, with no real confronting of the specific state of affairs, no true facing of the predictable future and what it will really take to end the crisis in time, we are expected to sit back and simply enjoy the endless litany of empty platitudes, political doubletalk, and optimistic propaganda.
But why? Why has the UNFCCC convened the heads of over 160 nations and—instead of doing the real work of ending the crisis, or at least using this incredible assemblage of power to ring the alarm and tell the world the reality of the situation—chosen to put on what is essentially a two-week public relations extravaganza, complete with U2, a green Eiffel tower, and Al Gore?
Examining who’s in charge gives some insight into the answer. Who, after all is running COP21? Politicians, academics and diplomats. These are people who are not usually called on to actually make something happen, particularly something unreasonable. Their expertise is not in producing results; it is in politics, knowlege and diplomacy.
They study things, they meet about things, they create sub-committees to further study and meet about things. They negotiate, they debate, they express their views, they collect data, they argue, they convene, they caucus, they orate, they compromise, they compare one set of data with another set of data and write reports on their findings. They write and publish papers, they give talks, they sit on panels, they write policies, they learn things, they teach things, they vote on motions, they set agendas, they write and deliver speeches. Yes, they do many things, and there is a place in the world for all of that they do.
Unfortunately, the climate change crisis is not something that is going to be ended by any of these activities. This crisis will be ended only by people with a completely dispassionate assessment of exactly where we are, a full grasp of the predictable future we are headed into, a clear understanding of what needs to happen and by when (such that the necessary hard results are accomplished within the ever-shrinking window of opportunity), a full confronting of the gap between where we are headed and what needs to happen and by when, and a real plan with specific strategies to bridge that gap within the requisite time-frame.
The people you want in charge in this situation are people who can address those fundamental elements and address them with real specifics...and the people in charge of COP21 are simply not those people. They are clearly well-intentioned, very brilliant, wonderfully educated, and at the same time, ineffective and ill-equipped to tackle the real job of ending global warming and ending it in time.
Regarding the UN and the UNFCCC, I have gone out of my way throughout my investigation not to be critical of these organizations, to respect and honor the tireless efforts of these utterly dedicated individuals. Many of these people, after all, have spent the better part of their lives tackling this beast.
So it is understandable that after decades of seeing little to no progress they would see cause for celebration now that things have started to move a bit, and would have a desire to promote the progress being made, both for what it represents in the world and for their own sense of accomplishment. However, to not at the same time make certain that the world understands the immense gap between where that progress has brought us and what is required to end the crisis is a grave disservice, leaving us to live post-Paris in the illusion of being on the right track to success.
Heads of state come out one by one to proclaim their “aggressive” pledges addressing global warming, and to the untrained ear, they do indeed sound like just that. For example, China declared that it will peak emissions by 2030 and then begin a reduction. In a historical context, that pledge could indeed be viewed as aggressive, but only as a function of China having done so little for so long.
My question is, “Why when China announced its pledge was there no one there to challenge it in the context of what commitment is required of China if we are not to blast past the critical 2 degree limit?” Who was there to peel away the rosy veil of historical progress and examine the pledge against the future of what is actually needed? No one.
In that light, the light of what’s needed, China will need to peak emissions by 2020 (10 years earlier than pledged) if we are to have a viable shot at staying within the safety zone. In the world of reality (not progress, optimism, politics, or diplomacy), China’s “aggressive” pledge to address global warming is in fact drastically insufficient. How historically aggressive it is (or isn’t) is immaterial. But you won’t hear that here.
The same could be said for the United States, India, and several others. Different pledges, different stories of how great we are, how far we’ve come, what challenges lie ahead but blah-blah-blah no worries we can meet them, how creative we are, etc.—different in detail but shockingly similar in the stark absence of any real language of substance regarding the sizeable gap between what is being pledged and what is needed, and what the plan is to close that gap.
That’s the con, that’s the global con (whether consciously conspired or not) of COP21: Keep the world’s eyes focused on the shiny balls of progress, progress based in the past, and pay no attention to the future behind the curtain, the incredible, shrinking gap of time in which we still have the chance to take the actions necessary to end the crisis before that window closes.
It is amazing to consider that all that has been accomplished (and without question much has been accomplished), could actually be what sinks us, if we continue to insist on seeing it through the past-based context of progress rather than through the future-based context of what’s needed. This is a crisis that can only be resolved by working from the future, not the past. Progress is of no consequence, and will actually be a deterrent if it is not held in the framework of what is needed and by when.
Whatever the logic, the call here has clearly been made to leave people hopeful and optimistic, rather than give them the straight story. Do they think we are that weak that we can’t take it? Or is it just a matter of their own unwillingness or inability to confront reality and the impending consequences?
I don’t fault the players at COP21. They are simply doing their jobs. The job of a diplomat or a politician is not to tell the truth or confront reality, not to give it to you straight, not to leave you with the way that it actually is and with some real sense of what it’s going to take to get us out of this mess. The job of a diplomat or a politician is to weave a wonderful tale, to spin a beautiful tapestry of prose and historical quotes and home-spun vignettes, tossing in a few easily digestible challenges, none too overwhelming mind you, and in the end, to leave you feeling good about yourself and the situation. Politicians live for votes and power, diplomats for diplomacy.
When I dove into this situation two years ago, all I wanted to get for myself was some reality of the gap. I’ve spent that time speaking with scientists; studying reports; attending presentations; and questioning government officials, UN representatives, NGO leaders, and anyone and everyone with any hard data related to the core questions I think every citizen has the right to know the answers to. I conducted this investigation with no agenda other than to get the facts. I am confident I now have those facts.
We have five years in which to sufficiently reverse the track we are on to still have a viable shot at not surpassing the safety warming limit of 2 degrees C. And there is no real plan being implemented to have that happen. That is the way it is. No hope, no despair, no generalizations, no inspiring stories or tales of our demise: simply the way it is.
The next five years is our make-it-or-break-it window of opportunity.
No one at this conference is going to say that publicly (although several high-ranking participants over the course of my inquiry have expressed it privately). No one is going to break the green line and express to the world that not only is the Paris agreement grossly insufficient to ending the crisis; worse, it doesn’t even go into effect until 2020, when the window of opportunity to impact the crisis will be closing. So to say that the agreement is of limited value would actually be an understatement, since whatever it is will already be too late to make any real difference.
What matters isn’t progress or hope or pessimism or any of that. What matters is the gap between where we’re headed and what’s necessary to resolve the crisis. Let’s get our attention off the facade of the Paris conference and get it where it needs to be—square on the gap, and what it’s going to take to close it in time.