Paris, the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

Why the struggle to turn climate change into a ‘good news story’ could backfire

Where do you stand on the climate change question du jour? Do you think COP 21 in Paris was a success? Or do you think it was a failure? Or are you simply perplexed, wondering why on earth there are such widely differing interpretations in the first place?

It’s tempting—depending on your perspective—to blame over-optimistic Candides or doom-and-gloom merchants for spinning the outcome the wrong way. But this curious tension is itself a significant outcome, which is worth looking at in much more detail.

Why? Well, when you start to unpack the reasons behind it, out tumble a heap of seemingly intractable problems relating to communicating climate change that have been—and still are—stopping us doing much about it. If we can figure these out, we might have a better chance of getting to grips with climate change, before the window of time we have left slams shut.

The main problem is that—for all the fanfare about COP 21’s successful conclusion—Paris was really a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea (as many people following the negotiations know only too well, even if they are reluctant to talk about it publicly).

Essentially, for many it was a desperate hunt for a ‘good news story’ with a happy ending—all countries finally on board, after more than twenty years of wrangling. What could be better? But behind the scenes a highly risky and unprincipled deal was struck, specifically to get that ‘good news story’. Unnervingly, it’s a deal that could stop us dealing with climate change at all. Could such a story possibly be worth the devilish compromises buried in the text?

Possibly. Some would argue that without the ‘good news story’, nothing is ever going to change in the industrialised countries’ approach. And this is where change is really needed, because it’s these countries that triggered the climate crisis in the first place. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, signed in 1992, explicitly states (in Article 3.1) that developed countries have a both a responsibility and the capacity to take the lead on combating climate change.

But it is clear that politicians in industrialised countries are not prioritising climate change above all else, even though it is—without doubt—the ultimate challenge of the twenty first century. There is a dearth of leadership and an absence of electoral pressure. Both industry and a large part of the voting population in most industrialised countries are demanding that jobs and the economy, which are still seen as a separate issue, matter more.

That’s where the need for a good news story comes in, at least in the developed world. From many people’s point of view the scale of climate change is so vast, the consequences so unimaginably bad, and the timescale so drawn out, that most people switch off (apart from viewing the odd horror movie). It’s just too awful to contemplate, and many may not even be aware that climate change is already unfolding in other parts of the world.

They also have more immediate concerns that are seemingly unconnected to climate change: their jobs and livelihoods, the wellbeing of their families and local communities, the state of health and education services. Add competing ‘big picture scare stories’ such as terrorism and global health epidemics and it’s not surprising that people’s ‘Finite Pool of Worry’, is full to overflowing.

With this in mind a good news story on climate change does seem to be important. A few flashes of optimism could provide that elusive spark needed to reignite people’s belief in our collective ability to change course.

A new optimism might also increase people’s willingness to engage with, think about and discuss climate change, including with each other (really, how often does it get discussed in bars and restaurants where you live?). This could extend to a deeper understanding of the ways in which climate change is already affecting families and communities on a daily basis, from ever more frequent and violent storms and flooding through to spiralling food prices. A cultural shift like this could be self-propelling too, as measures and policies to deal with climate change come to be seen as nothing more than common sense.

It’s also the case that Paris—finally—tolled a death knell for climate deniers backed by the oil industry and the likes of the Koch Brothers over the last twenty years. In Paris, 195 governments agreed that climate change is real and urgent and that carbon emissions must be eliminated by the end of the century (even though they haven’t agreed a real and effective way of making that happen yet). Climate denial now sounds decidedly silly.

This can only be for the good: Climate denial, especially from the likes of think tanks such as the ExxonMobil-funded Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Heartland Institute in the US, have stood in the way of progress for two vital decades (vital because greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere, meaning that the earlier action is taken the better, and critical opportunities have already been missed).

If Paris has one clear message it’s about false communication: it’s time to stop spreading disinformation about climate change. Hopefully this will even filter through to Republicans in the US Congress sometime soon…

Well, that’s the good news. Unfortunately, the headlong rush to proclaim Paris a success also meant that many were keen to sweep any failings under the nearest carpet. This simplistic approach was also supported by some non-governmental organisations anxious to avoid adulterating or complicating the long-desired ‘good news story’. Sadly, this is a recipe for disaster. The devil is in the detail like never before.

First and foremost, the Paris Agreement has no quantitative and legally binding provisions forcing governments to reduce their emissions, unlike the current Kyoto Protocol (which runs until 2020). True, Paris involved a protracted and heated debate about whether to go for an ambitious 1.5oC limit on global temperature rise, which was extensively covered in the media and eventually mentioned (in an aspirational manner only) in the final text (in Article 2). But this is another element of the ‘good news story’: In practice it’s meaningless. The key points are actually that countries will now make their emissions reductions ‘contributions’ on an entirely voluntary basis, and there is no mechanism for ensuring that these contributions add up to what is needed to do the job. The target for when greenhouse gas emissions should peak by is also eye-poppingly vague—the text, quite literally, just says “as soon as possible” (in Article 4). This can only be described as an unholy mess.

The lack of binding targets is particularly problematic because without legal obligations governments will be much more susceptible to lobbying by industries that are hell bent on stopping inconvenient emissions-reducing climate change measures being put in place (this kind of corporate lobbying has already been a massive headache for the EU’s Emissions Trading System).

The cracks are already showing: the ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contributions’ submitted by countries in the run up to Paris are still likely to allow warming of some 2.7-3 degrees C in reality. This “emissions gap”—the difference between what is needed and what has so far been promised—takes us into dangerous realms, increasing the risk of strong sea level rise, more frequent extreme weather events and the collapse of marine ecosystems. And that’s only if the INDC promises are kept, which is also uncertain.

Problem number two’s a biggie as well. There has been an almighty bun fight over who’s responsible for climate change and who should do what, with the US in particular looking to wriggle out of liability for climate-related ‘loss and damage’. In fact it’s wriggling all round when it comes to deciding who’s going to pay. There are fine words in the text about finding US$100 billion per year by 2025—but no definitive process for deciding where that money will come from or guaranteeing that it will be found.

The end result of this back-peddling by developed countries is that the poorest countries—many of which are already being hit hard by a rapidly changing climate, even though they are not responsible for it—are most unlikely to get the support they were promised in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Climate justice is conspicuous by its absence.

A further consequence of the ‘lack of real action but needing a good story’ combo is that some truly risky technologies are being promoted as solutions to climate change. These include large-scale geoengineering technologies likely to impact on weather and ecosystems, and carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies. These approaches imply that we don’t need to worry about reducing fossil fuel use at all, but nothing could be further from the truth. Scientists have already demonstrated that CCS will not be sufficient to protect the oceans from acidification and altered currents, and even the Financial Times argues that CCS technologies are limited and minimal and not likely to be viable on the scale required.

Governments’ efforts to create carbon markets as a way of driving low-carbon innovation have also been a distracting disaster. This is especially the case with the biggest of them all, the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), and the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism. Yet it is a fundamental aspect of the Paris Agreement (although some countries did push hard and successfully that there is at least mention of non-market approaches too).

In a carbon market, a limited number of permits to emit certain greenhouse gases are given or sold to industry. The theory is that companies will trade the permits, with cleaner companies benefitting financially. Companies can also buy international credits from other countries on the basis that it might be cheaper to implement emissions reductions somewhere else. Although it might sound reasonable on paper the pitfalls are legion. The ETS, for example, has consistently given out too many permits, in response to industry lobbying, causing the ‘carbon price’ to plunge, and removing any incentive to innovate.

The volatility of carbon prices also makes these trading systems unpredictable, whereas a predictable stream of income is needed for long-term investments in low carbon economies. Previously interested financial institutions have closed their carbon trading desks and reduced their investment in renewable energy funds.

Carbon markets are also extraordinarily complex, and therefore prone to fraud and corruption, including tax fraud and money laundering. An even more fundamental problem is the fact that many foreign emissions reductions would have happened anyway. However by pretending otherwise project owners can generate a convenient extra stream of income.

So how can we pull this dire situation around, turning the good news ‘myth’ into reality?

It can’t be denied that the Paris ‘good news’ approach does give new impetus. It puts an end to climate denial and provides an opportunity to build a new narrative arguing that success is within our grasp. But this is only the case if we recognise that the Paris Agreement will not—indeed cannot—deliver what is needed in its current form.

First and foremost we need an agreed global carbon budget—a quantified greenhouse gas emissions cap—specifically designed to keep average global temperature rise below 1.5oC. Then we need to divide that budget up between countries on a ‘fair shares basis’ bolstered by legally binding obligations and sanctions for countries that don’t meet their targets, making emissions reductions more important than short-term economic concerns and rules in international law.

Of course, working out the ‘fair shares’ element is tricky, but it does have to be done. We cannot and should not abandon the principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities enshrined in the original climate change convention. This basically means that we recognise that we’re all in this together, but those who are responsible for creating climate change have an obligation to lead the way—and as a direct result of their industrialisation they also have the means to help other countries impacted by that industrialisation.

Some countries went out of their way trying to ditch this principle in Paris. But when you think about it, it’s verging on the ridiculous to think that climate change is going to be dealt with in any other way. Poor countries, struggling to develop their economies any which way they can, cannot finance this global shift, and private finance is no magic bullet.

Finally, we need to remember that the scale of the problem should determine the scale of the solution. We have a planetary problem on our hands, and only a global system-level shift is going to turn this super tanker around.

But this is definitely possible. We need remove the economic blinkers currently imposed by neoliberal trade and investment rules, freeing up our collective imagination and creativity.

Just for starters, how about rebooting economies so that zero-carbon and zero-waste technologies are favoured and supported (with fossil fuels being ditched)—and creating jobs in the process? Or fostering agroecology and family farming so that nutritious and affordable food is produced and eaten locally—and creating jobs in the process? Or subsidising and improving public transport systems so that people can afford to use it regularly—and creating jobs in the process?

Climate change needs to be a mainstream concern, and a top priority for individuals everywhere, so that governments are put under pressure to implement real, far-reaching and systemic change. If they won’t do that, we must do it without them. Either way, people power will prevail.